When my son started college, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t automatically have the right to access his educational records. As a result of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), my son would have had to sign a form explicitly allowing his father and me to access certain information. (At 18, students are considered adults, and any school that receives federal funds falls under this law. You can read more about the law here.)
My son “Tom” (not his real name) got into an academic bind in college, and I believe that if I’d been able to monitor his progress, we would have intervened, been able to help, and saved ourselves a lot of heartache. Tom had a 3.9 GPA at the end of his junior year. The problems started toward the end of the first semester of his fourth year. His grades plummeted, partially because of extra-curricular activities such as an off-campus job, and partially because of his personality and unwillingness to communicate. Professors and advisors tried repeatedly to get him back on track, but to no avail. He became depressed and anxious and eventually stopped going to classes. He was put on academic probation and then expelled.
There’s more to the story, but the crux of it is that his father and I knew nothing about this. Neither the dean, the professors, nor the administration could notify us of his situation because they were “bound by FERPA,” they said. We thought we had signed a waiver, but apparently his school has two–a financial one and an academic one. We weren’t aware of the academic one (which Tom probably would have had no problem signing.)
Since this happened, all waivers have been signed. I don’t think Tom would have found himself in such a mess if we had access to his grades. Stupidly, we trusted him, and did not check up on him—we never needed to before. We were still charged tuition for his last semester, even though he was no longer enrolled in the school. Funny how that happened (we’ve been reimbursed). We were even solicited by the school fundraiser who tried to get us to donate money to the school while all this was happening–talk about the left hand not knowing what the right was doing! When we couldn’t reach Tom (because he was AWOL) and called “public safety” to check up on him, he wound up showing up, so they were recalled. We were told that unless he was a danger to himself, the school could not notify us when he took off…and because he was not a danger to anyone, they didn’t.
The only real way we would have found out about his situation would have been if he wound up “dead” or in the hospital. Scary stuff! Ironically, the law is supposed to protect the student, but in many cases, it doesn’t. Thankfully my son’s situation ended okay–had he been really mentally ill, it could have been a disaster. Thankfully, Tom is a senior now. He’s back on track, in summer school and aiming to graduate in 2015. Parents have to be aware that both types of FERPA forms (academic and financial) need to be signed, and colleges should tell parents about them at orientation. That’s not always the case.
Miranda, MA ———-
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Susan Anderer, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of students who are both intellectually gifted and also have a Specific Learning Disability. Here are her thoughts on the situation as described above:
This is a scary situation for any parent and I am glad that Tom seems to be back on track. Balancing the many demands of college while growing up away from home is difficult for many students and even the “best and brightest” can swerve off course.
What can make this transition even more difficult for some is the fact that this is the age when many forms of mental illness show themselves for the first time. Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorders, and Psychosis have an age of onset that range from the late teens to the early twenties – just the time when they are trying to establish their independence away from home.
The question becomes, how do you manage the young adult’s developmentally appropriate need for independence with our need as parents to provide some level of safety and supervision? Requesting that your student sign an authorization to release academic information is certainly one way to keep an eye on how things are going. However, it is not so much whether your student signs this form, but rather how you make the request and how you manage your access to this information that is more important. Just as you may have had access to their grades in high school or access to their cell phone or computer data, it is imperative that your student be aware that you have this access and that you negotiated with them when and how often you will be “checking up on them”.
Students need to know that your preference is for them to share information with you directly but if you have the sense that something is off and you want to get a sense of how things are going academically, you need to communicate to them that you will be checking their grades. This gives them an opportunity to come forward on their own and to start a more meaningful conversation about how things are going and what may be interfering with their success as opposed to a difficult phone call where the parent then confronts the student with the information they have discovered. These conversations are rarely productive and can cause the student to be more defensive and shut down than to produce conversations that would lead to change.
Perhaps more important than academic access is authorization to a student’s medical records. These authorizations allow treating providers to contact parents should the student present in an emergency and to answer medical questions when a parent calls. Campuses have different boxes that can be checked that allow the student to release certain kinds of information, but not others. For example, you may have permission to be notified in case the student is brought to the emergency room with a medical emergency, but not given permission to know whether they have sought treatment for pregnancy prevention. If you had had access to your son’s medical records, the counseling center would have had permission to release to you that he had been seen and was under their care. This, in turn, helps you to facilitate conversations with your son about how he is doing, your academic expectations, and how to help him to get back on course.