College Checklist for Parents

If you are preparing to send a child off to college for the first time this month, you are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed and under-funded.  Speaking as a parent who is currently sending child number 5 to college, I understand your angst.  However, as a Financial Advisor, there are a few items that you cannot afford to neglect as you get ready for this momentous day.

Essential protections for the parent

Believe it or not, at 18 years of age, your children are considered adults and are therefore protected by the privacy laws.  This means that you no longer have full access to their information.

  • For Medical Emergencies – You should prepare Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA) and HIPAA waiver documents for your 18+ year olds as these legal documents determine who is entitled to have access to medical records and act on their behalf in the event of a medical emergency.  Imagine you live in North Carolina and your college student who attends school in New York is taken to the emergency room. Because your student is over 18, the privacy laws prohibit the hospital from sharing your student’s medical information or allowing you to speak to their doctor in charge until you are able to appear in person or they get legal authorization. While you are figuring out a way to quickly get to their bedside, you can scan/fax the HCPOA/HIPAA legal document and gain instant access to the critical information you need in an emergency situation.  These documents can be easily prepared by your estate attorney and require notarized signatures.  Once you have these prepared, send a copy to school with your student and keep a copy with you at work and at home in the event of an emergency.
  • For University information access – As a parent, you won’t have access to your student’s college records without their permission. Your student can set you up with parental permission for certain access, typically by signing an online waiver that will grant you permissions. As a parent, I have had access to the billing, scheduling and critical information for my students, but chose not to have access to their grades. At a minimum, you will need them to grant you access to their billing information so that you can access the online payment records.  You should also sign yourself up for whatever parent newsletter and email systems the university has, as this gives you details of upcoming events, scheduling and deadlines to help keep you in the loop.

Set expectations about spending

Although you probably will serve as the primary point of payment for most things related to college, your student will need a way to pay for some items while they are away.  This is your opportunity to set expectations about what you are willing to pay for versus what they will be responsible to fund.

  • University “bucks” card – Each university typically has their own form of a “bucks” card which can be pre-filled with money for things like laundry, food, and sports tickets. You have probably selected a meal plan to take care of the essentials, but realize that students face many opportunities each day to spend money.  Talk through their budget for the semester and under what circumstances you would add more dollars to their card.
  • Debit Card – Your student will typically have a debit card linked to their personal bank account.  My advice is to NOT set up overdraft protection that automatically drafts from their savings account.  Teach them how to keep track of their accounts online and to monitor their funds closely, but if they choose to overspend, let them pay the $35 overdraft fee. It’s a painful but tolerable lesson that will teach them to watch their spending more closely.
  • Credit Card – If they are attending college where flights home are part of the picture, there may also be a need for a credit card.  However, you should be aware that applicants under the age of 21 are now required to have an adult co-signer.  Although on first blush this seems to complicate the matter, it has eliminated many of the on-campus credit solicitations directed to your student.  This is a good time to initiate a student account as it will give you the opportunity to teach them the mechanics of bill paying, late fees, and a general understanding of good credit practices. My advice is to get a card with a limit of $500- $1,000 and to have a clear discussion about expectations for use and who will pay the bills.
  • Extracurricular Activities – Lastly, you need to communicate your willingness to pay the cost of activities your student may want to be involved in.  These costs may include fraternity/sorority dues, club sports fees, spring break trips, etc. If you haven’t been through this experience with other students, you may be surprised at how much an 18-year-old can spend in a very short amount of time. Some parents choose to draw the line at these costs and they let their students know that if they want to participate, they will need to fund it themselves.


You are making a huge financial commitment to send your children to college. Help them understand their responsibilities in this process and what their primary focus should be. I feel that a student who is financially invested in his or her education will put significantly more effort toward succeeding. Your goal in helping to pay for your student’s education is that they become educated, not just by the university they attend, but by you.  Teach them critical financial lessons early in this newly independent stage and it will carry them toward a future where they can be financially independent and responsible adults. These are lessons that will last them a lifetime.