Here’s something I witnessed in the admission office many, many times: Parents playing an active role in the college search. It’s natural, right? We worked with families, not just students.
What happens when the student wants you to do it all? I saw a lot of this:
- Parents who called me in the admission office (not their student).
- Emails from parents with questions (I never heard from their kid).
- Parents who filled out applications for their kids (it was sometimes obvious!)
Now, to be fair, students sometimes messaged me. The occasional student even talked to me on the phone.
One mom, Mrs. Bach, left me this voicemail: “This is Mrs. Bach, Emily’s secretary. Emily refuses to pick up the phone, so I’m calling to ask questions about your college’s music scholarship.”
It made me smile, but I also know Mrs. Bach was slowly being driven crazy by her daughter’s reluctance to handle her own college communication.
What should you do when your kid wants you to be a helicopter parent? (Maybe not even consciously?) I know you’ve probably heard this term before, but just in case: Helicopter parents before college hover and take care of every part of their child’s life. On the other hand, lawnmower parents mow down any person or obstacle that stands in the way of anyone or anything that causes their child discomfort or frustration.
Here are a few tips to set expectations, goals and work together. You may want your child to do most of the work but you may also know there are things (like the FAFSA) that may require you to lend a hand.
1. Set Clear Expectations Up Front
Make sure your child knows your comfort level with helping in advance. For example, you can tell your high schooler you’re definitely on board to assist during the college search process but you’re not going to do everything for him. Explain your reasoning and explain your limits way before the college search begins.
Remind your high schooler that completing college admission requirements, scholarships and more doesn’t mean he’s overburdened. Instead, explain that he’s gaining the mental strength he needs to get ready for college.
2. Divvy Up Responsibilities
Decide ahead of time who will handle specific parts of the college search. For example, you might decide you can handle the following:
- Transportation to and from colleges
- Filing the FAFSA
- Financial aid conversations with the college
- Timeline conversations with admission counselors
- Scheduling college visits
You might decide your child will handle:
- Scholarship applications and essays
- College research online
- Getting permission slips from the high school
- College applications (and managing those deadlines)
- Scheduling any required alumni interviews
- Communicate with admission counselors about fit and social aspects of colleges
- Talking with coaches
Maybe you’ll choose to do the following together:
- Schedule college visits over the phone
- Attend all scheduled college visits and meetings
- Go to scholarship events at the college (if applicable)
- Scholarship searches
- Talk through financial aid awards
Obviously, you can pick and choose which tasks make the most sense for each of you. Your child may be completely fine with scheduling college visits on his own and doing robust scholarship searches.
No matter what, figure all this out ahead of time and gently hold each other accountable.
3. Set Goals Together
Setting goals together is different than splitting up responsibilities. Setting goals during the college search is a great way to make sure you’re on track. The beauty of goal-setting is that you can kick start it at any time, whether you’ve got a year left in the college search process or three. For example, let’s say your child is a junior in high school. You can map out goals over the next two years. Let’s say you’ve got twin eighth graders. Why not set some loose goals for the next four years?
Make sure your goals are specific, detailed and indicate when you’d like to accomplish them.
Let’s say one of your high schooler’s goals is to get into a prestigious university. He could even write it down: “Get into Carnegie Mellon.” But would that actually help him? Nah. A general phrase like that won’t help your child (or you!) hone in on exactly what you both need to do in order to make that happen.
Instead, research what it will take to get there. For example, let’s say you look up Carnegie Mellon’s requirements for the School of Architecture. You find out that your child must:
- Apply Regular Decision before January 1 during senior year using the Common Application.
- Submit a portfolio of creative work for admission to the school of architecture.
- Complete an on-campus review of the portfolio submission.
What will it take to get there?
Here are some targeted goals your child could write:
- Request information from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture today.
- Take an architecture software class at the local community college by May of sophomore year.
- Talk to an architect in my community who can advise me on how to put together an architecture portfolio and assist with a project by June of sophomore year.
- Design several small buildings using this software during junior year.
- Design my aunt’s new home that she’s planning to build during junior year.
- Create a portfolio that showcases design creativity and technical expertise in several types of architecture software like Grasshopper or Rhino3D fall of senior year.
Did you notice goal No. 1 on the list? It’s a goal that allows your child to take immediate action. Taking an immediate step toward a major goal makes it more real and builds momentum toward the ultimate goal.
Here’s a way you can apply it in another way. Let’s say your child has always wanted to travel to Europe with a friend, spouse or other family member. What’s one immediate step she could take to make it happen?
- Call a travel agent today and discuss your future plans.
- Request a brochure from a travel company.
- Set a date within 24 hours. Why not?
See how doing those three things can make something seem so real for your child?
Your child can set small, realistic, specific and attainable goals that lead to the big goal in the end — getting into Carnegie Mellon. Or achieving a specific scholarship — or whatever that goal may be!
