Think your privacy rights are covered at college? Think again. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that if a university doesn’t accept federal aid, FERPA law, the law protecting the privacy of students’ records, doesn’t apply. What does this mean for you? Students’ personal information and records could be fair game for distribution. The good news: Most colleges and universities need federal aid to stay open.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9, 2011:

“A federal judge has ruled that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not prohibit the University of Illinois from turning over the names and educational records of applicants. The law, known as Ferpa, protects the privacy of student records, and colleges that violate it could lose their eligibility for federal student aid.

The Chicago Tribune had originally sought information about hundreds of applicants—including the names and addresses of their parents—as part of a series of stories examining political influence in the admissions process at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The newspaper later asked for the names of applicants and their high-school grade-point averages and ACT scores. The university had denied some of the paper’s requests, saying it was barred from doing so under Ferpa.

Illinois open-records law exempts “information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or state law or rules and regulations adopted under federal or state law.” Ferpa, the university argued, makes such a prohibition.

The newspaper then sued in both state and federal court, with the federal suit concerning only the first request. And this week, Judge Joan B. Gottschall, of the U.S. District Court in Chicago, ruled that Ferpa does not bar the university from releasing the records, according to court documents.

The law stipulates that institutions receiving federal aid cannot release certain types of educational records, but in her ruling, Judge Gottschall said the university could choose not to accept such aid and is, therefore, not “prohibited” from releasing the records.”