Academic Success in College: How You Can Help

By Jo Calhoun

One of the biggest transitions for new college students and their parents is that students now own their academic careers. While as a parent your “advice” is still crucial, your “consent” is no longer required. Here is a look at the rules governing academics and the roles we suggest parents play.


1) FERPA — Students and parents will quickly become familiar with FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Here is its key provision: “FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level.” (Italics added.) In plain language, your student’s educational records now belong to him, regardless of who is paying the bills.

FERPA permits (but does not require) institutions to release educational information to parents if their student is a dependent for federal tax purposes. This can be done without the student’s consent or involvement. Parents may be required to send in a copy of their tax return, or at least the relevant page.

A student, WHETHER A DEPENDENT OR NOT, can consent to allow parental access. This will generally involve filling out a “Consent to Release Student Information” form, or setting up a parent login on the university system. Phone the Registrar’s Office, or look on the college website, to learn how your student’s school implements FERPA.

2) General education requirements — Most colleges and universities require a set of foundational courses, taken freshman and sophomore year. “Gen ed” courses assure a distribution of subject areas and ways of knowing, and give students a chance to sample subjects to which they may not have been exposed to in high school. Gen ed requirements are described in the university’s online catalog or bulletin — usually there is a menu of choices for completing them. If your student has AP or IB credit, those credits may substitute for some gen ed courses, but policies on AP and IB credit vary widely by institution. Be sure your student asks, rather than making assumptions.

3) Academic advising — Your student will be guided through schedule planning by an assigned academic advisor. Whether a faculty member or professional academic adviser, this person is a knowledgeable advocate for your student. Encourage your student to see his advisor early and often. One caveat — students are responsible for completing all graduation requirements. They are not given a “pass” if they receive poor or incorrect advising. Be sure your student stays in charge of his progress to graduation!


1) Encourage your student’s engagement during the first term. Academic advisers report that many students who land on academic probation never learned their faculty members’ names, reflecting a level of detachment that doesn’t bode well for academic success. Encourage your student to get to know faculty members, to participate in class, and to take advantage of faculty office hours to reinforce and supplement their learning.

2) Students must go to class. It is rare for a student who has attended every class session to fail a class. Students should establish this habit immediately. This does not mean that you call your student each morning to serve as a long-distance alarm clock, but be clear about your expectations. Challenge your student to make the most of the college experience. Consider having a business discussion — total up college costs, divide by the number of class sessions in the term, and come up with a “cost per class.” This will vividly illustrate that skipping class is a significant financial as well as academic mistake!

3) Listen and advise “on the side.” Don’t plan to accompany your student to advising and registration. It’s time for your student to advocate for himself independently. Do talk to your student about how these meetings go, and weigh in on course selection if he asks for your opinion.

4) Be patient with indecision about courses of study and choosing a major. At many schools, over half the undergraduates change their major at least once. Perhaps the original choice was uninformed, a leftover childhood pipe dream, or a student’s aptitudes and ambitions don’t match (pre-med students need to be able to pass chemistry!). Often students discover a passion for a discipline they didn’t even know about prior to college. Typically students are not required to declare a major until the end of sophomore year (with the exception of strictly sequential pre-professional courses of study like engineering or business). Students excel when their intellectual passion and achievement levels meet. They do less well when they feel pressured towards a particular major by their parents.

5) Encourage study skills and time management. Grading at the college level is based on work submitted rather than effort. Freshmen are sometimes frustrated when they compare themselves to classmates — there’s a great variation in how much time it takes students to complete assignments and prepare for class. In addition, faculty members expect mastery of course material, not just familiarity with it. Even students who were strong achievers in high school generally have to ramp up their game. In college, students spend fewer hours in class, but the expectation is that they are spending more hours studying outside of class (typically 2-3 hours for every hour of classroom “seat time”). Academic resources on campus abound. Urge their use. Be alert for one alternate scenario. Depending on the rigor of your student’s high school, he may report being less challenged during the first term than he was as a high school senior. In that case, encourage him to do additional work with faculty members outside of class and to explore options for independent research projects and honors or advanced coursework.

6) Coach your student to find a dedicated study space. Most often that will not be his residence hall room! Residence halls are noisy, sometimes late into the night (although most have prescribed “quiet hours”) and the temptations not to study (electronics, social media, new friends) abound. Campus libraries offer amazing spaces for individual and small group work and often are open nearly 24-7. Campus coffee shops have quiet corners. Academic buildings have attractive nooks and lounges. Finding the right “academic getaway” is a huge plus for students.

7) See FERPA above. Early on, talk to your student about grades. What are your expectations? If you want to see your student’s grades at the end of each term, have your student provide them to you. Most schools no longer mail grades; students access them online.

8) Be positive. Have confidence in your student! It will be a great semester.

Jo Calhoun brings the college perspective to the topics she covers for UniversityParent. “During my thirty years in Student Life,” Jo says, “some of the richest growth for students happened when we, as campus leaders, partnered successfully with parents. Know that we join you in your student’s corner, trust your wisdom, and are grateful to share this journey with you.”