With the 2020 school year being as crazy as it has been (thank you, coronavirus pandemic), Breanne and I began to wonder about past school years, school records, and what records get kept. Do schools keep records of past students?
Schools generally keep records for 2-3 years after a student leaves the school or graduates unless local laws dictate it be kept longer. If a student moves to a new school, their records generally move with them. After graduation or several years, records may be reduced to a simple transcript.
Ready to dive into some school records? Don’t worry – we’ll skip the pandemic part . We’ll just talk about school records, what’s kept in them, where to find them, and how long they’re kept.
What Records (of Past Students) Schools Keep Forever
Schools are record-making and keeping machines. They have so many records that it almost shouldn’t be surprising that there are some records they keep “forever.” Now, forever gets air quotes because there will be some instances in which some records get lost, destroyed, or corrupted beyond recognition.
But beyond those extenuating circumstances, the schools do try to keep some records for as long as humanly possible, because those records help them prove several things, like that they’re doing a good job as a school.
Even so, school records fall under the guidelines of several government regulations, like FERMA and GRAMA. We won’t go into those in this article, because that’s a whole lot of information. Suffice it to say that those aspects of government do put some regulation into school records, although there’s still plenty of room for variance between cities, schools, districts, and even states.
So here are some of the records and datum that schools keep (forever):
- Attendance records – some schools only keep this for a few years, while others keep this on the transcript or as a separate forever file.
- Transcripts – different schools and districts have different information kept on the transcripts, but we’ll go into that in a moment.
- Individualized school records – these vary by districts and schools. But some schools do include extra or fewer records in the permanent transcript compared to other schools and districts, so it’s worth noting.
Here is some of the data you may find across these records. Remember that it will vary by school and district, although these information points are what’s most often available.
- School general information
- Alumni directories
- Catalogs (classes offered or taught)
- Class logs or class-based information
- Newsletters or newspapers
- Student information
- Age and birth date
- Physical descriptions or characteristics
- Names of parents and their occupations
- Relevant family members (like other children in the family also enrolled at school)
- Names of other adults approved to pick up children from school
- The classes a student took while in attendance at the school
- Attendance records
- Activities, clubs, or photographs of the student
- And the date that the student graduated or left the school
- Teacher information
Now, not every school keeps all of this data on transcripts. But many do. Breanne and I graduated from Brigham Young University long enough ago that I was sure our transcripts would be pretty bare or basic.
So, I looked into it and discovered that, even after a decade, we could still get a good amount of information from our college transcripts. Here’s our summary of what we can find on it, based on BYU’s website (available here).
- Student name
- Student ID number
- Degree information, including degrees awarded
- Academic recognition
- Honors, if applicable
- Notations about the dean’s list, if earned
- Grades and GPA
- Coursework (with grades) by semester
- Semester GPAs
- GPA summary
- Transfer information, if any
- Hours earned and graded
- Any special annotations
If you want the full list, make sure you click the above link to BYU’s website. But it’s really cool to know that even universities try to keep a good bit of student data available. However, it’s important to know that recent university transcripts don’t come free. Even getting old transcripts usually have a fee, so be prepared to pay for those.
Average fees for getting transcripts can be anywhere from $6 on up, depending on if you want an electronic (PDF) or paper copy – as well as additional fees for how you want it delivered to you.
One more note on what records get kept forever (and which don’t) – some schools are only required to keep student files for 3 years after a student leaves the school or graduates (like the Jordan School district in Utah – you can read their policies here – you’ll want section L).
In these cases, 3 years is how long the school keeps the thicker files. After that, the school records that are kept “forever” are pared back to only include:
- Transcripts, including (but not limited to) grades
- A record of any suspension or expulsion
Again, transcripts are treasure troves of information. So don’t be afraid to use them. Just remember that some schools don’t keep information on majors – mostly because elementary children don’t have majors yet.
Yearbooks as Records: What’s Available and Where?
Yearbooks can be a great source of student records! Thankfully, there are some fantastic options for ways to find yearbooks – both digital and print versions.
Here’s a quick recap of how and where to find those.
- Ancestry.com is a fantastic resource for digital versions of yearbooks.
- eBay.com is a surprising but effective way to buy old copies of yearbooks.
- Check estate sales, especially if they’re in the vicinity of the school whose yearbook you’re looking for. Breanne’s cousin found his mom in a yearbook this way.
- Use our complete guide to finding yearbooks to help you find the exact yearbook in question. Look at the next paragraph for a link to that article.
The article we wrote on yearbooks, titled “Where to Find Old Yearbooks (Do Schools Have Them?)” has all of the bases covered. We’ll help you find the yearbook you want – and we’ll show you how to do an online search so you can find the digital version of it for the best price possible – ideally for free!
How to Find Old School Records
Not every state will keep records in the same exact place. So make sure you check all of your options – including the local high school. If the records you’re searching for can’t be found at a local elementary, middle school, junior high, or high school, then you may want to check the state archives. The state archives often hold school records, especially if the school was closed.
To find school records, follow these steps and recommendations.
- Check with the last known school that the student attended. Those transcripts will help you determine if there’s a more recently-attended school to check for additional transcripts.
- If that school has closed, check the school district for transcripts. The district can at least guide you to where those records are stored if they don’t keep them in the district’s offices.
