Congratulations, your college age student has been accepted into the school of their dreams! Now what? The transition from high school to university can be daunting, both for students and their parents. Our comprehensive guide to parenting during this transition will offer an overview of some of the main components of sending a child to college, including paying for college, choosing where to live, health, and communication. The included college tips for parents will hopefully make your student's transition from high school to college less rocky and more rocking!
Parent Support for High School Students
College doesn't happen overnight, and part of students successfully getting into their dream school comes from careful preparation during their high school years - researching colleges, looking into potential college majors, finding loans, and applying for scholarships. This research and the accompanying conversations can start as early as a student's freshman year, and can be ongoing through senior year. We have a detailed guide on how to apply to college, but here are some quick tips on different aspects of the college application that you and your student can prep for early on.
Extracurricular Activities - These activities will help students stand out from the crowd, appear well-rounded, and help them experience more potential interests. They can take place inside or outside of a student's school and can include things like clubs, athletics, music, horseback riding, fine arts, theatre, and community service work.
Advanced Placement Classes and Exams - AP exams are not required but are a great way to showcase academic rigor and even possibly test out of some required college courses. They are available in a variety of subjects such as English, Math, Science, History, and World Cultures. Check with your student's high school about which AP classes are available, and how to register and prepare for AP exams.
SAT/ACT - In addition to AP exams, most colleges require students to include results from either the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT). Students do not have to take both the SAT and the ACT, but they can take both if they choose. For more information regarding standardized college entrance exams and the ACT, check out Study.com's ACT guide.
College Applications - College applications can feel intimidating for both students and parents, so it is important to seek advice, research the process, and keep an open and frank dialogue ongoing throughout the process. By the time students are in their junior year, they should be exploring specific colleges that they might like to attend.
How Parents Can Help Pay for College
Paying for college can feel extremely stressful. However, there are a variety of financial options out there that families can draw on! Parents paying for college should be well-educated on these so that they and their students can have an open, practical conversation about what paying for college will look like for their individual family's financial situation.
Federal Financial Aid
Federal financial aid is one of the most common ways students get help paying for college, with FAFSA providing over 13 million students per year with some aid. FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and for many families it is one of the first forms filled out in the college application process. It's used to gauge financial need for students, as well as their eligibility for financial aid. For more information regarding the FAFSA, check out Study.com's FAFSA guide.
Once you and your student have filled out the FAFSA, it's important to know what types of federal financial aid are available, and which ones require repayment. This information is especially important when considering if parents paying for college is a realistic goal or not. Federal financial loans break down into three major categories:
|Federal Loans||Federal Grants||Federal Work Study|
|Federal Loans are a need-based form of financial aid, meaning that students must demonstrate financial need to qualify for them. Simply put, a federal loan is money that is borrowed from the Unites States Department of Education and must be paid back, with interest, upon the completion of a student's education or if they are not enrolled in school any longer. Federal loans for students come from the Federal Perkins Loan Program and the William D. Ford Federal Loan Program. Under this second program, there are parent loans for college students called Parent Plus Loans.||Federal Grants are a need-based form of financial aid. The main differences between federal loans and federal grants are that grants do not have to be repaid upon graduation and that grants are only awarded under specific terms to specific students, meaning that not every student will qualify for or receive grants. Under the US Department of Education, there are a number of major grant programs, including the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants, and the Teacher Educational Assistance for College Education.||Federal Work Study is a need-based form of financial aid. However, unlike loans or grants, a work-study program involves working either on or off-campus while going to school. The available jobs tend to encourage community service work, civic education work, and work related to the individual student's course of study. With federal work-study programs, a student's earnings may not exceed the total of their work-study award and must be part-time. Work-study can be an excellent opportunity for students who demonstrate financial need, but parents and students should remember that working during school may not be possible or practical for every student.|
Private Student Loans
In cases where students and families do not qualify for FAFSA or other forms of federal student aid but still need some financial assistance to pay for college, there are private loans available. Private student and parent loans for college are made by banks, credit unions, and state-based or -affiliated organizations. The amount you can borrow, as well as interest amounts, repayment plans, and when interest payments are due vary depending on the lending organization's policies and regulations.
