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The financial adjustment in college — Advice for students and families

Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter


The financial adjustment from high school to college can feel complicated and intimidating.

Whether you have a high school senior working on college applications, or a first-year college student learning to manage a personal budget, here are some key things for your student to be thinking about along with tips for supporting them as they learn to navigate financial independence.

Understanding tuition costs and financial aid

If your high school senior is accepted to more than one college, they may have to choose a college by comparing tuition costs and financial aid packages. Their decision will impact your entire family in many ways, not the least being financial.

Students and families should have frank conversations about what it means to have student loans and other debt. Let your student know how much you can contribute to their education (not just the first year, but all through college) and what you expect them to be able to contribute. Discuss priorities in terms of holding a job, and managing expenses. For many students, this is the first time they’ve had to seriously consider these issues, but it certainly won’t be the last.

Remember that there are resources to help your student with financial aid and tuition issues. The college’s financial aid office staff can help you and your student better understand the aid offered, and can provide additional options for aid, which may include scholarships or loans. Encourage your student to get familiar with the financial aid office.

HOW TO HELP YOUR STUDENT ADJUST:

  • Include your student in decisions related to paying tuition and other college bills.
  • Involve your student in communications with the financial aid office (maybe even have them initiate some of these!).

Developing budgeting and financial literacy skills

The financial adjustment will continue throughout your student’s first year of college — and beyond. College students need to learn how to independently manage money. For your student, it may be the first time they don’t have ongoing guidance from you about money issues, and perhaps supervision of their spending.

Expect your student to experience some challenges along the way. To boost their financial literacy:

  1. Help them establish a budget so they don’t run out of funds. (Ideally this happens before each term or semester, but it’s never too late.) Take the amount of money they have allocated for the fall term and divide it by the number of weeks in the semester. This will give them a target range of what they should be spending each week. Suggest that they include a book budget — book costs have sky rocketed in recent years and can come as a big surprise. They can visit the bookstore online to estimate the cost of their books, and look for more affordable options (renting textbooks, buying used books, sharing with a classmate, etc.).
  2. Discuss "extras" like clothes and their social life. The college environment is home to students from all kinds of backgrounds — some with ample money for eating out and buying the latest brand-name apparel and others who must be extra frugal (and still may find themselves struggling to make ends meet). Be clear about your expectations and help your student set healthy boundaries and learn to say “no” when necessary. Poor decisions about spending can spiral into unexpected amounts of debt.

Speaking of debt, credit cards companies with high-interest offerings often target college students, offering promotional giveaways for signing up. Make sure your student understands the pros and cons of credit card debt. Do they realize that the debt they accrue will have a direct impact on their credit rating or why that’s important? Are they familiar with terms like compounding interest and the danger of paying only the minimum balance each month? These are important conversations to have.

HOW TO HELP YOUR STUDENT ADJUST:

  • Touch base periodically about managing spending money and expenses. Does the budget you agreed to need some fine tuning?
  • If your student is struggling to set boundaries with friends related to spending, help them process ways to address this challenge.
  • Consider whether it would make sense for your student to sign up for a shared credit card with you, so that you can work together to track expenses and ensure balances are paid in a timely way.

Finding and managing a job

Even if your student worked during high school or the summer before leaving for college, working during the college years will be a new experience. Some students work to pay for ongoing expenses while some work on campus as a way of getting more connected to their new community. Still others will seek paid or unpaid internship opportunities to learn more about a potential career.

You may want or need your student to work during the academic year but feel concerned about their ability to balance a work commitment. The good news is research shows that students who work under twenty hours per week in college tend to do just fine academically. In fact, students who are employed during the academic year often find that they’re more mindful of time management strategies and more productive because of the added structure that a job provides — plus better prepared to land a job after graduation.

Campus jobs are typically designed for students’ busy schedules. Work-study jobs are intended to allow sufficient time for homework, and most limit the number of hours that students can work.

HOW TO HELP YOUR STUDENT ADJUST:

  • Discuss strategies for finding a job on or near campus during the academic year.
  • Have ongoing conversations about balancing academics and other commitments while also managing a job.

Working with your student to set them up for successful money management takes effort and patience. The key is to keep the lines of communication open throughout the year and to encourage them, little by little, to become more financially independent. And you should both access all the resources that are available to you. The state you live in will have information about financial assistance for higher education and the college financial aid office welcomes your questions. It’s important to ask for help when you need it!

Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter

Read more by Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter
Dr. Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter are co-authors of Your Freshman is Off to College: A Month-by-Month Guide to the First Year. Laurie, a psychology professor at Bryant University, is an award-winning expert on how students can make successful transitions from high school to college. Stephanie has over 25 years of experience helping college students mediate the challenges of the higher education environment and works with first-years and their parents to insure a healthy transition from high school to college. Both are parents of college students.
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