4. Write Down Those Goals!
Encourage your child to write down his or her goals. There’s such power in writing down goals! Put them in a place where you’ll both see them every day, whether they’re on a Post-it Note stuck to the bathroom mirror or a printed-out list on the refrigerator (as long as your child doesn’t see them as a constant nagging reminder!).
Trello, a free service, is a great way to handle scholarship applications or college applications. It could include categories like this:
- Scholarships to apply for/ Applications to complete
- In progress
- Draft complete
- In editing
- Ready to submit
Trello is a great way to keep track of progress and all family members can use it to aid the college search.
5. Acknowledge Steps Taken
Once you and your child have set those goals, it’s time to tackle them. Now, what happens if your child finds that his or her goals are difficult to achieve?
Break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This might take a little more planning but it’s always better to make sure goals are achievable. Otherwise, it would be really easy to give up on them. Be flexible with due dates if it’s an option.
Every time your child achieves one of his or her goals or mini-goals, celebrate! Acknowledging achievements goes a very, very long way during the college search.
6. Pivot When Goals Aren’t Met
What happens if a goal slips right past your child because he just didn’t feel like doing the work or is unable to complete it in the allotted time?
For example, what if your child doesn’t want to do the work to get into Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program?
It might be time to go back to the drawing board and figure out whether that’s really your child’s best path. Maybe committing to an architecture major at 18 isn’t the best option! Get to the root of the problem — have some serious conversations with your child and decide what you’ll do next.
So what do you do?
You move forward with the next plan. Maybe the next goal is to apply to Carnegie Mellon using the Common Application after August 15. Maybe the new goal is to get into Arcadia University, closer to home! Break down those goals, write down the new goals and move forward.
Nip Helicoptering (or Lawnmowering) in the Bud
Your child may be used to your heavy helping hand (remember that science fair project? Yikes!) but now’s the time for your child to start learning how to move independently. Recognizing that deserves a huge round of applause.
One more quick tip: It might not help to air frustrations during this time. You want to be as positive as possible during the college search and you want to be your child’s partner during the process. Remember, your goals may not be the same as your child’s goals. It can be tough to wrap your head around (and tough to accept!) alternative decisions.
Two kids (or more) in college at the same time.
What are your immediate thoughts and feelings when you think about this?
Do you feel excitement for the years ahead? Sad at the idea of being an empty nester? Do you feel a deep spike of fear when you consider how you’ll pay for it? Maybe you feel all of the above!
Hang in there — it’s normal to feel a rollercoaster of emotions.
I’ll always remember the unforgettable Andriuskevicius triplets. (That last name! Three times!) The three high schoolers came through the admission office looking so identical. It was so fun talking with them. Two of the kids ended up enrolling at the private college I worked for. One enrolled at a state university.
Their parents got slightly nervous when the conversation turned to paying for college. “You know, we knew this was coming,” Mrs. Andriuskevicius said. “But when they say, ‘Enjoy it, they grow so fast,’ they really mean it,” she added.
She was a fun mom (she had to be, to raise triplets!) and asked how much it would cost immediately. She listened to the financial aid spiel and did some fast math. Mrs. Andriuskevicius totaled up a pretty accurate figure in her head about much it would cost for all three kids to go to college — after grants and scholarships.
According to College Board, the average published yearly tuition and fees (not including room, board, housing or supplies) are:
- Two-year public colleges (in-district students): $3,440
- Four-year public colleges (in-state students): $9,410
- Four-year public colleges (out-of-state students): $23,890
- Private four-year colleges: $32,410
Multiply these amounts by two (or three or four!) kids and you could be looking at quite a chunk of change, as Mrs. Andriuskevicius deduced in about one minute flat. (I was really impressed.)
Hang on, there’s good news coming!
There’s Good News!
Did you know that it having two kids in college can work to your advantage?
“In my experience, the FAFSA’s expected family contribution (EFC) takes a significant drop when the second and third child enter college,” says Pam Rambo, former financial aid director in a community college, four-year college and a 5-city college access organization training counselors in financial aid. She now owns Rambo Research and Consulting.
The EFC is based on household income and assets. It’s the minimum amount that a household is expected to contribute toward the cost of college.
The financial aid office at each college uses the EFC for each student to determine how much aid your student gets. “That is a simple subtraction problem in which they take the official cost of attendance (COA) for their school and subtract the EFC,” Rambo says.
In other words, let’s say your student is attending a college that costs $30,000 per year and your child’s EFC is $15,000. The amount of need for your oldest child is $15,000.
Now, that doesn’t mean that all financial aid offices try to meet the full $15,000. Each financial aid office uses a financial aid formula that they use to distribute aid. Some colleges try to meet 100 percent of need. Others might meet 50 percent to 80 percent of need.
Check for a Sibling Discount
Have your kids considered going to the same college?