In terms of parent-specific private loans, there are usually a couple of options depending on the private lending body. One example is the Sallie Mae Parent Loan, which can be applied to undergraduate, graduate, or certificate educations . Another option for parents paying for college is a Home Equity Loan which might be less expensive than either a federal or private loan. However, parents should be aware that home equity fluctuates based on the housing market, and when home equity loans are used to pay for college, they are not tax deductible.
While the US Department of Education does provide some scholarships for students at the federal level, there are also many, many private and college-based scholarships available to students. Scholarships do not have to be repaid upon completion of a student's education and are generally awarded based on academic merit, diversity, athletic skill, organizational values, or some combination of these factors. Also, if you served in or are serving in the military, look for scholarships specifically for dependents of military veterans or members.
Helping Your Student Choose a Living Situation
As parents and students figure out how to pay for college, housing increasingly becomes a critical part of the conversation. Some students choose to go to college close to home while others move states or even countries to attend college far away. In either case, choosing where to live during college is an important decision, and one in which parents can choose to be an active, educated voice. This section will briefly go over a variety of common living situations and provide more tips for parents helping their students choose between different housing options.
Living at Home During College
Some students may choose to live at home for personal or financial reasons during some or all of their college years. For some students, this can be a fantastic choice. Living at home is almost always less expensive than living in residence halls or an apartment, and it provides a close parent-student relationship as well as family support. However, it is important to remember that college students will certainly want to attend both academic and non-academic events and parties while attending college, and occasionally these events will go late and may conflict with parent or sibling schedules. Living at home means having frank, open conversations about the rules and expectations and how those will change as a result of having a student in college.
Living Away from Home During College
Some students see college as an opportunity to strike out on their own for the first time and living independently or semi-independently is frequently a part of that experience. There is, however, a sliding scale of levels of independence in college housing and these options allow students to customize their experience and ease into independent living.
The most common living situations in college are:
Residence halls are the most common place for college students, particularly first year students, to live. Some colleges are residential, meaning that they require students to live in university housing . Increasingly, colleges are requiring all first year students to live in residence halls, so be sure to encourage your student to check the residence policies of all the schools they want to apply for.
Residence halls can be great places to live for a few reasons. First, students in residence halls automatically form a new community simply by living in the same space and experiencing college together. This is a great way for students (especially social ones) to make new friends and peer support networks to help them adjust and thrive in college. Residence halls come in a variety of sizes but typically house between 50 and 200 students. They may be co-ed, occasionally with genders separated by floors. Some colleges do still have single-sex residence halls, although this is less common in the twenty-first century. Depending on the residence hall, students may have options for rooms and roommates, and students may live with anywhere from one to three other students in a room or suite of rooms. Residence Halls also include common areas such as study spaces, kitchens, bathrooms, lounges, and sometimes laundry facilities. Students in residence halls are also often required to purchase meal plans so that they have access to on-campus meals.
Apartments and Campus Housing
Apartments and campus cousing are alternatives to residence halls that are also owned and maintained by the university. Whereas residence halls look and feel very much like dormitories, campus apartments and housing may feel more like living independently in a community with roommates, although still with university oversight. Additionally, whereas residence halls will often be on a university campus or be campus adjacent (usually close enough to walk to campus), campus housing and apartments might be slightly further away. Sometimes, students must be in their upper year to live in campus apartments, but that rule varies from college to college. Like residence halls, however, students are almost always living with roommates or in close proximity with other students, so they can build a community and support network of peers.
Both residence halls and college housing/apartments typically come with roommates, and this can be a good thing for some students. However, for others, roommates are not a good thing. For students with extreme dietary restrictions--like Celiac's disease, for example--a communal kitchen can be stressful and potentially lead to ongoing health issues. An excellent college tip for parents is to have a frank, open conversation with their students about whether there are factors in a student's life that might lead to the risks of roommates outweighing the benefits.
