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Although today’s college parents may exchange copious communiqués with students about everything from the daily menu in the dining hall to word-for-word exchanges with a professor, they are sometimes surprised to learn that a 1974 federal law can limit their access to basic information about their collegian’s progress. A generation ago, grades, financial aid updates, and health records were routinely mailed home. But the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) changed that, allowing students to govern access to their records. Unless the student grants permission, a parent can obtain such data only after submitting proof that the student is a dependent for tax purposes. Before they take umbrage, parents should know that FERPA might be their own doing. It is largely a political legacy of the same 1970s student activism that led to the repeal of the military draft and the lowering of the voting age to 18.

Parent involvement, done right, can be good for the student and the college. Parents who understand the college experience can be a source of support and encouragement. It is important, however, to provide appropriate involvement, and that distinction can be a challenge to define. When parents step in to protect their student from the occasional failure or make decisions for their child, the student is unable to go through the stages of personal development that are part of the college experience and that contribute to growth. As hard as it can be for a parent to watch a child make mistakes and suffer consequences, student development professionals agree that students learn the most by examining and overcoming their failures.

This is a progressive effort. Colleges and universities no longer take a sink-or-swim approach with new students. Comprehensive student services are in place to help first-year students learn the systems and gain the skills they need to succeed. The parent’s role in such a support system is to encourage the student to understand and use available campus resources, not seek to supplant them.

With each personal success in overcoming a challenge, the student gains confidence and prepares to take on increasing levels of responsibility, figuring out how to assess decisions, weigh consequences, set goals, and meet expectations. The issues that students face over the four years of college will change and become more complex, as they first move into a residence hall with supervision nearby, then move off campus and take on more personal challenges, and finally prepare to move into the world beyond college.

The parent’s role, too, can evolve over the course of an academic career, as a student becomes increasingly independent and develops other sources of support and advice, such as college friends, a favorite professor, or a trusted adviser. This evolution should be seen as a sign of growth and maturity, not a diminution of love or appreciation. As even long-time alumni know, family ties remain strong throughout life, and even the most sophisticated and accomplished college graduates still covet parental love and approval. next page