Record Retention Policies for Higher Education - Universities and Colleges

September 15, 2020

Record retention policies are important for any large organization but for higher-ed institutions, they are absolutely critical. Universities and colleges represent uniquely complex challenges when it comes to record management and retention. They exist at the intersection of education, research, and business. Universities own land, employ people, conduct research, publish writing, house students, and much more.

Naturally, all of this entails a truly massive number and diversity of both physical and electronic records, ranging from their students’ academic performance to the titles and deeds that prove the ownership of a university’s many buildings and grounds. On top of that, higher education institutions also have an unprecedented number of stakeholders. Students, parents, alumni, staff, and even shareholders all have a vested interest in how the records of a university are managed, not to mention any regulatory bodies that require those records to ensure compliance.

What is a Record Retention Policy?

Taming all those disparate record types is where a record retention policy comes in. So, what exactly is a record retention policy? At its core, it’s very simple - a record retention policy is a clear set of guidelines and best practices that define exactly how each record type is to be handled by members of an organization. This includes how long they should be maintained, who has access, and how they should be disposed of.

However, when you dig into the intricacies of it, things become a little more complicated. What is a record? How are your records categorized? What happens to records that fall into two categories? All of these questions (and more) need to be answered in order for a record retention policy to be effective. However, in writing a good retention policy, many of these questions will be answered. So, why is it so important to have a record retention policy to begin with?

Features of a Good Record Retention Policy

  • An in-depth breakdown of all record types covered by the policy

  • Definitions of all terminology used in the policy

  • Clear definitions of roles and responsibilities for anyone managing records

  • Retention and disposition schedules for each record type

  • Outline of general record management best practices and procedures

Why are Retention Policies Important for Universities and Colleges?

Records are the lifeblood of any organization. Whether digital or physical, records are the evidence that a business or institution exists and has been doing what it does effectively and legally, or otherwise. A good retention policy ensures that proper management of those records happens and protects against times when it doesn’t. It tells the employees of a university or college how they should handle records and it clearly outlines to students and other stakeholders how their data will be managed. Not only that, but it also ensures that the university isn’t bogged down by unnecessary records being held too long.

From the institution itself, record retention policies are particularly important from a compliance perspective. Universities, particularly larger ones with hospitals or research laboratories attached, are subject to a vast array of regulations. These include the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), among many others. A useful matrix of regulations governing higher education and their requirements for compliance can be found here.

Who are Record Retention Policies For?

A record retention policy for a higher education institution is for everybody that interacts with the records held by the organization. Students have a legal right to know how their data, be it academic records or financial assistance information, are being used and what happens to them when they are no longer held by the university. A publicly-published record retention policy informs all the students and other stakeholders of a university or college of their rights regarding records pertaining to them.

Record retention policies can also be seen as SOPs for anyone involved in the creation, management, or disposition of records. While it is important to have a retention policy documented and available to all staff, most integrated records management systems will automate the bulk of the work. With a good records management platform in place, users can create and manage records without having to think about the specific disposition schedule for that record type, minimizing the room for error and increasing operational efficiency.

Higher Education Record Types

A good record retention policy needs to account for every record type that an organization deals with. This is because each record type will have different legal or operational requirements that dictate how long it should be held for and how it should be disposed of. As we have already touched on, this can make creating a robust record retention policy for higher education particularly challenging.

Universities and colleges deal with a fantastically diverse range of record types in their daily operations. Most operate as institutions of learning, healthcare providers, landlords, employers, financial institutions, and more. Let’s take a look at some of the most common record types that universities and colleges need to account for in their records retention policies.

Student Academic Records

Naturally, student records are one of the record types that are common to all higher-ed institutions. These include class attendance records, transcripts, and other records pertaining to the academic performance and achievements of students. Many records of this type are held for very long periods of time, or indefinitely. Records of this type are governed by FERPA, meaning that students over the age of 18 must have access to them whenever requested.

Medical Records

Even universities without a hospital or medical school must still manage the medical and health insurance records of their employees and students, which are governed by HIPAA. However, for universities that do have medical schools and teaching hospitals, they must essentially meet all the same record retention compliance requirements as any other medical institution, which includes things like documenting proper disposal of medical waste.

Financial Records

As both a business and, in many cases, a lender or provider of financial assistance, universities and colleges must also manage and maintain a massive number of financial records. This includes records detailing loan agreements, the financial performance of the university as a business, and records of all payments made to staff, vendors, outside contractors, and more.

Human Resources Records

As employers of over 3.6 million people, US colleges and universities also process a vast amount of records pertaining to human resources. These include any and all records pertaining to the employment, health, and disciplining of anyone employed by the institution, whether part of full-time. Records of this type can also include training documentation, which can be vital for compliance if the university manages a research laboratory that produces any drugs that would be regulated by the FDA.

Legal Records

Universities do everything they can to avoid litigation, but it will be inevitable at some point. Any large higher education institution will have its own legal department and a lengthy history of litigation defense. These records need to be maintained, sometimes to meet compliance, but otherwise simply to be able to refer to in the event that a ruling is ever challenged.

Property Records

While it’s not the first thing that most people think of when it comes to higher education, universities and colleges tend to be significant landowners. As any landlord will tell you, that tends to come with significant paperwork. While records like deeds and titles tend not to be moved around or disposed of quite so often, they still represent a very important aspect of a university’s documentation, particularly if any disputes over land ownership come up with neighbors.

Integrated Solutions

Given the diversity and complexity of records management for higher education institutions, having a sound records retention policy in place is essential. Most records management platforms will take the hassle out of communicating records retention policies to your staff by automating the process for you.  

With the mixture of old and new records across both digital and physical media, an integrated solution that allows for seamless records management will not only make setting up a retention policy easier, it will save time and money across the organization as well.


For some smaller businesses in certain industries, they can afford to have records management be an afterthought. That is absolutely not the case for universities and other institutes of higher education. The huge range of record types and the volume of records they must deal with on a daily basis make it a necessity. A college or university without proper records management is opening itself up to litigation, complaints from staff and students and, ultimately, crippling operational inefficiency.

A robust record retention policy is the bare minimum that should be in place. Whether it’s built into a sophisticated integrated records management system or written on paper and distributed by hand, every university or college should have one (although the former is a much better idea). Once a record retention policy is in place, then it’s time to start thinking about how records management software can further improve operations.

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