Fraternities and Sororities
Fraternities and Sororities are a third university-based housing option that may be available for students. Each fraternity and sorority house is required to have a resident house director who lives in the house with the students so that there is student oversight. However, fraternities and sororities often require annual membership fees in addition to the costs of room, board, and food; so, while these residences might lead to strong communities, they may not be the least expensive options. Having frank, open conversations with your student about the practical realities of paying for college can help you and your student decide if living in a sorority or fraternity is right for them.
Off-Campus Housing is yet another option for college students living away from home. Off-campus housing is not regulated, certified, or overseen by the college, so parents and students need to be more proactive and independent when choosing this option. In off-campus housing, students are responsible for rent, utilities, food, furniture, cleaning, and obeying city bylaws. Some students are ready for the challenge of full independence in their first year of college while others are not. Additionally, if off-campus housing is something parents and students want to explore, some colleges will have resources to help them find an affordable apartment in a neighborhood that is safe. Students and parents can start their search for off-campus housing through apartment-hunting resources provided by the college.
When looking at off-campus apartments, encourage students not to look at apartments alone. Parents may choose to visit apartments with their students, but if you choose not to, encourage your student to take a friend to look at the apartment, both for safety and for a second set of eyes to keep lookout for anything amiss with the apartment itself. Consider asking neighbors if they like living in the neighborhood. Additionally, if you find an apartment you are seriously considering, make sure to explore the neighborhood too. Can your student access groceries? Doctor's offices? The university campus? Finally, if parents or students know other students who live off-campus and attend the same university, ask those students about their process for finding safe and affordable off-campus housing.
Transportation in College
If students are living away from home during college, they will be responsible for getting themselves to and from their home, classes, grocery store, and even friends' houses and events. Depending on the college and the town students are living in, transportation might be a challenge, particularly for students who live with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses, and they might need a car to successfully attend medical appointments, particularly with specialists who may be off-campus.
When making the decision to take a car to college or not, the first two elements to check are the policies of the college, and the parking situation. Some colleges ban first year students from bringing cars to campus , and many, many colleges have limited parking that is expensive. In that case, it might be a good idea to invest in a bicycle or public transportation pass for your college student, at least for their first year. Some campuses are also close enough to areas of town that walking is an option for day to day needs.
Supporting Student Health and Healthcare
The transition to college not only includes financial and academic independence, but also a transition to independent health management. Physical and mental health are just as important as grades in college, and this section of the guide will help you prepare your college student to take control of their own health.
Physical Health Resources
As students grow to adulthood and leave for college, their bodies will continue to grow and change. During this transitions, they will now become fully responsible for their physical health. Some students will have had practice managing their own health before leaving for college, which is great; other students may be managing their own health for the first time, which is an awesome, if potentially intimidating challenge. Parents can help their college-age students make this transition successfully by encouraging them to put together a health binder for themselves and keep a number of factors in mind.
Some students will remain on their parent's health insurance during college, but many colleges also offer, or may even require, health insurance from the college. It is important for parents to encourage students to be aware of their health insurance, and to always carry their insurance card.
Additionally, students should be aware of the physical health resources on their college campus. An excellent first-day-on-campus activity is locating the health or wellness center on campus and learning the center's hours, services, and appointment system. Every college will have a health or wellness center with doctors and nurses who will be able to manage some health issues and refer students to specialists if necessary. It is advisable for students to write down the wellness or health center number and include it in a list of emergency contacts in their first aid kit, refrigerator, or bulletin board. Some colleges will also have additional wellness resources like massage or physical therapy for students who need those services. Flu shots and other vaccines are also available at college wellness or health centers.
Accidents, illnesses, and appendixes do happen, despite even excellent planning. While every student knows to call 911 in case of emergencies, it is also important to know where to go for acute health issues. Additionally, certifications in basic first aid and CPR are often available as workshops from colleges, and parents and students should seriously consider achieving these certifications.
Physical Health Risks in University
While universities are often discussed in the context of education and gaining life experience, rarely are the physical health risks associated with universities discussed. Part of the college experience often includes partying and experimenting with alcohol and even drugs; according to the Nations Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 55% of students will drink regularly in college. Alcohol can harm the body if used in excess, and even students who do not drink themselves are at risk of the consequences, including car accidents, assault, and other injuries. It is important for parents and students to discuss responsible alcohol use, and what to do in situations where they or someone else is in danger.
