Heading Back to College Post-COVID

July 20, 2021

Leaving the Nest: Back To School After COVID-19
Across the country, young adults will soon be packing up their clothes, comforters, and computers as they head off to college. Most colleges and universities plan to move learning back on-campus and in-person for the fall 2021 semester, leading to an enormous sigh of relief from both parents and students anxious to see collegiate life return to pre-COVID routines.

Going away to college, especially for rising freshmen leaving home for their first extended stay, is always a time of excitement mixed with uncertainty. This fall, all parties involved will likely find that college life is not quite as carefree as it was prior to COVID. Social distancing, testing, and masks may still be required, while restrictions on large gatherings and sanctions for students breaking campus COVID rules may put a damper on the back-to-school social scene. Here are some questions parents and students may have when returning to school this fall.

Will students be required to get vaccines?
It depends on the school and requirements that continue to evolve on a day-to-day basis. Almost all colleges want students to have their COVID inoculations, but some state laws forbid requiring them. Talk to your student’s college to see what is required (click here for an updated list of colleges requiring vaccinations1). If your student is vaccinated, expect the school to ask you for a copy of their vaccination card, and consider keeping a backup at home in case the original gets lost.

Due to increased health and safety concerns with COVID, what kind of legal documents should students have in place before going away to college?
Jeremiah H. Barlow, JD, Head of Family Wealth Services for Mercer Advisors says that many parents may not realize that once their child turns 18 and becomes a legal adult, the parent no longer has automatic access to health, financial, or academic information relating to their child, nor do they have the legal right to make decisions for them unless specific authorizations are in place.

As a result, parents are not authorized to deal with financial matters for their adult child for even routine tasks such as closing out an unused gym membership, resolving a bank dispute, or filing a tax return. In a health emergency, a hospital may not share information with you regarding your child’s prognosis or treatment, or allow you to participate in care decisions. To avoid potentially nightmare scenarios like this, make sure your adult child signs critical legal documents like a Durable Power of Attorney, which allows you to handle key financial tasks, as well as advance health care directives like a medical power of attorney, HIPAA authorization, and a living will. These medical documents, which may be called by different names depending on your state of residence, authorize you to receive medical information, make care decisions if your child is not able to do so, and provide treatment guidelines. Recommended for every adult during normal times, these financial and medical documents are even more critical given the uncertainties posed by COVID.

It may sound complicated, but most attorneys are very familiar with the range of documents required and will routinely prepare them as part of a typical estate planning package. Your family attorney or Mercer Advisors wealth advisor can help point you in the right direction. While incapacity or medical emergencies are highly remote possibilities, especially for younger family members, it’s important to make sure you and your adult children are prepared. If your adult child owns assets in their own name, your attorney may also recommend drafting a Last Will and Testament and adding beneficiaries to all asset accounts as a routine precaution.

What is the best way for my student to manage her money when she’s away at school?
Your student may already be a pro at budgeting and managing money, but if not, they will need to get up to speed quickly once they’re away at school, especially if they transition to life off-campus and start covering monthly rent, books, and midnight burger runs.

If they don’t already have one, make sure your student opens a bank account in their name. Many banks offer low-cost student banking packages with perks like no-monthly fees, free ATM service, overdraft alerts, online budgeting tools, and bundled savings accounts. A quick online search for “best student bank accounts,” coupled with your student’s location, will turn up a solid list of good candidates. Make sure you pick a bank conveniently located near your student’s campus, especially for freshman year when they may not have a car or independent transportation. You may want to add your name as a co-signer on the account, which makes it easy for you to deposit funds, monitor account transactions, and provide liquidity in an emergency. Most kids maneuver just fine with their account debit card. If you do decide to provide them with access to one of your credit cards for emergencies, make sure to review the ground rules and your expectations very carefully with your student so you’re not surprised when you see that Las Vegas road trip or late night tattoo parlor visit on the monthly bill.

How can I keep an eye on my student’s progress and make sure everything is okay?
Talk to several parents, and you’ll realize it happens all too often. Your student tells you everything is “fine” at college. So imagine your surprise when you receive word that their scholarship isn’t being renewed, they’re failing half of their classes, or they’re on academic probation. How on earth did this happen, and why didn’t someone advise you earlier? Easy. You may be paying the bills (and you know exactly how big those bills are!), but due to federal privacy rules, you are normally not entitled to any information about your student’s academic, financial, or other records without special legal authorization. It may not seem fair, but that’s the way it is.

If you want access to that information, you’ll need an FERPA waiver (FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal law requiring educational institutions to safeguard the privacy rights of students). Your student will need to sign the waiver or a similar school document (sometimes called a Buckley waiver after the name of the law’s principal Senate sponsor). Look to obtain the waiver form on the college website or by contacting the dean of students office; just be aware that the authorization may need to be renewed periodically to keep it in force. In lieu of executing the waiver, some schools may also accept copies of a tax return showing the student being claimed as a dependent on your return.

Yes, college is all about learning personal responsibility and transitioning to adulthood. However, with the meter running at $75,000 per year or more, it may be wise to institute some parental checks and balances to ensure your student is happy, academically successful, and getting the support they need. Having this conversation early, and often, may help you avoid an unpleasant senior-year surprise.

What if my student is heading overseas to spend the semester abroad?
Health conditions in some foreign capitals have improved so much that college students are now being welcomed back into select study abroad programs. IES Abroad2, a Chicago-based not-for-profit that has been sponsoring study abroad and internship programs for over 70 years, recommends that parents and students do their homework to ensure study abroad providers have well-developed COVID-19 health, safety, and crisis management plans. That may encompass 24/7 emergency support, comprehensive international health insurance, in-country support networks, trip tracking, and mandatory cell phone access.

As in the U.S., expect to find special health restrictions in place, like social distancing and occasional travel delays and closures. Traveling is now more complex due to the lingering impact of COVID-19, say IES Abroad experts. But spending a semester or summer abroad can be truly life-changing and the experience is worth it, they argue. Navigating the challenges of an unfamiliar environment will help your student develop resilience, self-confidence, and a lifelong identity as a global traveler and citizen.

Anything else to take care of before school starts?
Make sure to review your student’s health insurance just to confirm everything is in order. If they are covered under your health insurance policy, you will likely need to provide proof to the school in order to opt out of (and avoid being charged by) the college’s health policy. Going to college out of state? Check with your insurance company to ensure your student has access to the care they need without out-of-state or network restrictions.

Lastly, take a deep breath and enjoy! Helping move kids to college, whether for the first time as a freshman, or after this unexpected past year, is a treasured rite of passage for parents and adult children alike, involving a lot of boxes and a few carefully hidden tears. It is a moment you will both always remember, and for your freshman, it is a big move as your student steps into the exciting and sometimes scary world of adulthood. To all those future members of the Class of 2025, best wishes and carpe diem!

Footnotes:
1. What Colleges Require the COVID-19 Vaccine, bestcolleges.com, June 2021.
2. Health & Safety, IES Abroad.

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