Besides the normal social, independence, and geographic reasons that parents find increasing the distance from their students when they head off to college, there’s another barrier that will keep them wanting for information: Federal law. Parents are often surprised that they are unable to find out anything about their child from the college due to the FERPA federal privacy standard. While it’s intended to protect the privacy of the student, it often means that parents are unable to find out about a student’s grades, attendance, and campus activities unless the student signs a formal authorization allowing the school to communicate with them. In other words, even though you are paying the college directly for the education they’re providing to your child, they won’t talk with you about what’s going on.
In general, colleges will speak with parents about the application and financial aid processes until the point that the student is accepted. That’s the threshold event where they officially become that college’s student, and their FERPA burden kicks in. After that point, you may find it nearly impossible to make inquiries about even paying tuition, and certainly can’t find out whether your child is passing classes or even showing up. Also, what I’ve seen many times in my professional work is that colleges are not used to dealing with outsiders who are trying to help their students. An authorization is required so that the school can disclose information, and this process isn’t always well understood by colleges. In one instance a small private college where I placed a student went from being very accommodating during the application process to insisting that the student must sign a FERPA authorization for every single communication. This meant every phone call, e-mail, fax, etc., which was unnecessary. Authorizations are normally signed once per year, or at another regular interval, and it took a conversation with the Provost to correct the staff’s complete misunderstanding of privacy standards.
While there normally is an exception for medical emergency (where you’re listed as the “emergency contact” for your student) these exceptions will only be used in extremes. Colleges don’t see failing all classes or not even showing up for them as catastrophes, and unless your child consents to it, you may never know whether they’ve shown up for a single class during the semester.
Jeff Ludovici works with students and families across the U.S. about issues pertaining to college planning, preventing college problems, as well as getting students re-started if they have had problems in college. He is based in Pittsburgh, but has clients in New York, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, and other states. If you have questions, comments, or a student that needs help, feel free to write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.