Weight issues and unhealthy eating habits are also a risk to physical health in university. While some weight gain is absolutely normal as students acclimate to self-regulating health and nutrition in a new environment, extreme weight gain or loss can signify deeper issues or the development of eating disorders. Encourage students to focus on healthy eating, exercise, and not to worry about achieving artificial standards of beauty that might actively cause health issues.
Students with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses should be aware that every college will, in addition to a health or wellness center, also have a service office for students with disabilities. This office will be able to help students gain access to all facets of university life through academic accommodations, access to facilities, technologies, and programs, and often peer support networks. For students who need this resource, the phone number to the disabilities services offices should also be on the emergency contacts lists.
Mental Health Resources
The fact is that the transition to college, and college in general, is stressful for everyone. However, just because some stress is part of the college experience that does not mean that students should ignore potential mental health troubles, try to 'tough it out' on their own, or assume that getting mental health support means that they have failed in some way. Just as parents encourage students to get a broken leg or serious illness evaluated and treated by a medical professional, students who are struggling with mental health should be encouraged to seek help so they can thrive at college and enjoy their college experience.
Mental Health Risks in University
For students who come to college without preexisting mental health conditions, stress, anxiety, and depression are the largest risk factors. This includes academic, social, and personal stress and anxiety, with the potential for developing depression. Students who experience new feelings of anxiety or depression should be encouraged to seek both peer and professional support.
For students coming to college with a history of mental illness or disability, continuing to monitor their mental health is critical, and communication with healthcare professionals about any changes is crucial. Additionally, these students should also make sure they are aware of and actively enrolled or registered with their college's disability services office as individual accommodations and support will be available through this office.
Student Counseling Center
All students should be encouraged to take advantage of their college's student counseling center. Counseling centers are not limited to counseling about academic stress, but also help students deal with interpersonal, family, and other emotional issues. As with the student health or wellness center, students should prioritize finding and learning about their college's counseling center early in their first term.
Student Health Binder
A critical resource for college students and parents is the student health binder. This is a literal binder that briefly outlines a student's physical and mental health history, and includes up-to-date information about health insurance, medications, and emergency contact lists for the student and for friends or emergency services workers in case of emergencies. Students can also use the binder to organize referrals, test results, invoices, bills, and background information about any health issues they have or develop. Important documents for the binder include but are not limited to:
- Name, address, and phone number of student's emergency contact
- Photocopies of the student's health insurance card, health insurance coverage documents, immunization records, driver's license, and passport
- Information on blood type, prescription eyeglasses/contacts, current illnesses or conditions, pertinent medical results, and any past surgeries
- Brief family health history (grandparents, parents, siblings)
- Current list of prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, and any dietary supplements
- Current list of any medication allergies including brief descriptions of the reaction to each medication
- Name, address, and phone number of a pharmacy, the family doctor, local urgent care or walk-in clinics, as well as any specialists (e.g. dentist, optometrist, oncologists, gynecologists, internists, physical therapists, counsellors, acupuncturists, etc.)
- Phone number and hours of student wellness/health center, counseling center, and disability services office at student's college
- Suicide hotline number(s)
Communicating with Your College Student
For many parents, one of the most difficult parts of the transition to college is not having open access to their student's educational records and grades. For parents who were used to staying on top of a student's progress--and who may be footing a large part of the bill for college--suddenly being unable to access their student's educational records or even talk directly to their student's teachers can be frustrating. However, that just means that it's time to evolve the communication between you and your student. This section of the guide will explore why parents might feel suddenly cut off from their student's education, and offer suggestions to parents for getting educated about their student's school so they can help advise students as they go through college. Finally, this section will also offer tips on staying connected to your student while they are in college.
