FERPA vs FAFSA: What I Learned at College Orientation

I just returned from my student’s college orientation. And boy am I tired!

Jokes aside, you might think, after working in higher education and admissions, and writing for this website, that I’d know everything there is to know about a collegiate orientation. I should be an expert about orientation, and college life, planning, and structure. You’d be wrong. Let me give you some tips to make your time on campus easy and worthwhile, if not really relaxing.

Do not assume you’re orienting together

After check-in, we were herded to the student commons. My daughter peeled off to the student track. I followed the parents and guests along to a different building. We also got different types of swag (string bag and water bottle for her; tote bag and coffee mug for me) and parents got free coffee! And I needed it!

There was, however, a moment for a lot of parents watching their student walk away. “Where are they going?” and “What are they doing that we aren’t?” was asked a lot. You should be given a copy of the student program, via paper or app. Be sure and note what they’re doing differently from you. The days won’t be exactly the same, and they shouldn’t be. While you’re both being “oriented,” your university needs and experiences are obviously going to be very different.

In my case, the students had a session about their common book program, which the parents didn’t. I love the common book/first year experience, so I snuck in the back of the student session (skipping something of my own at the same time). If you do what I did, don’t make a fuss over it. I didn’t even make eye contact with my daughter.

And yes, a lot of parents took pictures as the students walked away. We made a lot of “it’s like Kindergarten visits!” comments. So have your camera ready if you’re that parent.

Read everything before you arrive

The school is going to send you and/or your student a ton of stuff to read or online modules to watch. Please… if you will be present for the programs, scour all of this information before you get there. And don’t leave it to one of you if both parents are attending. I felt really badly for the mom next to me who was constantly asked questions by her husband/the dad. Guess who’d probably done the pre-arrival research?

Take pictures

Prepare to take a lot of pictures. Not of your student… of screens. There will be lots of presentations and websites flashed up for you. Take pictures of them to remember later. One great one was how to format “snail mail” addresses to the residence halls. Another one that I knew I would need later was this one:

orientation picture
I knew I’d never remember all these options and residence halls.

FERPA is not the same thing as FAFSA

A basic thing to remember:

FAFSA is the government form schools use to determine financial aid availability.

FERPA is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.

These two things are definitely not the same. And FERPA is going to come up a lot during sessions about grades, and schedules. As legal adults, over the age of 18, your students are responsible and in control of their records. Period. Full stop. This means, bluntly, that the school doesn’t care who is writing the tuition checks. They do not have to share information with you, unless your student directs them to do so.

Don’t be weirded out by this information. Be sure to talk to your student about their privacy, and what your access to their records will be before you get to campus, and before you are in sessions, learning your new roles.

So, don’t think that you filled out that form because you’re absolutely thinking of the FAFSA. Your student would be the one to fill out a FERPA waiver!

Find time to do your own thing together

The orientation programming is “most common denominator,” and it could be a bit repetitive at times. Both my daughter and I found there were sessions we didn’t really need, and we move pretty quickly. As such, we had a couple of hours to play hooky and do our own thing together before joining back up with our respective groups. It was a great time to make memories and discuss what we liked about our days so far. We got some food and did some shopping. It was a small window of time, and a small celebration for me.

If your student is planning on “checking out,” be sure and remind them to tell their orientation leader, and when they will be back.

But also let them have their independence

Along the same vein as FERPA, we’re all facing our students leaving for college soon. Orientation is the first step in these young adults’ college lives. Some are staying overnight in dorms with randomly assigned roommates. Most will be introducing themselves in orientation groups and making good use of their social skills. I know it’s hard to not hover, but don’t. If they’ve forgotten something (short of medication), let them figure it out. Don’t run toothpaste over to them. Give them the gift of dealing with it alone.

Let this be the beginning of the nest leaving.

RELATED: 10 Things to Expect from Your College Orientation

If you’re up for it, there are lots of college and university parents’ groups on Facebook. Look and see if there’s one for your student’s class and school. My Facebook group had a meet-up happy hour after our sessions were over.

At the very least, Yelp the area, and find a nice restaurant and relax. Let them do their thing. Do yours.

You’re going to be tired

Finally, no matter how long the orientation session is (my daughter’s was 1.5 days), you’re going to be tired at the end. It’s physically and emotionally draining. You’re going to return with even more stuff to read and digest. You might have a long drive back afterwards. Give yourself time before and after for some self care.

Final tidbits

  • Some rooms are super warm. Others are freezing. Take a sweater, even if it’s 90 degrees outside (which it was for us).
  • There’s a lot of walking, but there’s also a lot of sitting! Be prepared for both.
  • Text bits of information back and forth to remind each other what you’ve done or need to do.
  • Take pictures of each other’s lanyards/name tags. You might, at some point, need to know their college ID number (if you don’t already).
  • Hydrate! We both made the mistake of not drinking enough water. And it was a really hot two days!
  • Find the balance and the joy. Just like the Kindergarten visit, this is a big moment for you. Enjoy your own successes alongside your student’s new chapter.

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