New college students are independent adults. Respect that.

I remember when I went off to college. I enrolled at DePauw University, a liberal arts college in Indiana. All my life until then I’d lived only on the West coast; it was going to be my first flight on an airplane, too. My family supported my decision, helped me pack the one beat-up, shabby suitcase with about 50 pounds of stuff, and waved bye-bye as I boarded the jet at Sea-Tac. I still remember that I sat on the plane next to a school teacher from Brownsville who must have noticed that I looked rather lost, and he talked to me the whole way to reassure me that this was going to be a great adventure.

After I landed in Indianapolis, I had to find my way to Greencastle, and I had no idea where it was except that there was supposed to be a bus service that could take me there. I stumbled my way around, found the bus, eventually got delivered to the town, and this was what I saw.

Just picture a scrawny 18 year old standing there, hauling a massive battered suitcase held shut with a belt strapped around it, his arms aching, blisters on his hand, standing there alone with absolutely no clue about where to go. That was me. It was terrifying and thrilling all at the same time. I managed to drag my burdens across campus to the dorm (why did Bishop Roberts Hall have to be so far from the campus entrance?) and began my first year of living independently. I was a totally clueless nerd, but I managed and learned a lot.

So now I’m reading this article about a young student at Bristol University who killed himself in his first year, and I’m sympathetic — that first year is hugely stressful. I was doing new student registration just yesterday, and I saw students in tears because they’re suddenly facing new decisions — “Why do I have to take that class? Oh, no: this class I wanted to take is full! My life is over.” It is hard. Go ahead and cry, I’m not going to hold it against you, I’ve been there myself. But the solution in the article isn’t a good idea.

The father of a student who killed himself is calling for the relaxation of data protection rules that currently deter universities from alerting parents that their child has serious mental health problems.

Nope. I guess some parents just can’t let go, but you have to. The official, legal position of American universities is that we have to abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which respects the privacy of the student — they are now independent adults. They can, of course, freely communicate whatever they want to their families. I did! I wrote letters every week or so back home, and this was in the 1970s, no email, long distance phone costs were absurd, and I had to write by hand (we didn’t have printers) on paper and send it by mail with a stamp and everything. But all of my interactions with students are confidential. They’re between the university and the student, even if the parents are paying tuition.

I put three kids through college. I never saw a single report card. I’d ask in a general way how things were going, but it was their choice how to answer me…and they always said “fine”, so I’m pretty sure there were dramas and anxieties and struggles they weren’t telling me about. That’s the way it goes. This ain’t kindergarten anymore — these are adults, taking their first steps forward. Let ’em go.

I occasionally get concerned parents who ask me what their student’s grades are in my class — I tell them no, ask them, not me. I’ve had parents show up at my office door, very worried about whether their student will graduate, and I tell them the same thing. In one case it was tough, because the student was actually blowing off all their courses, had dug themself a very deep hole, and was not going to graduate for sure…but that’s not their business. What can a parent do in such a situation? Yell at them? Cut off their funds? None of that helps solve the problem. I sent the student off to talk with advisors in our learning center instead.

But, you’re saying, this Bristol student killed himself. Yeah, and what is the parent going to do? I would assume they have been giving their unstinting love and support all this time, but the student is still struggling. They don’t need mom and dad, they need professional help. If I were informed by a parent or a peer or observed a student flailing, I wouldn’t call the parent: I’d call a counselor (we have trained experts in this sort of thing), or a dean or take it all the way up to the chancellor to get them help. Parents aren’t usually trained in clinical interventions.

Also, terrible as it is to say, some parents are the problem. I’ve seen everything from neglect and abuse to those high-pressure parents who are the ones applying the most strain to the students’ sense of self-worth and identity. I usually don’t know. I’m not going to contact someone who is a stranger to me and is unlikely to have the specialized skills to deal with, for instance, depression or an identity crisis. Yeah, like I should call a parent and say, “Your son has discovered he’s gay, thinks he’s going to hell, and just broke down in tears in my office. Could you come take him away?”

The father here blames the university. He thinks the cause of the suicide was a sense of failure because he didn’t get into his first choice university.

Murray believes that sudden change of plan and narrowly missing out on Edinburgh made his son vulnerable. “He loved Edinburgh. We had been there many times,” he said. “A sense of not succeeding becomes a sense of failure. I think that’s what Ben was carrying with him going to university. To take your own life you have to be in extraordinary mental pain.”