Whenever I think about this topic, Michelle, Maye and Rachael all come to mind — three sisters who attended the college I worked for — all at the same time. Michelle was a senior, Maye was a junior and Rachael was a freshman! They always said their dad (jokingly) refused to move three girls to three separate colleges each fall. It worked out really well that they all went to the same college.
I Know What You’re Thinking: “There’s No Way My Kids Will Go to the Same School!”
You might think there’s no way your kids will go to the same school: “They’re like oil and water! There’s no way they’ll end up on the same campus!” But the reality is that older siblings do have an influence on younger siblings, according to a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
In addition, a study by Joshua Goodman of Brandeis University, Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, Christine Mulhern of Harvard University and Jonathan Smith of Georgia State University found that when older siblings enroll at a target college, it “nearly quadruples” the probability that younger siblings will apply to that same school. In addition, 13 percent of younger siblings follow their older sibling to the target college only because their older sibling enrolled there.
The benefit? Cost reductions.
“If the children are entering the same college, I have seen very favorable treatment in terms of the financial aid package offered,” Rambo adds. She says there’s no fixed dollar amount for the reduction because the reduction depends on financial information from each family.
“I like to address the fear of parents of freshmen, sophomores and juniors with a plan to apply where their aid awards will be greatest in relation to the cost of the colleges. Looking at whether colleges collect even more data about a family by requiring the CSS Profile is another strategy,” she says.
The CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, is an online application created and maintained by the College Board. It allows college students to apply for non-federal financial aid and requires a much more comprehensive overview than the FAFSA. Nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programs use it to award non-federal aid. Check with the admission office of the schools your chid is applying to to determine whether your child needs to fill out the CSS Profile.
Filing the FAFSA
Does it change the FAFSA with more than one student in college? Rambo says that in addition to other calculations, the FAFSA collects information on the number of minor children in the family who will also be attending an undergraduate program at the same time and figures that into the formula, which is used to calculate the EFC for each child headed to college.
A frequent surprise for families with two children in college: Each child has a different EFC number. “They ask, ‘How is this possible when we entered our same income information for both?’” Rambo says.
The answer is simple: Student income and bank balances can make a difference.
How Many FAFSAs Do You Need to Complete for Multiple Kids?
This is a great (and common!) question. You’ll need to fill out FAFSA forms for each child but can transfer the information from one form to another so you don’t have to completely start from scratch each time you work on the FAFSA.
But wait! Before you file the FAFSA, you’ll need to get separate FSA IDs for each child. An FSA ID is a username and password combination that serves as your legal electronic signature throughout the financial aid process. You and each of your children will need your own FSA ID.
Your FSA ID is associated with your Social Security number and is equivalent to your legal signature. That’s why you must have a special FSA ID per person. You’ll use the same FSA ID to sign each of your children’s FAFSA forms.
Don’t forget to do a few things methodically:
- Look for lower-priced schools.
- Put an emphasis on having your child help earn money throughout school.
- Consider ways to earn more or make more money.
- Consider federal loans over private loans. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS loan) is an excellent option if you’re willing to take out a little bit more for college. for the freshman year and work with the college aid and scholarship offices to find additional funds for sophomore year and beyond. Learn how to apply for the Parent PLUS loan.
- Remember that you don’t have to come up with the full amount yourself. Many colleges offer steep discounts!
“You might find that if you’re a high-income earner and your child has already been accepted at a high-dollar university which only awards need-based aid, you may not see much help with the first child who enrolls there. That will improve some when a second child goes to college,” Rambo says.
It Takes Planning
Every dollar you save is $1 less that you or your child will have to borrow. (Yep, I’ll bring out the “a penny saved…” adage. Those pennies really do add up, even after just a couple of years!)
Most families end up covering just over 40% of college costs with a combination of savings and income, according to a national study by Ipsos and Sallie Mae. Your child will likely get scholarships, grants and loans as well.
What can you do as a parent?
Don’t forget about how helpful meeting with a financial advisor can be. If you can, do it before your first child’s a senior so you can develop a comprehensive plan to determine what’s best for your family’s financial circumstances. In some cases, financial advisors can recommend how to reallocate your assets, which can be helpful before you file the FAFSA. (It can help you qualify for more aid.)
Also, don’t discount your earning power. Your earning power may be tremendous during the course of a 10-month period. Remember that you can always figure out how much your paycheck can cover and submit money (even if it’s just a little bit!) to help pay for college.
You Can Do This!
I always admire the Andriuskevicius triplets’ parents because they handled having three kids in school all at once with such grace. They took a deep breath and handled the costs through a combination of grants, scholarships, cash and loans. All three kids made it through college (and incidentally, the “oldest” triplet ended up student teaching in my daughter’s first-grade classroom. A fun connection!
Thinking about putting more than one student in college at once can feel like plopping yourself into an icy stream. But it’s doable. Jigsaw the puzzle of all the options together. Consider how you can break it down, and remember, having more than one student in school can be a benefit, not a drawback.
