The best advice for first-time college parents often comes from our own friends who’ve traveled this road a year or two ahead of us.
Here is a collage of tips and reflections to help you navigate the journey ahead.
Academics and residential life
If the college or university offers a class for first-year students to help them learn how to succeed at college-level work, make sure your son or daughter takes it.
Encourage them every semester to make the earliest possible academic advising appointment — sometimes the classes they need fill up. Ask about their plan to graduate in four years and stay in touch about that.
Consider starting with a minimal meal plan and double check the date for making changes. “We spent too much on meals and our daughter got bored with the food.”
Upgrade to a larger room if you can afford it.
Visits to campus, and back home again
Let your student take the lead on what to do together over Family Weekend. Do nudge them to make plans for dinner with the families of their friends and reserve a table well ahead of time (you can always cancel the reservation).
In general keep visits short, include their friends in meals enjoyed off campus, and take a break from each other during the afternoon. “Don’t take it personally if they’re busy much of the time with other things — enjoy whatever time you have.”
When students come home for breaks they are exhausted. “Dorm living is not peaceful!”
Try not to travel that first Thanksgiving break. “My son really wanted to see his high school friends, sleep in his own bed, eat his favorite foods, and recharge.”
You will be amazed at how messy their rooms are. Let it go, and when they say they cleaned up for your visit (and it still looks like things might be living under the bed) say, “thanks for making the effort!”
Don’t wait to book winter break flights. But first double check their final exam schedule and find out if they need to go back before the end of break (for sports, for example).
Talk about what it will be like when they come home. “My son assumed that, since he was living independently at college, the old rules (curfew, room cleanliness, family meals, etc.) no longer applied when he came home.”
Show your student how to make a simple budget. Confirm that they know how to do online banking and keep track of debit card charges. If they have a credit card, it’s not a bad idea to set up automatic payment but they also need to understand that they should not carry a balance on that card. “Don’t assume they know how to balance a checkbook. Teach basic life skills!”
Require your child to plan ahead for and cover incidental expenses — see our related article, “Spending money in college.”
When your student is home for break, take time to work on financial aid renewal forms together. Make sure they understand how to complete their own taxes (even if you end up doing most of it for them).
Students can and should keep applying for outside scholarships all four years. “My daughter was awarded a $10K scholarship upon college graduation — dropped the student loan just like that!”
Adjustment and transformation
You hear so much about people’s kids loving college, and maybe you loved your own college years, but not all students feel that way. Many first years come home at Thanksgiving thinking they want to transfer. It can take a semester or two for a student to be happy and feel at home. Some successful students never “love” their school.
Students may need advice on recognizing and referring peers who are dealing with mental health issues. “Mental health of roommates or friends affected both my children — they had to become amateur therapists.”
When winter comes, don’t worry about whether your student — who’s relocated from southern California to Chicago — has made the transition from flip-flops to snow boots. “If they are smart enough to attend college, they can figure out what to wear.”
It isn’t the end of the world if your student decides to take a year off. “It helped my son grow up and focus on why he’s at college in the first place.” However, they may need guidance in creating a game plan for their time away.
They will grow beards and get tattoos.
Be ready to be astonished by the pace of their personal growth!
Communication and your role as parent
“Wait till they ask for advice before offering it; listen more than you talk.”
The college can’t provide a 100% guarantee that your student will adjust perfectly, not party too much, etc. Have confidence that you’ve trained them well.
Remember that these years belong to your child and are an important step toward his/her adult life. They really need to be in charge of solving problems, making decisions, negotiating campus life.
There’s a fine line between wanting to talk to them on a regular basis, just to check in, and having them feel like you’re being nosy. Setting a time frame for calling them, before school starts in the fall, is a great idea.
“Sometimes it’s hard to stand back and watch them drop some balls, and experience failure and disappointment, but that’s part of the learning process. At other times it’s so exciting to hear what they’re accomplishing and learning about themselves.”
Feature image courtesy of Middle Tennessee State University.
Thank you to our parent experts whose children attend or recently graduated from: Amherst College, Bates College, Baylor University, Cal Poly, Colorado State University, Harvey Mudd College, Ithaca College, Middlebury College, MIT, Rhode Island School of Design, UC Santa Barbara, University of Chicago, University of Colorado, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wellesley College and Whitman College.