By: Vivian Tsai, Senior Director and Head of Relationship Management, TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc.

August 27, 2019

They’ve made it through high school. They’ve earned that college admission. With the funds you’ve managed to save over the years in your 529 plan, they even have the funds to pay for the dorm (yes, that expensive one) of their choosing. And you’ve run the high school gauntlet right beside them. You’ve endured senior summer as they pulled away from you, expressing a need for more independence. Finally, in a few short weeks, you will be dropping them off to begin their next life adventure, their first as an adult: College.

I know what all of that feels like because I was there myself last summer. Parenting today is a love-worry-stress-laughter-infused 24/7 occupation that stretches over 18 years, and sometimes longer. And whether you identify as a “helicopter parent,” a “tiger parent,” or a “free-range parent” — or claim all three at different times, as in my case — as your child embarks on their next adventure, you will join the ranks of “empty-nest parents.”

With that, I will share last words of advice for this transitional year:

Be a coach and an anchor

While some kids launch into college with the maturity, attitude and decision-making ability that you thought you had trained them up for, not every kid does. There is a learning curve for growing up — it may last one year, it may last four. Each of our kids adapts to the challenge differently. Be a coach, be an anchor, be there for them if they need you, in whatever capacity they need from you. My older son struggled with some issues last year and wasn’t successful getting the help he needed at his large public university on his own. He required assistance to navigate his way through the process, to learn the process, so that next time, he will be able to make his own way.

Understand HIPAA/FERPA

Most children enter college as 18-year olds. Eighteen is an age-milestone for a reason — upon turning 18, they are considered adults. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), an individual’s medical records are private. Parents of 18-year-olds cannot continue to access their medical information or be consulted about health issues without the express permission of the student. This applies whether at the campus health center, the campus counseling center, or a hospital emergency room, regardless of who is paying the insurance.  It is worth discussing with your child the benefits of a generic HIPAA authorization form to keep on hand in the event of an emergency.

Likewise, educational records are also considered private. Under the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), parents are not automatically granted the right to access their college student’s educational records. If access to your student’s grades is important to you, colleges do provide a way for students to grant parental access to their academic records. Typically, a college will act upon a student’s authorization provided in a “Student Release of Information” form which most colleges have available on their websites.

Focus on money matters

If you have been saving for college with a 529 plan, excellent! As you start withdrawing tax-free funds to pay for qualified higher education expenses like tuition, fees, room, board, and technology, keep your receipts, and remind your college student to retain her receipts too. Our receipts are filed in a Gmail folder. At year-end, your student will receive a 1098-T from her college which will document any funds received directly by the college (for tuition, fees) — note that this amount will reflect some, but probably not all of your student’s overall qualified higher education expenses for the year. Save this and all related expense documentation. Keeping a file of your eligible expenses will have been useful should the IRS come to you for proof that you applied your hard-earned 529 plan savings towards eligible higher education expenses. And another helpful tip to remember is to ensure that you request qualified withdrawals from your 529 plan in the same tax year as you make the payments – forgetting this may result in a bit of a headache to resolve with the IRS.

Whether your student qualifies for financial aid or not, have her fill out the online FAFSA form for every year she plans to be a student. This 30-minute commitment of time and effort will give her access to potential grants and scholarships, and, perhaps more importantly, provide peace of mind and access to student loan financing should money become an issue during her student years. Knowing that my sons have access to financing “in case of emergency” provides me with peace of mind as a single parent and sole underwriter of their college education.

Congratulations to you on getting your child to this inflection point. A year from now, you’ll have your own advice to share. Enjoy the remainder of the summer and I wish you and your child a wonderful year of growth and adventure.

About the author:

Vivian Tsai is Senior Director and Head of Relationship Management for TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc. (TFI), a wholly owned subsidiary of TIAA. TFI operates as the 529 Plan Program Manager for the States of California, Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. She resides in California where her sons are students at the California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo and the University of California at Berkeley.