I vividly remember working with a student whose dad said, “Whaddya mean, it costs $XX,XXX for my daughter to go to college? I’m not giving up golf and vacations!”
He was joking, he was joking. (I think.)
At any rate, I know that on some level, just about everyone can relate. You may think, “When do I get to do what I want to do? When my kids are out of college? Uh, no thanks. I’ll be what, 70 by then?”
Of course kids are a blessing and you’re willing to sacrifice for them.
But is it possible to have it all? Is it possible to pay for college and help your kids through a very expensive part of life? Without taking out oodles of loans?
Yes, it is! Yes, it is. You can do this — even if college is coming at you at 60 miles per hour. It just might take some creativity and careful planning (and maybe a side hustle to boost your bank account). Here’s how it can be done.
My husband has been hankering after a garage for the better part of a decade. Actually, I take that back. He wants a shop. A place to store his tools, a car project and a boat.
Do you need a lot of things all at once? Maybe your husband wants a new car and a shop, you want a new kitchen and you want to pay for college all at once. Life is short, right? You deserve it. You’ve worked hard all your life. But have you asked yourself what you really need?
Consider these statistics, directly from fee.org:
- The average American home contains 300,000 items.
- One out of four houses with two-car garages is so stuffed a car can’t even fit in the garage. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m one of the four!)
- Each American throws away over 68 pounds of clothing per year.
- Americans spend about $1.2 trillion a year on nonessential items.
I’m not saying that the “things” you want aren’t essential. It’s a great exercise to decide your priorities and figure out what’s essential. I know from experience that prioritizing what you want is easier said than done.
How to Evaluate Your Priorities
My husband’s shop isn’t done and he’s getting increasingly nervous about the lack of time he has to build it. In fact, I can almost hear his train of thought: “It’s almost already July and the cement floor isn’t poured yet… When am I going to build the thing because it’s going to be December before we know it? The truck will have to go into storage somewhere else because there’s already snow on the ground… AAAH!”
But in the grand scheme of things, the shop doesn’t have to be built now. In fact, he could wait another year or two if he really needed to. However, he wants it now so he has enough time to work on a car (which could take years). He wants to be able to have it ready so he can teach our son all about restoring cars as well.
So, there’s a bigger priority in the works here — son and dad time. Priorities go deeper than wants. In fact, they drive to the very heart of our most important values.
How do the things you want align with your priorities and values? Here are some examples. You may want to:
- Install a pool to spend more time with family.
- Build a bigger dining room to entertain and encourage closer friendships.
- Help your child with college so he or she’s debt free after college.
- Go on an anniversary trip to become closer to your spouse or partner.
So, what are yours? Getting clear on your priorities can often help you decide how to put your money into pieces and parts that achieve those goals.
Use Your Money to Fulfill Your Priorities
Let’s say you decide your priorities are:
- Paying for college.
- Building a new shop.
- Painting your cabinets (instead of getting a new kitchen).
- The car will have to wait.
The reality is, we all have a finite supply of money and lots and lots of buckets.
When you discuss your priorities with your family, maybe you agree that your priority is to make sure your children don’t start their working years in debt and that you want to be able to help them pay for college.
Maybe you decide the full kitchen upgrade is a want, not a need. You can cook just as well and entertain friends in the kitchen you have. Furthermore, you do some research and realize that a full kitchen upgrade won’t give you a great return on your investment when you sell down the road.
You realize you can get along with the van you have. You realize your jealousy of your next-door neighbor’s shiny new van was getting the best of you. (Due to the large scrape on the front bumper from backing out of the garage too quickly. Yes, this is coming from personal experience. My van actually does have a recent large scrape and rock-chipped windshield.)
On the other hand, what if your priorities are different? Let’s say your main priority is to spend more time road tripping with your family. In that case, the van may have gone in the first priority slot and paying for college might move to the second slot on the list, like this:
- Buy a new car.
- Save for college.
- Build a shop.
- Paint the kitchen cabinets.
Determine How You’ll Juggle Various Goals
Once you determine your priorities, figure out how you’ll get them done. Have some fun with this! It can be like a fun puzzle to determine how you’ll get to those things you really want. Here are some ideas of how you can go about doing it.
- Estimate how much money you’ll need for each goal you’d like to achieve. It might cost more over time for things like college but there are lots of calculators that can help you estimate how much it will cost later on.
- Ask yourself how much of your savings you’ll need and when you’ll need it. Do you need the money soon? If so, you’ll need to organize your finances so you can save the money more quickly.
- Create an online savings schedule that aligns with your paydays. Decide how much you’ll swoop into a savings account immediately after you get paid. If you do it regularly and often, it’ll become a habit and you won’t miss that money. (Promise!)
- Don’t forget to create a separate account. You don’t want to spend the money you’ve earmarked for other goals, so make sure it goes into a different account. It also keeps you going! When you see how much money is in your “other goals” account, it’s inspiring.