Remember, connection always facilitates communication, and one of the most valuable roles a parent can fulfil for their college student is that of sounding board. Students will often reach out with challenges, and a well-educated parent can guide students to resources and help students create a plan of action. This allows parents to feel involved in their student's college life while also allowing students to take ownership of their educational journeys and exercise their agency! In addition to reading student and parent handbooks, well-educated parents should also research campus resources that their student's college offers, and the legal limits of a parent's role in the education of a student who is a legal adult.
In the US, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of a student's educational record, and once a student is 18, they have control over that record and its disclosure. Part of FERPA that can be particularly frustrating to parents is that college representatives are forbidden from discussing a student's grades, classroom performance, attendance, or other issues with parents. Students can sign a waiver that allows professors and parents to discuss these issues, but students are not required to sign that waiver. A significant tip for parenting college students is to refrain from calling, emailing, or dropping in on your student's professor. Professors are legally bound to maintain student privacy, and building healthy, open communication channels with your student is part of the experience of parenting college students.
Academic Advising Resources
Just because professors can't talk to parents doesn't mean that parents can't be educated, helpful and communicative with their students. Students will often communicate struggles and challenges with parents relating to their academics, and parents--particularly those who may not have attended college themselves--can feel frustrated or helpless if they don't know how to help their students. However, parents can and should educate themselves on their college's academic advising resources so that when students communicate struggles or challenges, parents can help direct students to the appropriate resources. These resources include:
Academic Advising Office
All colleges will have a central office where students can go with questions about their general academic, programs, and issues surrounding choosing and switching majors, minors, and concentrations.
Professors, Instructors, and TAs
It can be intimidating for students to ask professors, instructors, and TAs for help, so if your student is shy about asking a professor, consider helping the student write up a short script, or a list of questions to take to the professor.
Writing centers are an excellent resource for students in all majors and are usually staffed by graduate students (those in English PhD and master's programs) and professors who are experts in writing and the writing process.
While writing centers tend to focus on written assignments like essays and presentations, tutoring centers will provide help for students in a variety of subjects including math and science.
Library Reference Desk and Librarians
Encourage students to speak to the librarians at the reference desks of their college's library to learn the way their specific library works and how to best access resources there.
Most colleges have a dedicated office or center to help students learn about different career paths, set goals, prepare for interviews, and even write resumes.
This office can help students with a variety of aspects of university life and housing including meal plans, roommate issues, and social events.
When students run into registration issues, records issues, scheduling issues and transcript issues, the registrar's office is the place to go to figure them out.
Office of Financial Aid
For students who want additional information about loans, grants, and scholarships--both federal and college-based--the office of financial aid is the first port of call.
Not all of your student's college experience is purely based around academics; staying in touch with family is an important aspect of the college experience. However, because your college student is an adult, the parent-child connection is evolving too. Staying connected while respecting your student's autonomy and agency can feel stressful, but it does not have to be! This section will cover a number of tips for parenting college students that relate to communication and connection.
In Person Visits
For some parents and students, college is close enough to home for relatively frequent in-person visits. Scheduled lunches, dinners, or outings can be fantastic ways for parents and students to check in with each other, de-stress, and reconnect. Many parents will also feel an impulse to drop in on their students at college. This is entirely understandable, but its also important for parents to remember that students are learning to be independent and arrange their own lives. Scheduling outings in advance tells your student that your respect their independent life and privacy. That's not to say that parents should never drop in on their students, but consider calling ahead to your student, explaining that you have some time, and would like to take them for an impromptu lunch or coffee if that works in the student's schedule. Having a choice will make students feel respected and having a surprise option to reconnect with a parent for coffee or a meal can be a huge emotional boost!
For parents and students who are far enough apart that in-person visit are prohibitive, there are a multitude of technologies that can help make the distance seem smaller. Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime are excellent low-cost options for video chatting. Having a set meeting time--whether it is weekly, monthly, or some other schedule--can help students and parents feel connected to each other and provide valuable time to reconnect and chat.
Email and text messaging are also excellent ways for parents and students to stay in touch. Apps like WeChat, iMessage, and WhatsApp are great alternatives for parents and children who might be in different countries or on opposite sides of the Apple/Android technology split!