A Parent Guide to Supporting Your College-Bound Student

Parents of college-bound students often have just as many questions about transitioning to university as their children. This guide will cover the college application process, financial aid, moving to college, and more, from a parent’s perspective.

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
Apartments and Campus Housing
Fraternities and Sororities
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.

Health Insurance
Physical Health Risks in University

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
Student Counseling Center

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
Professors, Instructors, and TAs
Writing Center
Library Reference Desk and Librarians
Career Services
Residential Life
Registrar's Office
Office of Financial Aid

Staying Connected

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!

Media-Based Connections

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!