- Treat this extra savings like a bill. In other words, treat money for your extra savings as if it’s a required payment like a utility bill. Make sure the payments are automatic so they come out of your paycheck right away, every time.
- Ask yourself whether you need a side hustle. You might need another source of income to float your project. What are your talents? Can you brainstorm extra ways to make money? It can help you hit your goals much faster if you place all of your extra money in your savings account to reach your goals.
Tips for College Savings
Guess what? The tips for saving for college are the same as the steps listed above for saving for other goals.
What might be a little trickier is determining how much to save. This can get confusing because you might not be sure what type of college your child will attend — community college, state university, liberal arts college, etc.
In other words, how much goes in the bucket?
The rule of thumb is to save as much as you can.
Even if your child only has two years of high school left, it’s worth saving as much as you can. You might not want to sock a lot into a regular savings account because there are other types of accounts that offer tax benefits. You can consider channeling that money into the following types of accounts:
- Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or Education IRAs: These are tax-deferred accounts with earnings and withdrawals which may be free from federal income tax if used for qualified education expenses. Contribution limits apply.
- 529 Plan: 529 plans allow you to invest for your child’s education or even your own. You can make sizeable contributions every year and also shift portions of assets in a 529 to future generations.
- UTMA or UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act): An UTMA or UGMA offers a way to transfer securities to a minor. You’ll call it an UTMA or UGMA, depending on which state your child resides.
There are various pluses and minuses with each type of plan, and it’s a great idea to consult with a financial advisor about which type of plan is best for you. Your best bet is to make it automatic, just like you do with your other savings accounts. (Who knew you could save for a kitchen just as effectively as you can saving for college?)
Staying on Track
Part of staying motivated is making sure you check your progress. Let’s say you funnel each of your savings streams into different accounts. Keep a fun tally system on the bulletin board in your office or on a spreadsheet so you know exactly how much money you’ve saved at any given time. It keeps you motivated and excited as you see those numbers climb. You can go old school with a Post-it Note and jot down all your numbers. You can also use a tool like Personal Capital or Mint to track your spending and savings. (I use both.)
You might not be able to save as much money as you want if you have several goals on your plate. You might feel like you’re getting nowhere fast if you’re saving for four different items. The buckets fill up a lot more slowly when you’re trying to funnel your finite extra income into four different streams.
So, how do you stay motivated when it seems like there are only pennies in the bottoms of four different buckets? Great question. Why not tackle your smallest payment first?
For some reason, this reminds me of the Debt Snowball method. The Debt Snowball method means you tackle your smallest debt amount first. You get an instant win by paying that off, then move on to your larger debt amounts.
In other words, save for one thing (the smallest amount), then the next largest amount, and so on. That way, you only tackle one or two things at a time and you get quick wins along the way.
How to Get Through It When You’re Over It
Sigh. Saving for things often loses its excitement really fast. I remember a long time ago, one of my friends was really gung-ho about saving for a new car and I was really excited for her. She’d mapped out a robust savings plan for how she’d have her beautiful new (used) car in a year.
A week later, I went over to her house and a new car was sitting in the driveway.
She’d caved and gotten a loan. “I just couldn’t wait anymore,” she told me. “I wanted it now.”
It’s easy to take out loans for the things you really want, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s necessary — you may need to take out a loan because you’ve got no other choice. What else do you do when you don’t have the money and your car breaks down? What else do you do when your child’s ready for college and you haven’t saved quite enough?
Anyone at any life stage can experience this. But I always encourage trying to save for the “extras.” Even the things that fulfill your priorities and values but that you don’t absolutely need right away. My husband’s shop is a great example.
You Can Do This!
So, if you want that [kitchen, boat, new bathroom, she shed] but college is coming soon, now’s a great time to start making a plan. And it’s still possible to make a plan if college is catapulting right around the corner (maybe it’s in just a few months)!
You may just need to heavily consider how you’ll make it happen more quickly. You might even need to come up with a more robust savings plan early on so you can prep for those college bills and the things you really want.
The last time I went to the dentist, my dentist told me all about how the college search was going with her senior. (Naturally, I wanted to ask her a billion questions as her dental instruments clinked against my teeth.)
Anyway, she told me that her senior, Will, was happily considering a local liberal arts college and a state school an hour down the road. She said to him, “Do you have a reach school? Somewhere you really, really want to go? Far away?”
He thought for a second. “Nah,” he replied. He went back to playing his video game.
She was kind of disappointed. Later, she asked him why he didn’t want to “see what else is out there.” Will told her he thought it might be weird to do something other than what everyone else seemed to be doing.
Another mom I know has a student who’s completely focused on saving money, not taking out any loans and making it easy on his parents. He’s looking at state schools and private colleges to humor his parents, but his mom said, “He’s seriously looking at community colleges and I’m actually disappointed. Imagine that! Disappointed that he wants to go to college and save us money. But… I just don’t think community college is the best fit for him.”
