Opening the Lines of Communication with your Child’s University

5 min read

Parent Series – Part II: Zooming Out and Falling Forward

Concerned about your child’s well-being, especially this semester? Wondering who and how best to communicate with your son or daughter’s university? In Part 1 of a three-part series for parents, Rob Danzman, a mental health counselor specializing in working with college students and their families, talked about finding help for your college student and the importance and strategies for developing a Plan A and a Plan B. In this next post he’ll discuss the art and science of communication with your child’s university. 

Communication with University

Call me old fashioned, but if I pay for something, I believe I should get access to it.

When I purchase shares for my 401(K) each month, I know I’m buying a percentage of dozens of companies. I don’t expect a seat on the Board of Directors, but I at least want some updates on how things are going. I don’t get a vote, but I get a prospectus. Universities are unique in their financial policies. Often, the person paying for the service is not the recipient of the service. This is a well-studied research area for business schools – the spectrum of buyer vs. end-user. Other examples include health insurance, education software for public schools, and medical equipment. Anyway, let’s get back to campus…

When parents pay for college, many don’t think about communication with their child’s university. It’s just not on the radar. Parents are excited about the semester (and having the house a bit more quiet). Parents also trust their kids and want to give them the freedom to succeed and fail on their own.

But what happens when a college kid starts to struggle? I mean REALLY struggle. Like drinking way too much. Smoking too much weed. Not going to class and tanking their GPA in the first semester.

If parents assume their child has total autonomy and trust, the university will reach out ‘when necessary’; it begs the question – what communication systems or policies are there? Where is the explicit university protocol for reaching out to caregivers? I’m sorry to say there are typically none. 

Universities take a laissez-faire approach to ensuring students accurately communicate with their parents. Universities don’t push students to phone home and don’t give updates on specific students to parents. They don’t provide academic updates, and they don’t provide healthcare updates even when there are serious developing issues.

One reason is universities are dealing with tens of thousands of students and staff feel overwhelmed with daily issues like helping students with add/drop classes, technical issues (Zoom!), and career services. This makes sense in some ways. How could a massive state school reasonably prompt all undergraduates to ‘CALL YOUR MOTHER!’ Communication with your child’s university regarding their mental health is even more challenging.

Are universities bound by higher education policies and laws or healthcare policies and laws?

University healthcare services are typically underfunded, understaffed, and over-run with medical problems (e.g. STDs) and, over the last decade, anxiety, depression, and substance use.

A 2015 Center for Collegiate Mental Health report found a 30% increase in students seeking mental health services while enrollment only increased by 5%. That was five years ago, and things have only gotten worse. A 2017 report from The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found a leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds was suicide.

Results from a quick search for ‘Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)’ and ‘University’ will bombard you with articles from The Atlantic and New York Times down to small college news outlets reporting on how CAPS are failing students while there’s record spending on university football stadiums

Ok, so there’s a supply and demand issue, and schools are swamped. There’s a ton of pressure to support students in ways our post-secondary education system for which it was not designed. But what does this have to do with communication?

One of the significant limits to a school’s communication with parents is super strict privacy standards defined by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This federal law protects the education information of students over 18. Students under the age of 18 have their rights assigned to parents. As for a student’s healthcare (including mental health), this falls under the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

While these are entirely different laws, there is considerable overlap for college students. Healthcare information maintained by university healthcare providers (including CAPS) is generally subject to FERPA rather than HIPAA. This information is considered part of the student’s educational record and is therefore excluded from HIPAA. 

How can I get updates and information on my son/daughter?

The simple answer is – have your son or daughter complete a consent form or release of information form for the university. One for healthcare and one for academics.

This may feel uncomfortable or unnecessarily formal to you and your college kid, but it’s an opportunity to talk about where the line is between their privacy and a parent’s support. Sometimes it’s a really blurry line. I tell my clients that parents don’t necessarily need all the details from a therapy session but do deserve at least a broad overview of how things are going, what they can do to be most effective in their support, and what, if any, safety concerns I have. 

There is variation among universities in what they call their consent forms but nearly all have one accessible from the registrar and healthcare/CAPS facility. Here’s an example of a typical FERPA disclosure form from the U.S. Department of Education. Get this form completed and submitted before your son or daughter steps foot on campus. This should cover ALL information, including healthcare/mental health, for the calendar year. Keep a copy for yourself and get email confirmation that the school has it on file.

I also recommend making sure that all additional university support staff also have a copy – like providers at CAPS, advisors, and, if your son or daughter is in a direct-admit program like a business or pre-med track, make sure their admissions contact has a copy. Same with students that are using disability services. Don’t assume the person to whom you sent the FERPA form will share it with everyone associated with your kiddo. Ultimately, I want parents to have access to updates before bad things start or get worse. Running after a college student suffering from anxiety or depression to get a form signed is like chasing a rabbit in the backyard. 

This is the starting point of creating the communication pipeline with your child’s university. It’s not fair or right that parents have to pay lots of money and then act as DIY case managers but this is the system we have.

Learning how to navigate the details of the strategy I laid out above takes hours and days so don’t underestimate how long you’ll need to establish these important connections.

Next time, I wrap up our little series talking about how to have the ‘team-based approach’ when your college student is struggling and developing the ‘end of semester’ review which is in part celebrating how the semester went and what can be changed for the next semester. 


Read Rob Danzman’s first post in the series with tips to create a game plan for this semester. To learn more about Rob or to schedule an appointment with him check out his TSS profile.

Looking for a therapist who specializes in working with young adults? Whether you’re a student looking for support, or parent helping out your busy child, click the button below.

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