RIT Financial Aid Responds to Privacy Violation
by Kasey Mathews | published Feb. 4th, 2018
On Jan. 19, 2018, the Office of Financial Aid sent an email to RIT students who had not met the federal requirements for receiving federal student aid. However, the recipients of this email were able to view every other individual the email had been sent to — a notable violation of student privacy rights. Now, the office is working to ensure such a misstep never happens again.
To be eligible for federal student aid, a student must maintain both a semesterly and cumulative GPA of at least 2.0, as well as complete at least 67 percent of all attempted credits, including transfer and AP credits. Those at RIT who do not meet this requirement, but have met these requirements in the past, are given one semester to correct themselves and fall back into line with these requirements, otherwise federal aid will be withdrawn. These students are placed on a Federal Financial Aid Warning. RIT was in the process of notifying this group of students of their warning status when the error occurred.
The financial aid office utilizes distribution lists when sending out email communications. One such list consisted of those who fell under this warning status. However, according to Larry Chambers, associate vice president and director of the Office of Financial Aid, “There was one record ... that was not supposed to get a financial aid warning communication and so when we removed that individual from the distribution list the properties that allowed [the office] to send out individualized messages broke.”
Due to this coding error, the message was sent en masse. The Office of Financial Aid soon realized the mistake that had been made and
“We take student financial aid very seriously — that’s what we do — and it was an unfortunate error on our part.”
The communication was a direct violation of many laws aimed at protecting the privacy of students. Chief among these violated laws is FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1974, FERPA protects the “educational records” of all students ages 18 and above from anyone this student does not grant access to, albeit with certain exceptions. Chambers, though, wasn’t quite as concerned with the FERPA violation as much as he was concerned with the trust associated with the Office of Financial Aid.
“The issue is that the communication that went out was inconsistent with how the Office of Financial Aid communicates to students about student financial aid issues,” Chambers said.
Since the email was distributed, the Office of Financial Aid has issued an apology. Additionally, they’ve brought in information technology professionals and administrators from within the office to sort out what went wrong and look for new preventative measures.
Chambers noted that the financial aid office sends out thousands of emails every year and such an occurrence has never come about in the past. The violation of students’ privacy was, of course, never their intent. In the future, the office will, “ensure that those that are engaged in the communication outreach ... are properly trained and understand the appropriate processes that need to happen when communicating.”
“We are all extremely sorry that this has occurred and that it was not an intentional event,” Chambers stated, once again apologizing. “We take student financial aid very seriously — that’s what we do — and it was an unfortunate error on our part.”
Since the email was released, the Office of Financial Aid has been working to prevent such a situation from ever happening again.