You want your kids to make their own college decisions, yet you want college to be the right choice the first time around. So what do you do when you feel slightly disappointed (or a lot disappointed) by your student’s shortlist?
Never fear — here are some helpful pointers!
1. Know that it’s Okay to Feel This Way
When you‘re unhappy with college choice or your child’s college search isn’t going the way you envisioned, you might feel sad, confused, guilty and also harbor a range of other emotions. First of all, know that your feelings are normal.
It might bring up reminders of other times in your life you were slightly disappointed. Remember when your daughter decided to give up piano lessons? Or your son decided to choose soccer over baseball?
It’s natural — you’ve invested some major time and energy (and money!) into piano lessons or soccer. Let’s take piano lessons, for example. You invested your time by hovering over your daughter as she practiced and drove her to piano lessons every Thursday. You invested your assumptions (“Wow, she played that song really well!”), hopes and dreams (“Maybe she’ll get into Juilliard someday!”).
The more invested you feel, the more you expect an incredible outcome. Same with college. You feel mounting expectations for your child with every A+ math test and every note from an English teacher that says, “You’re a Shakespeare whiz!”
But here’s an interesting question: Is your child supposed to fit your expectations or are your expectations supposed to fit your child? You don’t want to drive a wedge between the two of you.
2. Make Sure Your Student is Ready for the Next Step
E. St. John said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut-wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented — or disoriented — than the choice of a major.”
I’d like to add “choice of college” to that list, too. This is particularly true because you might have to ask yourself if what your child’s ready for. Some kids have a lot of growing up to do before they choose a college.
I recruited Jesse, a bright (really bright!) student. He had the worst time getting through his first year of college because, suddenly, there was this gigantic responsibility on his shoulders — how well he did in school depended completely on him. He faced enormous distractions because his friends (seriously) never went to sleep — they just hung out all the time. To make matters worse, he’d let his grades slip during his senior year in high school so he could have fun with his high school friends. In one fell swoop, he weakened his study habits before he’d even gotten to college.
The increased degree of freedom and independence was too much for him. His relationship with his parents suffered and so did his grades.
How well do you think your child will do in college? Is your child a major procrastinator? Is she smart but easily overwhelmed by what’s set in front of her? Know your child’s capabilities and think carefully about whether he or she can handle the type of college you’ve always dreamed of.
By the way, Jesse’s story ended well! He did graduate and is now a teacher in California.
3. Ask Yourself Whether Your Dreams Are Overshadowing Your Child’s
This is definitely a family decision, particularly if you’re paying for college. But ultimately, it’s hopefully your child’s decision. You know your student will be successful if he knows he’s blazing his own trail.
My former boss’ son went to a state university despite the fact that she really wanted him to go to a private liberal arts college. She’s the proud alumna of a liberal arts college herself and works at a liberal arts college and knows the benefits. He had nothing to do with any of it and shipped himself off to a state university. Of course, she’s happy he chose a great state university but had to give up on her long-standing dream of him attending her alma mater. (She’d always pictured his flaming red hair bobbing up and down her alma mater’s soccer field.) It was a little bit of a letdown to know that he’d never play soccer there like she had.
Nobody warns you that you might have to mourn this a little bit. There’s research out there that says most moms have a bout of real grief after they drop off their kids at college. (Note: There’s good news. Nine out of 10 moved on from this feeling within a month or two, and some do sooner.)
But nobody tells you that you might be deeply disappointed for a while about The College Choice that Never Materialized. Lots of kids refuse to go to their parents’ alma maters or where their parents really want them to go. (I’ve seen it happen firsthand after so much effort to attract these kids.)
4. Consider the Big Picture
The goal is college. The goal is to get into college — and make it, and graduate and get a job. (And be happy.) If your child feels he must do X, then X and X to get there (whatever those Xs are) then it’s important to remember one thing: Your child’s still going to college. If you have to tell yourself that a million times, do it. But keep the big picture in mind. Your goal was to save for college — and your child is going.
Now, it’s still important to make him aware of certain oppositions you have. Maybe the school he’s going to isn’t accredited or is in a known gang neighborhood — or whatever. Obviously, if he will endanger himself or his future, it’s not a good idea and you must have that important discussion.
5. Talk to Your Teen
Yeah! Have you had the deep-down, heart-to-heart discussions with your child about college that last late into the night? (This is what I’m picturing in 10 years when my oldest starts her journey. Please tell me this will happen!) Obviously, how much you talk about college depends a lot on both of your personalities and how open your child is to talking about the college search.
Evaluate the Academic Fit Together
The academic fit is obviously one of the most important parts of the college experience. Ask your teen what he’d like to get out of the academic experience and what his priorities are.
Talk about the academic differences between a community college, a state university and a liberal arts college. Talk about academic rigor between like institutions. A small rural college might pack an academic punch but an Ivy League institution is obviously going to kick it up a notch.
