To colleges, students are adults
Across the nation, parents are in the process of either welcoming their college kids home for the summer or making preparations to send them off to college in the fall. Some will be letting go of their children for the first time, excited and anxious about the next chapter of life. Let this be a wake-up call for those parents who believe the school will keep them informed if anything goes wrong with their kids. It probably won’t.
Thanks to a federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, colleges and universities are under no legal obligation to tell tuition-paying parents anything about their child, not even if their child is having a serious mental meltdown. Institutions of higher learning share a basic philosophy that students are adults. And FERPA is invoked as the reason to keep education records private. Parents are often baffled that they cannot get information about their child — not even their grades — unless and until the child signs a consent form.
In reality, some teens are just not ready to become the master of their own life.
College professors don’t engage in hand-holding but rather expect students to be self-sufficient. After partying hard and missing too many classes, students may come to realize their situation is beyond repair. Admitting failure to their parents can seem impossible. Anxiety, stress and depression commonly follow.
Campus statistics show the number of college students seeking mental health help has risen sharply over the past few years. Schools try to keep up with demand, but the sad fact is that suicide is a leading cause of death for college-age students, second only to fatal accidents.
University faculty and administrators might realize a student is under extreme mental strain, but they are unlikely to call the parents to warn them.
They may counsel the student to speak to their parents about their situation, but FERPA guidelines usually cause schools to err on the side of silence. In case after case, parents across the country have been brought to their knees in grief upon learning that their seemingly happy and healthy college kid has committed suicide.
Cases: The body of a University of New Mexico sophomore was discovered in his room at his fraternity house. His mother said he had been suffering from depression for a long time. There is no indication he sought or received mental health care from the university.
A junior at the University of Pennsylvania chose not to confide in her parents but on several occasions told Penn psychological services doctors that she was thinking about killing herself over worry that she would fail one of her classes. Ultimately, the 21-year-old walked into a dark tunnel at a train station and laid down on the tracks. The train operator couldn’t stop in time.
At least 14 Penn students have committed suicide since 2013.
A student at Hamilton College in New York was so far behind in his coursework he stopped going to class. Several members of the faculty emailed one another about his decline, but no one alerted the parents. The 19-year-old hanged himself in his dorm room.
So, what’s a parent to do? Communicate with your student on a regular basis. Set up a weekly Skype or FaceTime call so you can see and hear what’s up with your child. Visit often, if you can, and get to know dorm mates and advisors. Get and give cellphone numbers. Ask if the school has a “Students of Concern” list, and if possible, have your child sign a waiver allowing you to be contacted should he or she ever be placed on that list.
Letting our kids go out into the world is hard. Keeping in touch with their innermost feelings shouldn’t be.