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Adult or Child?

Much has been written lately about the problem of "helicopter parenting" and the infantilization of college students who are living away from home and over the age of 18. 

But consider these scenarios:

  • 19 year old Marshall, away at college, is stopped at a local bar and is cited for a fake ID and public intoxication. 
  • 20 year old Cynthia becomes depressed, and stops attending classes in October. By the end of the semester, she is failing all five of them.
  • After being caught 3 times with marijuana in his dorm room, 18 year old Frank is suspended by a college judicial board during the first semester of his freshman year.
  • 18 year old Larry is involved in a car accident off campus and suffers serious injuries.
  • 19 year old Melinda takes a trip to Cancun for Spring Break and becomes seriously ill.

Had any of these stories happened to a 16 or 17 year old, the student's parents would have every right to information about their child's health, grades, and legal difficulties. But once their child turns 18, things get quite a bit more complicated. 

Parents do have options, however, when it comes to their children who are in college and still dependent upon them for their financial support. But it takes some planning.

Two federal laws affect the legal relationship among students, parents and institutions: FERPA and HIPAA.

FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and applies to educational institutions (like colleges and schools) and the privacy of educational records. When a student goes to college, he or she is entitled to determine who has access to any educational records, like grades or college judicial decisions. That means that a parent, used to checking his daughter's online grades weekly in high school, now has no right to know whether Cynthia has failed another Organic Chemistry test, or if Frank got written up by his RA in the dorm.

Most parents are distressed to discover that the college, to whom they are writing significantly large checks to every semester, can say, "Sorry. We can't tell you if Cynthia is failing or not."

Many colleges recognize this, however, and make students and parents aware of an important loophole: Students can sign a waiver to permit parents access to grades and other educational records.

In addition there are two important exceptions to FERPA parents should understand.

  • Colleges may choose to inform parents (without student consent) of violations of alcohol and drug policy. Some colleges do this as a matter of policy; others choose not to. Parents would be wise to investigate the practices of their student's college.
  • Colleges may choose to inform parents if the student represents a significant threat to him or herself or to others, such as a suicide attempt.

Understanding the provisions in FERPA would help Frank and Cynthia's parents in the scenarios above. Parents can have an honest discussion with their children, before they leave for college. While it's best to encourage independence in their emerging adults, so long as it's parents who are footing the bill, it may be reasonable to expect students to allow their parents access to their educational records.

Next time: information about HIPAA and health care for students in cases of emergency.