Being college parents has been quite the learning experience for my husband and me. Our daughter recently graduated and our son completed his sophomore year at the same university.
There is much I wish I had known before we began this journey, and I‘ve compiled a list that I hope will help you as you begin the college years with your own first-year student.
1. Find out if there is a parent program at your student’s college.
This will keep you in the loop about events and opportunities for parents and families. If you depend on your student to tell you, you might miss a lot!
Possibly because I attended the same university, and we live in the university town, it didn’t occur to me that there might be things happening on campus just for parents. I found out about family weekend (which my daughter had never mentioned) during her senior year from another parent, and my husband and I enjoyed the ice hockey game, invitation to a tailgate party, freebies and other fun activities.
Move-in day and/or orientation is a great time to ask about programming for families and to sign up for the newsletter if there is one.
2. Ask your student to grant you access to their university account.
Because your student is now an adult, the privacy of their educational records is protected by FERPA (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). This means the college will communicate directly with them and you will be riding in the backseat. It’s possible for your student to grant you access to their online account so that you can log in and view tuition statements, financial aid information, and potentially even their grades.
This doesn’t happen automatically, and your student gets to decide what level of access you receive. The Registrar’s page on the college website should explain how your student can complete a FERPA “Consent to Release” form — don’t be afraid to call the Registrar’s Office if you have questions about the process.
3. Encourage your student to keep in close contact with their academic advisor.
This was another lesson learned the hard way for us. Our daughter missed taking a required class which resulted in her having to take it online this summer after her graduation. Had she met with her advisor more often — when selecting classes each semester, and to check in regularly about her credits and progress towards the degree — this extra time/expense could have been avoided.
4. Discuss parking and meal plans with your student.
Buying a meal plan so your student can eat with just a swipe of their ID card is efficient and quicker for them and ensures they’ll always have access to good, fresh food. Freshman year is busy for your student so hands down, a meal plan is the best way to go. If it turns out your student isn’t eating all the meals they paid for — for example, they skip breakfast regularly — you can scale back the plan (be on the lookout for a deadline for doing this in the fall).
At many schools, first-year students aren’t allowed to have cars. In general, buses, bikes and carshare programs are the most cost effective transportation options. If your student will commute to campus or needs a car for another reason, you can save money if they carpool with another student and share the parking fee.
5. Know what books your student will need.
We paid for many textbooks which were never used. Most textbooks can be rented or found at used book sites online. You can save hundreds of dollars this way. My daughter learned to email her teachers in advance asking if the textbook was needed and in several cases it wasn’t, which resulted in a big savings. She would also post her textbook needs on social media and found several books this way — sometimes even free — from fellow students who had just finished that particular class.
I hope these tips help you stay on top of things! College will be a wonderful experience — for your student and you — if you are prepared for it.
6. Make sure your student’s FAFSA is completed well in advance of the school’s deadline.
Sadly, I have paid the $100 late fee more times than I care to admit. Completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, required each year for students seeking financial aid from their college) is an arduous process. Don’t think you can whip it off at the last minute! It is somewhat easier now that the form is available on October 1st each year and gathers financial information from the year before last (for example, the FAFSA for the current 2018-2019 academic year collected 2016 tax data), but nevertheless it’s a chore.
Your student fills out the FAFSA it asks for both student and parent financial information. To complete it, you need the previous year’s tax returns (for both student and parent), recent bank statements, the value of investments and other assets, and more. Know ahead of time which documents you need and where they are located. I strongly advise attending any kind of workshop offered in your community (for example, at the high school) where you can get help filling out the FAFSA.
7. Look for local scholarships or scholarships offered by the university.
It is wise for you and your student to meet with the university’s scholarship department and to attend any meeting offered to learn about scholarships your student may qualify for. We found one that our daughter qualified for simply because I had graduated from the same university. We heard about another local scholarship through the grapevine. Scholarship funds can be applied to your student’s balance any time during the school year, not just at financial check-in.
8. Keep a folder of all college expenses (tuition, books, etc.) which are tax-deductible.
The school will send you a tax form at year’s end (if it doesn’t arrive in the mail, it may have been sent electronically so check your email). Ask your student to save and send you any receipts for books they purchase and which you may write off on your taxes. To read an article with helpful information about taxes for college parents, click here.
9. Be open to the possibility of your student taking some classes online after the first semester.
Once they are in the college environment they’ll learn of certain classes that are well suited to being taken online. (This isn’t an option at all schools.) My husband resisted the idea at first but later realized that, due to time constraints, teacher personalities and other factors, online was sometimes a better choice. Taking advantage of this flexibility may help your busy student stay on track for an on-time graduation.
10. If you are local, volunteer at your student’s college for special events.
This is a great way to get to know more about the college. I enjoyed being part of an informal panel over Parents’ Weekend sharing information about the college and community, and I volunteer with the school’s Alumni Referral Program. My husband and I also like to attend sporting events and we purchase season tickets for student theater performances. If you’re not local, you can still get involved with the parent association or volunteer with the career center as a mentor.