Ben told his family he was enjoying university, but they discovered after his death that he had struggled to engage with the course and had missed lectures and exams. Murray said his son had informed the university he was suffering from anxiety and he was sent a link to support services.

He killed himself a few days before he was due to leave Bristol at the end of a formal withdrawal process.

And there’s the problem. Ben Murray was in contact with his family, and chose to hide his problems from them. That was his choice. His father now wants the university to change their policies and inform the family of difficulties against the student’s desires. There may be a very good reason their son didn’t want to discuss these issues with his parents; if we go against the wishes of an adult student, unaware of the full situation, we could make the problems worse.

It is worth noting that Ben Murray was more willing to inform the university of the problems than he was his parents. That’s a decision that should be respected, and that we are obligated to respect, and he made that choice. You could make a case that the university should have done more — sending a link to support services is kind of impersonal — but the more appropriate response would have been to set him up with appointment with a trained counselor, not to go running to the people Murray was avoiding.


  1. garnetstar says

    I’m not even allowed to say, to anyone, whether a student is enrolled in my class. If someone asks, I have to say I can neither confirm nor deny it.

    That’s because some students don’t want their parents to know if they’re taking a class that the parents might hound them about: say that it’s not “useful” or it’s too “politically correct” or that it’s brainwashing them with a postmodern neo-marxist agenda. They have to the right to take a class they’re interested in and not be pestered about it.

    This father sounds like a helicopter parent, the bane of my life. It’s always someone else’s fault, their child is never the one who had a problem. And no, a “sense of not succeeding” in many people becomes a resolve to do the best that they can with the opportunities that they do have. “A sense of not succeeding” often becomes resilience. A skill that all adults need: if you think that you must succeed at everything in your life, you are going to be eternally disappointed.

  2. says

    Yes. I wonder how much disappointment the father expressed at his son not getting in to Edinburgh. Not that I want to turn this into “blame the parents, not the university”, but there are reasons confidentiality matters, and I’ve had students who want nothing to do with their families, for good reasons.

  3. stevewatson says

    Some 14 years ago we delivered our son to a small Midwestern college. After the morning res move-in, there was a general assembly in the main auditorium (small school; big auditorium — they could actually fit everyone in), with a combo pep-talk to the students and parents. One thing mentioned was that, if you wanted access to your kid’s academic record, the kid had to sign some release form, at which point some dad piped up “WHERE DO I GET THAT FORM?!!?” Really guy? Way to embarrass your kid! Wife and I were wondering whether this protectiveness was an American thing — our parents hadn’t hung over us like that, 30 years earlier. After that was a reception for parents hosted by the Dean, which we had the distinct impression was intended to bribe parents into saying goodbye and leaving their kids to get on with becoming college students. We just hugged ours, told him we loved him and knew he’d do great (which he did), and hit the road home. (He’s now finishing up his Ph.D)

  4. thatthereguy says

    This is a difficult one- I’ve been in this position before as a postgrad- it wasn’t possible to hide it from my parents, but I would if I could.

    I can fully understand the issue, but I don’t think undermining of data protection is the solution. When I started Uni, I was 17, and I had many friends that age living away from home for the first time. I’d much more like to see some sensible provisions of pastoral care and counselling rather than alerting parents, who might not be in the best position to solve the problem.

    Also, I don’t want to be an arsehole, but @ 1

    And no, a “sense of not succeeding” in many people becomes a resolve to do the best that they can with the opportunities that they do have. “A sense of not succeeding” often becomes resilience.

    attitudes like this were why I kept my depression hidden until I ended up in hospital following a suicide attempt. my own shame at perceived failure and failure to turn that failure to something positive did not do wonders for my mental health

  5. iknklast says

    When I was having difficulties, both in college and beyond (not grades; they were fine, but serious emotional difficulties that nearly killed me) the last thing I wanted was for my parents to be called. They caused more trouble than they helped. I was glad when my mother no longer went to the school…and so was she. She was glad I was an adult, and she could focus on the younger siblings. And my parents were so horrified and stigmatized when my mental illness did become clear that they didn’t know how to talk to me. They were old school.

