Have a Kid Going to College? Your Top Three Questions Answered

There is not going to be a perfect answer for every one of your questions, but here is some guidance.

Money

Should I help support or continue supporting my student financially throughout college?

This is perhaps the most-asked question for parents of students entering college. And no matter if or how you decide to finance your child throughout their college years (and beyond), one thing is certain: you must have a clear conversation about money with your young adult.

Make it clear what you will and will not pay for. You may have had financial conversations in the past, but when your young adult is in their first semester of school, it is important to remind them. Making this explicit early will save you headaches later. You may be paying for your student’s tuition, books and rent, but ask that your student takes responsibility for their entertainment, dining out, and clothing purchases.  Or, you may not be paying for anything at all and your student will have to rely on financial aid and loans. Be sure to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year that your student is in college. This is used by all colleges and universities to make decisions about financial aid packages, and can help finance your student’s education. All families should submit a FAFSA application, even if you think your student won’t qualify. Marjorie Savage, Education Specialist in Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, says that some families will qualify when they don’t expect to and family financial circumstances can change during a year, so you need to have that base information filed.

Talk to your student about getting a job in college. This may not be something they do right away (or at all), but it could be a great opportunity for them after their first semester. Of course, work that interferes with school is not recommended. Your teen should make sure they can manage their time and keep work from detracting from their studies. However, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, students working 1-15 hours weekly actually have significantly higher GPAs than both students working 16 or more hours and students who don’t work at all. Stephanie Benson-Gonzales, Assistant Director for Parent Relations and Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the key is working manageable hours. “Even if a parent is contributing a good amount of funds to their student’s education, they may still want to encourage them to get a campus job,” Benson-Gonzales says. Getting a job can not only be a great way to make some money, but it can provide a community of friends for a students, provide real work experience, and help students learn how to manage their own money.

Another important topic to discuss with your teen is applying for credit cards. A lot of college students receive credit card offers, which may look pretty appealing with promises of free gifts and endless money. “It’s so easy to get caught in a bad cycle with credit cards,” licensed professional counselor Dr. Shari Sevier says. “Before long, you are in over your head.” Sevier warns parents to be wary of this and to talk explicitly about responsible credit card use before your student gets into trouble with debt or you end up with a huge bill.  

What is right will differ greatly from family to family, but the conversation should always take place. Elizabeth Fishel, co-author of Getting to 30 and a parent, says, “These days, it’s much more likely that the bank of mom and dad stays open through the twenties.” She says this can be a big shock for a lot of parents, and even more shocking when it takes longer than expected to close the bank.

Of course, some young adults have held jobs in high school and may be already supporting themselves in many ways. For these students, parent financial support is more of a luxury than a given. If your student has been paying for a lot of their own things in high school, remind them of the rigor of college. During their first semester of college and beyond, balancing school and work is a lot more challenging than it may have been in high school.  

Communication

How (and how often) do I communicate with my student when they leave for college?

The shift from seeing your teen every day to not at all can be jolting for parents. And if there is one common theme from expert advice during this time, it’s how to step back while staying involved.

In her book, You’re On Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me), Savage says your role as a parent changes the day your student starts college from “a primary caretaker and supervisor for your child to the role of a proud mentor and supporter.” This shift may be natural for some parents, and completely foreign for others.

“Different families are going to have very different communication patterns,” Savage says. “I think the important factor is that the student and the parent are both comfortable with the amount of communication (with the student's comfort level being the deciding factor), and that the student is not expecting the parent to solve all the problems.” Savage said it’s not unusual for students to be in touch with parents multiple times a day. This is not necessarily bad, but the key is the type of communication that it is. If your student is sending texts about an exciting thing that just happened or a cool photo they think you’ll like, that’s usually not a problem. However, if they are constantly seeking advice to solve problems and complaining, that’s not a good sign, says Savage.

Parenting expert Amy McCready says for a lot of young adults, their biggest fear is letting their parents down. Both Sevier and McCready suggest adopting a “no rescue” policy, meaning you support them, but do not offer them a way out of every little problem. McCready says support, encourage, and help them follow their dreams, but “it has to be on their shoulders.” You should equip your kid with the ability to handle their problems, but you ultimately want them to come to you when they are in trouble or need help. “If a student is feeling depressed, struggling with a roommate, we aren’t going to step in and ’fix‘ the problem, but we can certainly be a sounding board as they brainstorm solutions,” McCready says. Benson-Gonzales says the key is knowing when to intervene. She often talks to families whose students are experiencing depression, addiction, sexual assault and other challenging situations. “Reaching out to direct your student to resources in those situations is exactly what parents should be doing,” Benson-Gonzales says.

Parenting from a distance is not easy. And with your young adult at college, you no longer can tell them what to do and how to live their life. But you still have immense influence, and most importantly, you care about their well-being and success. Telling your young adult this—that you believe in them—can go a long way, especially when their entire life feels in flux.

For more advice on communication with your child when they leave home, check out the Parent Toolkit guide, How Often Should You Talk After Your Teen Moves Out? 

Academics

What do I do when my student starts to struggle academically in college?

College academics can be a huge wake-up call for students. And while parents may see college academics as the essential first step to a thriving career path, many students are adjusting to their lives in college beyond just the books. Many experts agree—learning to balance life and school is one of the most important lessons college freshmen learn.

If you are a parent paying for your student’s tuition, you may feel you have a right to their grades and educational records. However, this is not the case legally. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student educational records and allows parents to access their child’s educational records until the student is 18 years old. After they turn 18, these rights are now transferred to the student. Any college student, no matter their age (even if your college freshman is 17), must waive their right to privacy in order to give permission for parents or any third party to access their academic record.  This means that you will not get to see your student’s grades unless they choose to show you or allow you to access their academic information. Parents may have mixed reactions to this reality, but your legal adult is responsible for their own education (even if you are footing the bill).

When your teen calls you panicking about their exam tomorrow that they are completely unprepared for, you may be anxious to step in and save the day. While you may be worried about their grades and test scores, now is the time to step back. This goes back to the “no rescue” policy. Your young adult has picked up a lot from you over the years, and expectations about grades and academics are no different. But with the rigor of college academics, parents may have to adjust some of their expectations and acknowledge effort over outcomes a little more. Savage says to not be surprised if your student’s grades drop during the first semester of college as they learn to adjust to college-level expectations.

Avoid stepping in if your student is struggling academically. Do not call their professors or teachers. “The classroom relationship is between the instructor and the student, and in almost every case, a professor will prefer to talk to the student,” Savage says. This is a time when a student needs to learn autonomy and problem-solving. Encourage them to talk to their professors, school counselors, or get help with a tutor. Benson-Gonzales says these are productive ways to help your student instead of intervening. They are not completely on their own; they have the vast resources that educational institutions offer at their disposal. Whether they chose to use these resources is up to them. There are some problems that you just cannot solve for them anymore. 

While this is in no way a complete guide to all of your questions, you can rest assured that you are not alone in feeling confused or emotional upon your child’s departure to college. Taking the time to understand and process your questions is the first step to making your—and your child’s—first year away from a home a success. 

FAFSA 101

Financial aid is an option for many families to help pay for college. It’s money that is allocated to students in the form of a loan or awarded to them in the form of a scholarship or grant.

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