It might be interesting to hear about his biases and perceptions. Make sure your teen is getting his information from a reputable source. His well-intentioned assistant baseball coach might not be as reliable a source as a college professor, admission counselor or financial aid representative.
There’s no shame if both of you aren’t sure what the exact facts are. That’s what the college search is all about — it’s a fact-finding mission. Do whatever you can to be sure you’re getting the right facts about academics.
Also, remember that a lot of colleges pay to be on the “Best of” lists. Use your best judgment when you’re Googling yet another “Best Small Liberal Arts Colleges in the Northwest” list. Your best bet is to visit each college, ask lots of questions, sit in on classes and make those determinations for yourself.
Talk About the Importance of Social Growth
I’m going to flat-out say it: There’s a big difference between a commuter college versus a residential campus. If your child’s a social butterfly, she may already be thinking she wants to live in a sorority or on a residential campus. She may naturally gravitate that direction.
A more introverted student may want to go the community college route because he’s hoping to live at home and keep life how he knows it.
But what’s best for both of these types of students in terms of social growth? An introverted student might thrive at a university, a bubbling social butterfly might be able to focus better in a smaller environment.
Have a Discussion About Retention
Retention rate is certainly something that doesn’t come to mind immediately during the college search. I believe it deserves careful investigation.
What is retention, anyway? A college or university’s retention rate is measured by its percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. Let’s use my recruit, Jesse, as an example. He studied full-time in the fall semester of 2016 and kept studying at the college during the next fall semester. He was included in that cohort of students who retained during their first year.
Here’s an easy way to learn about a school’s retention rate. Check out College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics. I really love that tool! Just type in the name of the school, find it in the drop-down, then click on “retention.” You’ll be able to see first-year retention and overall graduation rates and a lot of other great information.
You want this retention rate to be as high as possible. Steer clear of a college if its retention rate is really low — like in the 30th percentile. This means a large number of students transfer out after freshman year. If your student is really excited about a college with a low retention rate, you’d better quiz the admission counselors at that school about why its retention rate is so low.
Talk About How a Visit is Really Important
Has your teen already decided where he’s going to go without checking it out?
Just because your child’s got his mind made up, try to strike a deal. Teach your child how to schedule a college visit at one large, one medium and one small school to give him an array of options.
Talk About Money
Is your fear about money manifesting itself in disappointment? In other words, are you disappointed because your child has chosen a really expensive school and you’re not sure you can make it happen?
Conversely, have you set aside a pile of money and your child isn’t going to use it? Maybe he’s opted for a community college but you planned for an Ivy League. Is the amount you’ve invested equally proportionate to your giant expectations?
The money part of college can bring out all sorts of emotions and fear is a big one. Just make sure your child understands that your disappointment is placed on money — not his or her decision to go to college.
6. Know that Your Child Can Go into Any Industry with a Degree from Any College
This is huge. In fact, there’s some major evidence that pinpoints exactly what matters most in lifetime success. Want to know the secret?
It’s grit. Grit is the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals. It’s a stick-to-itiveness that simply having a degree won’t magically do to instigate success. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has said, “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit is living life as a marathon, not a sprint.”
If your child decides that College X (which you’re not a big fan of) is the best place for him, rest easy if you’ve noticed your child’s excellent work ethic. Your kiddo will be just fine.
Disappointment Happens — But Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Again, you know the prize is that calligraphy-clad diploma at the end of the road. Your child’s going to get there. Often, good decision making for success in college includes making excellent decisions about college from the get-go.
Make sure you tell your child you’re proud of so many things, including his choice to go to college (even if you’re not excited about the path he’s taking to get there).
Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and in this case, “Know thy child” is so applicable.
My husband likes to get up every Saturday morning and watch fishing shows. He’s not even really an avid fisherman; he simply enjoys watching professional fishermen reel in giant, slimy fish. My kids like it, too. They all group around the television and “Ooh” and “Ahh” every time some guy catches a largemouth bass.
Why am I telling you this? Because you may feel like finding the right college is kind of like finding the biggest bass in Lake Okeechobee. Right?
Building relationships with people at colleges can make the “fishing” process seem a little less daunting. It brings more clarity to the college search and helps your child hone in on those “Aha” moments.
Anna Dealy, associate director of advancement communication at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, used to work in enrollment at a private liberal arts college. She says her favorite part of working in admission is building friendships with students and families.
Dealy says it’s important for parents to help students understand that colleges want to get to know you, then help guide the relationship-building process.
“It helps for students to know that those of us working in enrollment aren’t scary,” says Dealy. “We want to meet students and want them to succeed. Maybe if they know that from the beginning, they might not think building relationships with admission offices is so foreign and unknown.”
The thing is, you and your high schooler have to work toward building relationships. Plus, your student has to be willing to get on board. (That may feel like reeling in a shark!)
As with most things, it’s better to do it together.