    That’s why our school (and many others) have instituted a Care Team. If a student comes to me with difficulties, I talk to them as best I can, but don’t step over the boundaries because I am not a trained psychologist. So I discuss their studying difficulties, show them sympathy, and then ask them if I can refer them to the Care Team. Treating them like adults will do a lot more to help than people realize. I struggle a lot as an instructor with students who wish their parents would leave them to be adults, but don’t know how to tell them that, or how to get them to let go. I can’t help them with that, because I don’t know the answers. My parents let go happily…they were sick of me, sick of my siblings, and ready to let us be adults on our own, so I never had to do that. But the professional advisors on our Care Team can help them find the resources they need, and probably do a better job of it than parents who may have no idea what will help, and may bumble along in their ignorance making things worse.

  6. blf says

    Over the years, I’ve realised I was a bit lucky in several ways when first going to university. These include, but are not limited to (and in no particular order):

    (1) Going to university wasn’t the first time I was on my own. I’d previously attended a (summer session) NSF program for high school students, and so happened to attend with a friend (who was the individual — who had previously attended — who encouraged me to apply).†

    (2) The university I went to had an (optional) one-week pre-first-term orientation at a secluded site. This was a low-stress fun outdoors camping event‡ to meet some of the professors, experienced students, and a reasonable percentage of the incoming class.

    (3) As it so happens, the university was within sensible traveling distance from dad’s work at the time, so we’d meet up every so often for dinner. (This was pure coincidence.)

    The third point also means that when I went there, my parent(s?) could & did take me. And as it so happens, another place I considered attending was (just) within driving distance, and I still can recall a wild ride with dad through some twisty mountain passes to visit and interview.

    Upshot is I didn’t have the quite the same stresses other first year students had.

    In addition, for the first year, the university had a simple Pass / Fail grading system, so the additional stress about grading was somewhat contained. This policy was because most first-year students were accustomed to getting very good grades for everything — and in particular, having never “failed” a course. I certainly hadn’t up until that point (but did have problems at the (ungraded) NSF program). I can still recall getting very stressed out with one course I wasn’t doing too well in. (I vaguely recall the “Fail” was called something like “No Pass” in an attempt to reduce anxiety.)

      † As it so happens, one of the places I was interested in at the time was within a short flight of the NSF’s program. My parents paid for a day trip to visit / interview — which was the first time I’d ever flown alone — and started what turned into a “tradition” of usually-almost missing one leg or another of a series of flights. I still get very nervous / anxious about missing flights…

      ‡ From memory, there weren’t any provisions for students who didn’t have a sleeping bag (all(?) that was needed), so this point (presumably unintentionally) favoured the more privileged students. (I have no recollection at all about additional(?) fees and related.)

  7. Snarki, child of Loki says

    IIRC, DePauw was the alma mater of Dan Quayle. Did you overlap?

    Also heard that some of the faculty had some damnation by faint praise type comments also, too.

  8. says

    A) He’s a grieving parent desperately trying to figure out “Why” this happened. He thinks he found one possible explanation and is seeking a remedy to help others before its too late. We have no other info as to what else, in his own life, he is also examining and/or changing as this article is only about his dealings with the University.
    More support for anyone struggling with, well really anything be it emotional, mental, financial, etc., is a good thing and this dad’s actions may help with that regard. Not all of his ideas are necessarily good or helpful, but he is at least pushing the conversation forward.

    B) Many people think “I’m paying for their school, therefore I’m entitled to know what’s happening.” This is incorrect, as PZ has pointed out.

    C) Something I see a lot of, here in the U.S.ofA., is the perception of college students as “kids” but that perception doesn’t seem to extend to military personnel, the vast majority of them are the same age as the students. If a university is expected to notify parents of issues with the student, would a drill instructor be expected to call Mom & Dad if there are issues with a recruit?

  9. mnb0 says

    “They don’t need mom and dad, they need professional help.”
    When I was a student it was the other way round. I needed my dad and his (male) partner much more than professional help, thank you very much.
    Of course my position was luxuruous – I was 45 minutes of biking (or, in case of bad weather, one bus an five minutes walking) away from college.
    Just like parents don’t get to decide for their kids where to seek help you don’t get to decide it for students either, PZ. Thirty, thirty five years ago you would have received my middlefinger.

  10. says

    Here’s what happened in my family:
    My brother went to college, and at one point, we lost all contact with him. Then my parents got a call from the school saying he’d stopped attending classes and was he by chance back home? My parents went to the college (which was about a 90 minute drive away, so not out of state or anything) and found him in his dorm room, wracked by pneumonia. I have no idea why he wasn’t at the med center; it’s possible he couldn’t even get out of bed. He had no roommates.

