SEATTLE — Although my daughter is about to start college, until a week ago I did not know how much money we owe the university (a lot), whether she had turned in all her required forms (no), and if she had a roommate and a dorm room assigned (yes and yes).
I found the answers by hacking into her email (full disclosure: she gave me the password for something else and I snooped).
Yes, I probably broke the law. But even more significantly, in my opinion, I gave in to the panic that grips many freshmen parents who come from the generation known for both information overload and helicopter parenting.
We’re the generation that linked our bank accounts to theirs so that transferring money online was that much easier. We received daily updates from their teachers through online grade books. And through Facebook, we knew when our children started their first romantic relationships, why they were late getting home and whether it was time to set some new rules.
Privacy? It’s never been a problem, until now.
Welcome to FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — parents of the class of 2012. When your child turned 18, their school records became theirs to share, or not.
FERPA was created to protect the privacy of kids who really need it for their own protection, and the federal law can be the beginning of a new, less transparent relationship between parent and child.
But as school officials and other parents are quick to point out: We have many options other than hacking into your child’s email account.
First stop is your school’s website, which should contain the answers to many general questions, including an estimate of how much your bill will be this fall.
Students may give their parents permission to access their school records and accounts by filing out and signing a FERPA form. For items like bills, they may want to ask their offspring to print out the bill or forward it. And if all else fails, just write a check and mail it in. College officials told me the official bill is not required for student account payments and if you pay too much, they’ll send you a refund.
By necessity and philosophy, universities consider the students, not their parents, the “customer.” But each summer most of the questions come from parents, said David Rey, University of Washington communications manager for housing and food services.
Most of the information they seek is available online, but it’s not always easy to decipher, Rey acknowledged, mentioning the complex chart of university housing options and their costs.
“Nobody wants to be paying for things that they don’t know what they are,” Rey said, adding that it might take a phone call or e-mail to the university to make sure parents understand the bill before writing a check. “We would encourage them to get in touch with us.”
Phone calls seem to be the most direct way to get student information, if your students don’t know the answers or are not forthcoming with information.
Depending on the question, you may need to call the student accounts office (for bills), the financial aid office (for loans or scholarships) or the housing department, or all three. The people who answer the phone during the summer are used to all the questions freshmen parents ask and may also offers some words of comfort and encouragement.
Their main message: don’t worry. College students grow up fast, if you give them the freedom to take charge of their lives.
A friend offers the following story as proof this is true: When her son, who is now a successful adult with a car, a job and a girlfriend, was a freshman in college, he had trouble choosing a food plan so he put off his decision until freshman orientation. On the first day of school, David did not get to eat because he hadn’t signed up for a food plan. He did choose a food plan before the second day of school.
Another reassuring message: Schools do have a backup plan. If a student doesn’t turn in his or her forms or fails to pay bills on time, the school will send a human (not an email) to track the kid down. Another motivator: late fees. They add up fast and most universities do a good job of communicating with students, as long as they check their email and answer their phone.
“We do everything we can to help students not only in the classroom, but to learn how to navigate life,” said Clara Capron, director of financial aid at Western Washington University.
As for parents, Capron said, “After the second quarter, this will be old hat for you.”
FERPA disclosure form: http://is.gd/yPIQEr
Financial Aid forms and information: http://studentloans.gov
Advice for parents from the University of West Georgia: http://is.gd/cNI7Sv