Add College Contacts with Your Student
Make sure you reach out to people during the college search together. It’s really intimidating for your child to have to do it alone, particularly when your high schooler may not be great at getting to know new people. That said, anytime you need to talk with a financial aid officer, set up a college visit, talk scholarships with an admission counselor — whatever it is — put your child on speaker and encourage him or her to make the first move. It’s time to start learning how to interact with anyone now — it’s good life skills training.
Encourage Your Student to Attend High School College Rep Visits
Encourage your kiddo to attend college rep visits at his or her high school. Colleges usually make the rounds at high schools in fall and spring and intermittently during the winter.
It’s a great idea to get to know admission counselors through those visits. Your child’s school counselor or college and career counselor will have a list of dates when colleges will visit.
You may hear that high school teachers prefer that your child stays in class, but this is a great relationship-building opportunity, particularly if your child’s classmates all stay in class! That way, your child will get lots of one-on-one attention, particularly if your student has an eye on a smaller school.
How can you do this together? You might want to request some private time with the admission counselor and your child if you have specific questions. Call the high school and find out whether the college rep can spare some extra time. Or go directly to the source and contact the college rep.
Get to Know Alumni
Even if alumni graduated 20 years ago, they’re still great people to build relationships with because they’re the ultimate cheerleaders. They can be great at explaining the heart and soul of an institution — that usually doesn’t change! (You’ll still hear current students talk about some of the same things that older alumni describe.)
Alumni may also do interviews with your student as a required or optional part of a school’s admission process. In that case, you can help your child set up the interview, but it’s best if you stay home. You can help your child dress for success, practice interview tips and make sure your child follows up after the meeting. This is just one area where you’ll have to sit on the sidelines!
Go to College Fairs with Your Child
College fairs are a great way to learn more about what colleges offer. Go to a college fair with your child so he or she doesn’t have to go it alone. The school counselor at your child’s high school should have a list of local and regional college fairs you can attend. National college fairs can also offer a great opportunity for you and your son or daughter to communicate with a college representative together — these fairs are usually packed.
Come with a list of specific questions about campus culture but leave the questions about class size at home. You can find that online.
Oh, and make sure your child asks the first few questions!
Give Your Child Opportunities to Get to Know Students
Obviously, the students are the life and soul of a college or university. The best place to get to know them is during college visits on campus. Encourage your child to talk to the students during these visits. This can be such a challenging thing for a high schooler! They might feel like they’re kindergarteners all over again.
Prep your student ahead of time for what to expect. There’s nothing worse for a college student tour guide than trying to give a tour to a family who’s too timid to ask questions or make conversation. It’s also tough on the tour guide when parents dominate the conversation — FYI!
Beyond the college visit, are there students around your community who attend the colleges your child is interested in? They can clue them in on a lot — campus culture, tips for navigating the first year, the best residence halls, where to go for resources, programs, etc. It’s fun for your student to hear all this from a student perspective and it’s instructive because you also get away from all the college marketing hoopla. College students can be completely real and help your child get the scoop on it all.
Meet with Faculty and Staff
Meeting with faculty and staff is one of those things that can make a kid die a thousand deaths, as you probably already know. Talking to a financial aid guru, faculty member or other staff member can be terrifying for a 17-year-old high school student. This is one of those times when your child may never say, “Mom, I need you,” but he does!
“Faculty members can really give students that level of comfort that someone in enrollment might not know about the details in the area of study and success stories. Faculty are huge resources of finding the right fit. That’s what it’s all about for students — finding the right fit,” Dealy says.
Getting to know faculty and staff may even help college professionals “look out” for you during the college search. Here’s an example. When I worked in the admission office, a professor decided to collect money from other faculty and staff to offer up scholarships for deserving students. He amassed an impressive amount — enough to offer students an extra $1,000 to their aid awards.
He asked admission counselors for the names of who they thought deserved the scholarships the most. I very vividly remember him asking me about the students in my territory.
Naturally, the students who knew our admission counselors best received the scholarships because they’d gone through the trouble of building relationships with them. Obviously, this is a super-specific example and doesn’t happen at every college, but do you see how there could be far-reaching benefits for students and families?
Know Your Student’s Admission Counselor
Getting to know admission and financial aid is a good place to start, says Dealy.
“Based on the people I’ve met in the enrollment industry, we want to be resources and advocates, help students thrive, help them find the right fit and go out in the world and be successful. We believe that all students can do that and we want to help them along on their journeys,” Dealy says.
Get in Touch for All the Right Reasons
So here’s the other thing. When you’re “fishing,” you want to be sure you’re fostering genuine relationships with college contacts. This isn’t a good approach: “Let’s make friends with key people at colleges just so they go above and beyond to help us.”
It’s got to be genuine and sincere, because, if anything, you’re teaching your child how to be a really nice person. The best relationships are reciprocal friendships — each party gets something out of it. Yes, college representatives are “hitting goals” by getting your child to attend their colleges. But most really, really want to recruit graduates — students who will enroll, love the experience and graduate to be proud alumni.