College Conversations

by Elizabeth LaScala PhD

The end of your child’s senior year of high school is an exciting time filled with graduation, going away parties, summer trips and lasting memories. During the summer months preceding the start of college, there are several important conversations parents should have with their child which will set clear expectations and improve communication once they leave for school.

An individual who has reached the age of eighteen is considered an adult in the eyes of the law. This status means the loss of parental ability to access their adult child’s college grades and transcripts, obtain medical records and manage their financial affairs. Although laws and circumstances vary, in general, proper documents must be generated, often with the help of an attorney, which grant the parent(s) the authority to act on the adult child’s behalf. The purpose of this article is to jumpstart the process of families thinking through and discussing several important matters prior to the start of the college years.

The following documents and conversations should be considered that will allow you to continue to aid your son or daughter with regard to educational, medical and financial information and decisions:

1. FERPA Release: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 protects the privacy of student education records; this means that you will not receive your student’s grades. The FERPA release allows you, as the parent(s), to speak with the school about your adult child’s grades and other information related to their school performance. Ask the school directly about this, since most schools have their own form to use for this purpose.

2. Healthcare Power of Attorney: This document will allow you to act on your adult child’s behalf with regard to medical decisions in the event that they are incapacitated, even temporarily, and cannot make such decisions.

3. Durable Power of Attorney: This document allows you to act on your adult child’s behalf regarding financial or legal matters. For example, you would have the ability to pay your child’s bills, apply for student loans and submit their tax returns.

4. HIPAA Authorization Form: Federal law prohibits disclosure of information about your adult child’s health. This form allows you to access your adult child’s health records and speak to medical personnel about his or her health. In the event of a medical emergency, for example, if your child was in an accident and unconscious, you would be able obtain medical status information and make prompt decisions regarding treatment options.

5. Communication: When off to college, how often do you expect your student to “check in” with you? Would you like them to call you at least once a week? I have spoken to many parents who feel disappointed, even rejected or angry, because they do not hear from their son or daughter as often as they would like. Be proactive and let your child know what you would like. Then be ready to compromise about frequency of communication, since college students are often busy adjusting to college life, studying and making new friends.

6. 4-Year Graduation: Nationwide, many schools have low 4 year graduation rates—our own California State University system includes a number of universities with graduation rates 40% and lower. The published graduation rate is often a 6-year rate. Now that a decision has been reached to attend a particular school, talk to your student about whether there will be consequences if s/he does not finish school in four years. Will your student have to pay for any extra time needed at school to graduate? It is important to establish clear communication regarding your expectations early on and build in reminders every now and again, especially if your student reduces their college credit load or has to repeat one or more classes.

7. Spending: Does your child need to earn money to pay for their own personal expenses? Do they need to stick to a budget or provide a summary of their spending each month? Reach an agreement about this issue long before school begins—it could impact whether a student works in the summer and/or during the school year. Money and how it is spent are two of the biggest sources of controversy between parents and students during the college years.

Each of the issues above deserves candid conversations between students and parents. As with most things in life, good planning and clear communication ensure greater peace of mind.