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College Student Rights:
Learn Them Now to Protect
Yourself Later

Rights are an important part of ensuring college students receive a safe, equitable, and respectable education. If you’re unsure of what your rights are as you embark on your college journey, this guide will breakdown what you need to know.

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WRITTEN BY: Angela Myers
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REVIEWED BY: Edumed Editing Staff

Last Updated: 07/05/2023

Editorial Values and Practices

College is a time to learn and grow, both as a scholar and a person. If you feel that your safety, freedom of speech, or privacy has been violated by your college or someone on campus, learning can be hard, if not impossible. While your university is required to protect your rights, understanding the exact rights that fall under the umbrella of their protection can feel tricky without a law degree.

To clear any confusion without going to law school, read on for a brief overview of what your rights are and the four-step process you should follow if these rights are violated. We’ll also discuss anti-discrimination measures that should already be in place at your college before we finish off with a list of free resources to help you advocate for your rights on campus. Knowledge is power — and it’s time to take back power over your safety and freedom on campus.

Rights of All College Students

As a college student, you are entitled to certain rights, but the specific rights vary state by state and even institution by institution. That said, certain federal laws provide specific protections, with the four listed below serving as some of the most important.

Confidentiality and Privacy

Under federal law, schools need to have your written permission to release any private or confidential information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a law which specifically protects this right and students can file a report with the Department of Education when this law is broken.

While this law protects your right to have private information shielded from the public, it does not protect against sharing records within a higher education institution. For example, if you share an experience of abuse with a professor, they might be required to report it to your Title IX office. To help protect your confidentiality in these instances, most schools have staff members who are not required to report such information. Example of such a staff member include confidential advisors for students who experienced sexual assault and on-campus mental health counselors.

Freedom of Expression

As a college student, your right to freedom of speech is protected under the first amendment. This protects your ability to protest peacefully, as long as you follow reasonable institutional rules, to speak and communicate freely, and to invite speakers you want to hear on campus. Often, freedom of expression is one of the most infringed-upon rights by institutions themselves. For example, the University of Cincinnati tried to restrict where students could protest on campus, a policy struck down by the federal district court in a 2012 decision.

Nondiscrimination

Under federal law, universities are not allowed to discriminate against students “on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age,” according to the United States Department of Education. The DOE also lays out specific procedural requirements for upholding nondiscrimination policies and dealing with rights’ violations. Because these federal regulations are a bit vague, most, if not all, higher education institutions have their own anti-discrimination policies in place. For a better idea of what this might look like, check out the policy from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Safe and Secure Education

Your physical safety is a top priority for universities, protected under the Clery Act. Under this federal act, all schools must report campus crime data to the public and provide support resources for victims of violence. They must also publicly document all policies and procedures to keep students’ safe. If these procedures aren’t followed, schools can be fined and asked to amend campus safety, as happened to Arizona State University in 2021.

Rights of College Students with Disabilities

While it can be tricky to determine with certainty when these rights are violated, here are some tell-tale signs:

  • The university doesn’t provide free resources to help students with disabilities, such as counseling or tutoring
  • Students are rejected from classes or extracurriculars because of their disabilities
  • If a student develops a disability, the university urges by them to withdraw instead of providing support

Currently, two laws protect the rights of this group specifically; let’s take a deep dive into both.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects all people with disabilities from discrimination in the public sphere. ADA expands into every facet of life, from protecting voting rights to outlining how to apply for a service animal. As part of this law, higher education institutions must not discriminate against students with disabilities–and need to provide free resources to help them academically. If you suspect that your institution or another party violated ADA, you can file a report through the US Department of Justice Civil Rights’ Division.

Section 504

If your university receives public funding, they are also subject to section 504. Authored by the Department of Education, section 504 protects the rights of students with disabilities. More specifically, it states schools and organizations within them cannot reject student involvement in classes or extracurricular activities because of a disability.

Rights of Immigrant College Students

As we discussed previously, anti-discrimination laws encompass students of different nationalities and those with DACA status. When reviewing applications for candidates and awarding opportunities to current students, publicly funded institutions can’t take a student’s immigration status into consideration.

Signs of discrimination against immigrants include:

  • Not having a center for international students on campus
  • Denying students entry to a college on the basis of their immigration status
  • University staff making xenophobic comments–and not being punished for it

For undocumented students, federal laws preserve their rights under DACA, though protection is limited.

DACA Program

DACA, short for deferred action for child arrivals, refers to an executive act passed by the Obama Administration. This act provides undocumented immigrants who arrived before turning 18 with the right to work in the US and protections against deportation. As part of this program, DACA recipients can apply and attend higher education institutions in the United States.

DREAM Act

Because DACA doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship, DACA recipients are not eligible for federal funding and other legal protections enjoyed by US citizens. First introduced in 2001, the DREAM Act would provide this pathway to DACA recipients. Currently, the DREAM Act has not been passed, though there is ongoing debate in congress and the senate over this legislation.

Rights of LGBTQIA+ College Students

As of their anti-discrimination policy, universities must protect the rights of LGBTIA+ students. This includes protecting their freedom of expression, physical safety from assault, and keeping their reported sexual orientation with the school confidential.