- Some schools (especially elementary, middle schools, and junior highs) only keep student records for a few years. After that, those records are sent to the high school, the district, or the state archives.
- Check the high school that the student would have attended, even if they didn’t actually attend. Their records may have been sent there.
- Check the state archives for student records.
- Check older and online databases for information on student records. We’ll walk you through this in the next section of this article.
In a few worst-case scenarios, there have been schools and records that were destroyed for various reasons. If your local school’s records were destroyed, try checking with other schools that the student may have attended for records.
Finally, remember to think outside the box. While attending an out-of-district school wasn’t as common several decades ago, it’s become more common today for students to get a variance to attend a different school or district. So don’t be afraid to widen your search.
Records of Past Students that Can Be Found Online
There are a ton of school records that can be found online. Mostly, it’s school records found in the form of transcripts. The information found in the transcripts still varies in the amount of data based on schools, districts, and states – but are also now affected by time.
Over the years, the amount of required information to store has changed a ton. So expect a transcript from 1910 to have vastly different information than one from 1970.
Sometimes, older transcripts have more data – as privacy is less of a concern for a student from 1860 than one from 2010. However, the opposite is also true. Sometimes, older records kept less information than newer ones do.
But no matter which past record you’re wanting to find, there are some fantastic resources you can use and find online for past students whose records can’t be found at a local school. The first ones are these:
- FamilySearch.org – use their catalog search to find the state and school in question. Don’t be afraid to search by year!
- Ancestry.com‘s search catalog. Again, use some creative search queries or wild card searches to find what you’re looking for.
- The Ancestor Hunt has compiled a huge list of links to common school records by the state – across the entirety of the United States of America. You can go check that out by clicking here (that link opens in a new window). Many of these links take you to FamilySearch or other databases, so you will need accounts to access the respective databases.
The Ancestor Hunt’s list is particularly awesome because it takes the guessing out of the catalog search – it’ll just link you right to the state, city, district, and particular school you’re looking for.
How Long Do Universities Keep (Student) Records?
Finally, let’s talk about how long colleges and universities keep student records. Of all student records, these are often the most important because they are frequently asked for during job interviews and for employment.
I mean, when was the last time anyone asked what grade you got in your 5th grade science class? I’ve certainly never been asked that! But at every job interview, I’m asked about high school and university transcripts – and to see proof that I did, in fact, graduate.
The National Association of Independent Schools has a document (click here to see it in a new window) that sets down some good guidelines on how long a university ought to keep various documents available – from transcripts to ADA documentation to other forms.
This document points out that there are zero federal laws or guidelines on how long a school keeps transcripts. However, it also points out that many states have laws that put a “keep those transcripts forever!” kind of deal.
The document then goes on to make some recommendations for what kinds of data be kept and guidelines for document destruction. In any case, it’s an interesting document if you’re a record and genealogy nerd like us.
However, the most exciting bit about it is that it does advocate saving old records by digitizing them. This means that schools can still free up physical space, but we get to keep access to the digital versions of records thanks to technology.
In any case, all of this means that universities (and colleges) keep records in accordance with state laws. So if you want to know about how long they keep records, just find out what the local laws are – and the college should adhere to that.
School records really are cool. They give us so much information! So don’t be afraid to use them. They do take a bit more upfront work to find, but once you do, then the information payoff is huge.
And if you haven’t already, make sure you read our article about yearbooks (click here to read that now) – because I loved finding my grandpa in his university yearbook. And I’d love for you to see it – as well as our steps so you can find your relatives in yearbooks of all ages, too.
Why Are Some Last Names So Common? Family names developed from common professions, locations, or associations. As time goes on, the common surnames continue to grow while less-common surnames will statistically fade and be absorbed into common-named families. For more information on why that is, read our article on common surnames.
How Many Generations Ago Was America Founded? Depending on which definition of a generation is used, America’s founding was between 7 and 10 generations ago. For information on how to calculate generational time, read our article – and see exactly how long ago America was founded.
What’s the Best Way to Store Old School Records? The best way to store old school records will depend on if it’s paper or photograph based. First, digitize those records and store them online. Second, store those papers (or photos) in an acid-free, archive-quality storage container. For examples and more information, read our article on storing family documents.
- “AS61 – Student Records.” Jordan Policy Manual, Policy Manual Jordan School District, policy.jordandistrict.org/as061/.
- “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).” Home, US Department of Education (ED), 1 Mar. 2018, www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html.
- “GRAMA.” SLCo, slco.org/records-management/grama/.
- Research Education Records. archives.utah.gov/research/guides/education.htm.
- “Student Records.” Archives, 30 Apr. 2020, www.colorado.gov/pacific/archives/student-records.
- “School Records.” The Ancestor Hunt, www.theancestorhunt.com/school-records.html.
- “Transcripts.” BYU Enrollment Services, 12 Oct. 2020, enrollment.byu.edu/registrar/transcripts.
- Wilson, Debra P., and Whitney Silverman. “Records Retention: What, How Long, and How?” NAIS Legal Advisory, www.nais.org/media/MemberDocuments/Legal/NAIS_Legal_Advisory_Records_Retention_2018-7-3-2018.pdf.
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