What Are the Appropriate Boundaries When Kids Go off to College?

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July was a great month.  We had a little family vacation.  The rest of the time, the kids were working at good jobs, learning stuff, and making money.  We’ve had down time — a nice change of pace from the mad rush of the school year.  Emily is getting ready to go to college, so there has been some Bed, Bath & Beyond shopping.  Between the medical forms, and supply lists, it has felt a lot like getting her ready to go to summer camp.  All fine.

Now it’s August and reality is setting in.  We are making reservations for hotel rooms for the drop-off weekend, and trying to sort through some first-time, “growing up” decisions:  Do we give her spending money for the things we would provide her at home?  Are these now her expenses?  Does she need to tell us when she is traveling off campus, or do we no longer have the right or need to know where she is?  If she makes a road trip to visit her boyfriend at his college, is that any of our business?  Is her information her own, or, for educational and medical matters, do we have any role in her world anymore? 

Will she sign a FERPA disclosure form, and a HIPAA authorization?  Until recently, I didn’t know these things existed, much less that I would have to ask Emily to execute them.  As if her departure for college weren’t hard enough, the federal government has determined that she has legal rights, and that her independence is not just an ideal, or a shaded course on the continuum of maturity.  It is a statutorily protected fact, and she may guard it, or, as we hope, keep the information loop open.

FERPA, or The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a federal law designed to protect the privacy of students’ educational records. It applies to schools that receive federal funds, which means pretty much every college. Once a student turns 18, information from his or her student record cannot be shared with others—including parents—unless he or she gives explicit written permission.  I spent a few minutes on the phone with a nice gentleman from the US Department of Education, and he directed me to this model disclosure form:  http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/safeschools/modelform2.html  You can get there yourself by going to www.ed.gov.  Search “FERPA model disclosure form.”  If your college-age child signs this form, you will be able to access his or her educational records.  Without it, you will not.

Likewise, your child’s medical records are strictly protected by HIPAA.  Most of us are familiar with this federal law (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), and its privacy rule, which regulates the use and disclosure of protected health information.  What comes as a surprise to many parents, though, is that our college freshmen, whose bills we are generally paying and whose insurance we are generally providing, have protected health information, too.  If Emily is in an accident, and receives medical attention, it is entirely in the care provider’s discretion and judgment as to whether he or she will disclose health information about Emily to us.  I do believe that if she were lying unconscious in a hospital after a car accident, the doctor would tell us what happened and that she needs care.  But for other, less critical, matters, it may be a question of privacy.  Unless, of course, she signs a release and authorization, indicating that we may access the information.  The US Department of Health and Human Services (Office of Civil Rights, which administers the Privacy Rule of HIPAA) would not provide a model release, but you can find examples online.  Just search HIPAA authorization form.

As with so many of these first-time considerations, I don’t know the right answer.  Should she give us access to the information or not?  However it gets answered, I do think it is worth some thought and discussion with Emily.  Poor child – first born.  We have to learn so much at her expense.  Including how, and when, to let go.

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  1. To paraphrase Bobby Darin, “letting go is hard to do.” On a curious but related note, I recently read of a court decision that a parent who is paying child support *is* entitled to the information protected by FERPA. Whether that extends to the other parent was not clear, and I can’t cite the case.

    I sign a HIPAA release too on almost every doctor visit so that my wife can request my info. I bet they would be glad to give me a copy of that form.
    It is difficult to consider that a daughter who has been so involved with this long selection process would block you out from her life so abruptly. Maybe in Sophomore year, but not now. 🙂

  2. We have one kid out of college and another one in college who is studying in China for the semester. Our kids did not sign FERPA waiver forms but they told us their grades. We did not expect them to tell us when they left the town their college was in, but they would usually tell us of their forays in weekly phone calls. The answers to your questions depend on your relationship with your daughter, how independent she is, and so forth. You are right about the need for a conversation with her, but be prepared for the possibility that you won’t agree on everything. Then you will have another set of questions to ponder!

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