    Was the school right for doing so? I think their call probably saved his life.

  11. says

    #7: No, he graduated before I got there. My dorm room window looked out on his frat house, though!

    #9: No, I don’t get to decide: the student does. If a student chooses to go to their parents for help, that’s their decision. I don’t get to overrule them and say the parent always wins.

  12. chigau (違う) says

    jenn hi #10
    Why didn’t “the school” send someone to your brother’s dorm?

  13. says

    Now, I can sympathise with the grieving parent, but as Prattchett noted, personal is not the same as important.
    There are many questions about the individual case, like for example why the failure to get into his preferred college was taken so hard. I also don’t know if “sending a link” is all the college did for the student, because that seems quite a bit of negligent to me.
    I was in the “not attending, hiding, not letting anybody know” situation. The college system here was very different back the so I had no trouble taking an extended leave without risking my enrolment, but had they chosen to inform my parents, the source of that everlasting sense of failure, it would have made things very worse and probably driven me over the edge from thinking about how much it would hurt to drive into the concrete wall to doing it.
    I finally owned up to my beloved and sought therapy, which is probably the reason why I managed to make it through the latest fucked up educational setting, which has a frightening rate of drop outs and suicides.

    What I want are educational settings and institutions that don’t individualise problems and struggles, acting as if those problems that affect a high percentage of students are problems that lie with the individual, but that understands them as structural problems.
    I want a culture where students can learn, and grow, and fail without becoming failures.

  14. estraven says

    I was an adjunct at a local university and ran up against this problem more than once. I would have to tell parents that the law said I could not divulge information. Worse, many times the sports coaches would call me to see if the students were behaving to their capacity. I hated it. I quit teaching eventually because of stuff like this. I had a student who attempted suicide–which his classmates told me about–but had to pretend to the dean that I didn’t know this. And I had students write things that made me report them because I was afraid for them. I don’t know, maybe it’s worse for writing instructors. We had small classes and the students got to be very friendly with one another. In any case, I just couldn’t take it any more, but I was very aware of the law and did not violate it. And wow, did some parents ever hate me.

  15. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    That’s odd, I seem to recall a whole bunch of noise a bit ago about how 18-21 year olds’ BRAINS WEREN’T DEVELOPED and therefore they HAD to be kept from buying alcohol like actusl adults can FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.

    Here, let me save the commentariat some time, “that’s DIFFERENT because SHUT UP THAT’S WHY!eleventy”

  16. anxionnat says

    I started college in fall of 1970. I was 17–which makes a difference. The age of majority at that time (I can only speak for California) was 21. It wasn’t til several years later that the age was changed to 18. So the university functioned as essentially a guardian to students who were under age. It was called “in loco parentis.” I’ve never studied law, so all I know is what I experienced. All mail having to do with me was sent to my parents’ house: medical records, report cards, and on and on. Doctors at the student health center were required to write to parents every time they treated a student, including information about exams, confidential conversations with the student, and prescribed medicines and full information on why the meds were prescribed. I had really painful and irregular periods, and in high school I stayed at home when these happened. Nobody believed me that this was happening (my family’s doctor maintained that I was lazy and didn’t want to go to school)–until I went to student health and talked to a woman doctor. (She was white-haired, so must have been one of those female doctors from the 1920s to 40s.) She believed me, prescribed birth control pills to regulate my cycle and prevent pain. I didn’t even think about how my Catholic parents would react. I had had, at home, to sit through Catholic Mass every week, and about twice a month, the priest would let loose with an hour-long, red-faced sermon about “evil whores” who used birth control. I sat in the back pew and read, so the sermons went in one ear and out the other. (I was an atheist by age 12, and I already knew I was being lied to.) When I got home for Winter Break, my folks threw me out of the house for using birth control pills. They (my mom at least) believed the priest. I don’t have any idea how many young women were disowned as I was. I *never, never* want anyone to go back to that situation which we had in the early 70s.

  17. garnetstar says

    @4, no indeed, I didn’t mean that the sense of failure caused by depression can teach resilience. I mean that, in most non-depressed people, adverse events like not getting into a first-choice college, but into a good one, or not getting first-choice job, but getting a good one, or not getting an A, but getting a B, generally teach people to rebound.