Some instances where the rights of LGBTQIA+ students might not be protected include:

  • A school ignoring a report of physical violence from a trans student
  • A pride event organized by the university’s gay straight alliance being canceled by the institution
  • A university reporting a specific student’s sexual orientation to the public or their parents without the student’s written consent

Gay Straight Alliances or Gender-Sexuality Alliances

To help protect and advocate for LGBTQIA+ students’ rights, most schools have student-run gay straight alliances and extracurricular organizations to protect all students’ sexualities. Vanderbilt University, for example, has a variety of student alliances and organizations to protect LGBTQIA+ students. Many schools also have university-funded centers with staff specifically working on advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights, such as the Gender and LGBTQIA center at Elon University. Under the Equal Access Act, every school that allows for any non-curriculum related student groups must also allow, and provide the same rights and privileges to, a GSA.

Rights of Pregnant and Parenting College Students

More than one-fifth of college students are also parents or pregnant, according to recent research from the Education Trust. Sometimes, these students can experience instances of discrimination or harassment on campus. Specific rights violations might look like a university:

  • Revealing the name of a pregnant student without their consent
  • Forcing a pregnant student to withdraw instead of granting a maternity leave
  • Failing to include college students’ children in their free daycare scheme

The exact rights’ violations will differ from university to university and by individual scenarios, though what counts as discrimination is defined under Title IX.

Medical Leave and Absences

Currently, there is no federal law providing a paid maternity leave for pregnant people. This means universities are not required to provide maternity leave to staff members, but this injustice doesn’t extend to students. In fact, under Title IX, universities are required to grant medical leave for pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum recovery. This federal regulation applies to undergraduate and graduate students.

Title IX

Title IX also provides protection against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, receiving an abortion, or having children. It also states any university policies around taking time off must apply for both genders, meaning partners who are not giving birth can take a medical leave to support their partners.

What to Do When Your Rights Are at Risk

Now that we’ve reviewed what your rights are, what should you do if they are at risk or if they are already violated? You should get informed, document evidence, seek support, and report the incident. By following these four steps you can combat rights violations and protect yourself and others.

Step 1: Get Informed

Before taking any steps, make sure you know and fully understand your rights. The sections above are a great place to start, but it’s important to learn about local legislation and your university’s policies. To do this, research how your state and institution deal with a specific right, such as discrimination against DACA recipients or students with disabilities.

Step 2: Document the Incident

No matter what local regulations state, you’ll almost always need well-documented incidents to file a report. If a rights violation occurs, write down the time, date, and place of the incident. It’s also helpful to write down other objective details, such as what was said or actions taken. You should also preserve any evidence, like text messages, emails, or photos of physical injuries.

Step 3: Seek Advice and Support

Before reporting the incident, connect with organizations or folks who can provide advice. This can include faculty members, legal advisors, family members, or trusted friends. Your university probably also has student rights offices, such as an LGTBQIA+ or international students’ center.

Typically, universities have formal procedures to report violations. Follow these procedures step-by-step, with documented incidents and support people and organizations in your corner as you navigate the process.

Optional Additional Steps

If the four-step process doesn’t resolve the issue or apply to the specific violation, there are other actions you can take. These include consulting with a legal counsel, organizing an awareness event with other students, or bringing the information to the public, whether through independent channels or your schools’ media outlets.

Resources for Understanding and Protecting Your Rights

Navigating your rights as a student can feel overwhelming and isolating, but you don’t have to do it alone. There are organizations that can advocate on your behalf and free online guides that can help you improve your advocacy work. To learn more, check out these fifteen free resources:

  • Academic Success of Pregnant Students – this free guide from the US Department of Education covers different initiatives individuals and institutions can take to support pregnant students’ rights and academic career.
  • Active Minds – when you’re dealing with mental health conditions, you have the right to express yourself and experience a discrimination-free education. Active Minds provides organizations and individuals with resources to make sure these rights are upheld.
  • Addressing Racial Bias on Campus – if you feel you have been discriminated against on the basis of color or race, the NAACP is here to help. Check out their free resource bank to deal with racial discrimination on campus.
  • Campus Safety and Security – the United States Department of Education outlines safety measures higher education institutions must implement and actions students can take if these measures aren’t enforced.
  • The Clery Center – if you or a fellow student’s physical safety has been violated on campus, the Clery Center is here to help. Along with outlining the legal responsibilities of universities, they also have a resource library to help students understand the responsibilities and support available from their schools.
  • Creating LGBTQIA+ Friendly Communities – our guide to creating LGBTQIA+ friendly communities in healthcare and education is a great starting point for anyone looking to advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community on campus.
  • Cyberbullying and Online Harassment – whether you’re an online or hybrid student, our guide to cyberbullying can help you navigate online violations of your rights.
  • Free Speech at College – the ACLU’s free speech guide outlines the specific freedoms protected for college students under the first amendment. They also provide free legal counsel, should someone’s rights be infringed upon.
  • Funding for DACA Recipients – to make college more accessible, the Higher Education Immigration Portal provides free information on what funding is available for DACA recipients in each state.
  • Immigrant Legal Resource Center – if you’re an international or undocumented student, this center can help you understand your rights and next steps if rights are violated.
  • National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education – as the organization’s name suggests, this group supports institutions and individuals in creating equitable campus environments. For students, they provide resources outlining rights derived from anti-discrimination laws and what to do if these rights are violated.
  • Protecting Student Privacy – the United States Department of Education created this page as a hub for all things regarding student privacy, with specific resources for college students and parents.
  • Sexual Safety for Students – if you or someone you know was the victim of sexual violence or discrimination on campus, check out RAINN’s guide to filing a Title IX report.
  • Start or Join a Gay Straight Alliance – the Gay Straight Alliance network provides resources on joining or starting an alliance at your institution.
  • The Trevor Project – if you believe you have experienced anti-LGBTQIA discrimination on campus, the Trevor Project has free resources to navigate reporting and recovering from the incident(s).