Consent forms that is (with big apologies to Shakespeare.)
It's an amazing fact of college life that surprises many parents - colleges will not automatically deal with you directly when it comes to your child's grades or other relevant school or financial information.
This is because of a federal education privacy law known as FERPA. In grades K-12, all FERPA rights belong to the parent. When your student reaches 18 or begins college, all FERPA rights transfer to the student. It's as simple as that. You probably weren’t thinking about that when you sang “Happy Birthday”.
There is an exception in Virginia carved out for parents who claim their student as a dependent on their tax return. The problem is that the college has no clue if you do that, so that shifts the burden of proof to the parents.
(If your child is going to college out of state, your parental rights may be even less.)
If you don't follow the college's procedures to the letter, you cannot expect them to release any of the covered educational records.
Whether or not this is the way things ought to be is a topic for another day. It's the way things are today, so what can parents do about it?
Have your son or daughter tell the college, in writing, to release the information to you.
You might be thinking, "How does my teen do that? The application essay was tough enough!", and you'd have a very good point. How exactly is the FERPA release request handled?
The answer is - it varies by college. The specific requirements will depend on a combination of bureaucratic red tape and legal restrictions. Get an early start because it might take a while to get it finished, and as you will see, you want to do this while your student is still home.
We suggest you start with your college's Financial Aid office to see what release form they have to discuss student financial information with parents. For some reason, financial aid information is often segregated from other academic records. Just because you get a release to talk about your student's financial aid package does not mean you can get a copy of their grades.
TIP: Even if you don't have a financial aid package, it's a good idea to get a signed release on file.
Academic and educational records are often handled differently than financial aid information. In Virginia, parents are entitled to the information if the student is a dependent – no further release is needed. The problem is that the college can’t possibly know if you claim your student as a dependent. It is up to your family to affirmatively provide this certification. But how you do that can take many forms.
UVa has one process - Tech another. VCU asks for three documents: a completed form, a copy of your tax return, and a copy of your passport. (Can you imagine what VCU would do with copies of 20,000 undergraduates parents' tax returns and passports?)
There’s a trick though. The process is much simpler if the student authorizes the release himself or herself. Your son or daughter can check with their college (try searching ‘FERPA release’ on the school’s website, or send an email to the registrar) to get the appropriate form. Once the release is on file, you should be fine.
TIP: Note somewhere on the release that it is for all academic years that your son or daughter is enrolled, not just the current year.
If you follow this route, you should not need to provide all the personal tax information to the school. That is because your son or daughter is releasing the information to you, as opposed to you claiming your parental rights to see it.
In case this sounds complicated to you, that’s because it is! UVa has a "Release of Student Information" flowchart on its website it's so difficult to comprehend.
But the FERPA release is just the start. You might also consider getting a medical release from the college’s medical center. The FERPA release will likely not cover medical records because they are not considered educational records.
You know your teen best, but sometimes it can be hard to get a good answer on a diagnosis or prescription and being able to call the medical center directly can clear up confusion. Check with the appropriate facility about their procedures for getting a release on file.
(The same goes for the counseling office, if you think that might be relevant.)
Finally, we’ll end with the age-old tip – if you want to have the best access, get your son or daughter’s student ID and password for the college portal. With that log in, you’ll always have access to grades, financial information, and other important parts of college life that are off limits thanks to FERPA. However, you still won't have access to advisors or professors or deans to talk about your son or daughter.
There is an argument to be made that since one of the goals of the college years is increased independence and that asking for log in information and getting releases signed is counter to that. You can certainly decide how that falls for your family – once you know how the system works, that is.
If you have any questions as you search for your specific college’s release information, please drop us a note. We’ll be glad to help you sort through the specifics.