    If the son’s sense of failure was so haunting that it contributed to his suicide, it could not have been from that one adverse event alone. There had to be other problems, such as depression, in which guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and sad mood are symptoms, and you feel a failure no matter whether events have been adverse or not. And that’s an inherent problem with depression: the sense of worthlessness causes people to hide the trouble. Glad that you did overcome it.

  18. magistramarla says

    We once socialized with some people who sent their children to a rather well-known religious affiliated school here in Texas. We once asked them why their daughter was not at the social function we were attending at Thanksgiving. They explained that she was being “punished” by the school for missing curfew and had to spend the holiday cleaning the dorm. My husband and I both were confused by this, since we knew that the young lady was a college junior and was over 20 years old. Curfew???
    The parents informed us that the college viewed its role to be “in loco parentis” and that, while they were missing her at the family celebration that year, the punishment was for her own good.
    We made certain that none of our children even considered attending that college. We always stressed to our children that once they graduated from high school we considered them to be young adults, capable of making their own choices. They always knew that we were always there for them if they asked for advice or assistance, but that their choices were their own. We now have five functioning adult children who know how to survive in this world.

  19. says

    Most of our students turn 18 during high school and are, of course, adults. But they are also very young adults and especially the guys are prone to be not able to handle their newly bestowed freedom when it comes to being able to write your own excuses.
    We have two possibilities: If we suspect that somebody keeps missing class because they just take a day off too often, we can revoke the privilege of being able to write your own excuse and make a doctor’s note obligatory from day one.
    If somebody is struggling academically we will talk to the student. Sometimes we will say that we’d like to involve the parents and then the student has to sign either a release form or a denial of release, which I think is a good compromise between autonomy and care.

  20. says

    Mind you, grade and high school fail, all the time, to provide adequate psychological help and evaluation of students (and I know from experience, even when available you can end up with incompetent people providing it), but.. this man thinks that a college is obligated to do so? I a sensible world, there probably would be far better handling of these sorts of things, on all grade levels, but that would *still* make a college student and adult, who could opt out of any recommended help that actually was supplied. But, at least possible problems might be discovered *before* they got out of lower level schools, if some of the issues started much earlier and thus lower the number of incidents.

    Still, like anything involving schools, at any grade level, the results, never mind availability of help, or awareness of the students on how to get it, are going to vary wildly, from non-existent (if the local people in charge are of the, “We don’t believe in mental problems.”, variety, to as good as possible when no one seems to deem it a serious priority, to actually halfway decent. But, imo the last one of those should be the “minimum”, not the best you can hope for.

  21. anat says

    Giliell, the way things worked in my son’s high school (and I think it is common in US high schools in general these days) is that if a student misses more than a certain percentage of class time they fail the class for that semester, no matter what the reason for the absence. So there are only that many times a young adult student can get away with writing their own excuse notes.

  22. David Marjanović says

    B) Many people think “I’m paying for their school, therefore I’m entitled to know what’s happening.” This is incorrect, as PZ has pointed out.

    It’s also a very good reason for abolishing tuition fees. Along with “I’ve purchased an education, therefore I’m entitled to a degree” and “we’ve invested our life savings into our child’s education, how can you possibly give our adult offspring a bad grade on an exam”.

  23. methuseus says

    When I was in college I had some personal issues. Long story short, if the university had called my parents and said they were concerned about me, I would have been much more likely to actually follow through with suicidal thoughts. I was not well adjusted by any means, and I don’t know that I’m necessarily well adjusted now, but I was so scared of my parents.

  24. says

    That’s the way it works in many college/uni classes, which is why I went there being way too sick more often than it was good for anybody.
    In high school (or middle school, they are not separated here, or better said they’re partly separated in a very complicated way) the rules are usually more relaxed, generally it’s one third of the whole school year and even then schools have a lot of freedom. For example, back when I was twelve or so one of my classmates spent most of the school year in hospital because she needed a heart transplant. Of course she failed that year in every aspect, but it was too important for her recovery that she could stay in her class with her friends.

  25. rukiddin says

    There is an often overlooked exemption to FERPA, unless it’s been rescinded in the last 10 years. If the student, even over 18 years old, is a deduction on the parent’s tax returns, FERPA does not apply to the student. This is why some colleges actually release grades to parents. Even if a school refuses to release grades to parents, all a parent has to do is to prove to the school that the student is a deduction on their tax returns (and the vast majority of schools already know that because of the financial aid process).