Melanie Prather Studer was sick of what she didn’t know. The Columbia native and mother of three sons had just successfully shuttled her eldest into his first year of high school, and already she could feel the pressures of college, ever-present but impossible to pinpoint so early on. What would be the smartest career move for her child? How much would a degree cost in this age of exorbitant tuition and burgeoning rent prices? Need she read all the fine print on the FAFSA? Studer and her husband interrogated friends, co-workers and Google, but they came up frustratingly lacking in helpful advice. Where was the handbook to college survival? And how could she diffuse that information to her son without smothering him?
Studer’s the first to admit that autumn is a stressful school season. Now with two kids in college and one in eighth grade, she’s been through the fretting, prepping and planning enough to have scooped up a few pointers. After first launching an advice blog, parentinghighschoolers.com, with a friend, she’s since turned to summarizing her wisdom in tomes. There’s a lot of ground to cover in College Bound, but to give Inside Columbia readers some direction as back-to-school beckons, she sat down to offer a few essential do’s and don’ts. She can’t promise to make college more affordable, but with the help of some good conversation, she hopes, at least, to make it more accessible.
Start the college conversation early. Studer recommends bringing up the subject in middle school, when kids have started considering what they want to be “when they grow up” but don’t yet feel overwhelmed by the prospect of life away from home. And then keep talking! Set up one-on-one meetings with your kids around each report card to discuss their academic performance, their career goals and what you as parents can do to help them.
Establish the financial realities of your household. Studer took her children to her family’s financial planner, who caught the kids up on what they could realistically expect to pay for college. Studer and her husband were transparent with the kids about what they could and couldn’t afford. This kind of honesty might not be easy or comfortable, but it will help your students understand the financial future awaiting them — and what efforts they’ll need to put forth to make it work.
Set up a calendar. Keeping track of deadlines for scholarships, applications, financial aid, acceptances and rejections, campus visits, and more would be daunting for the most experienced event planner. Ease the process by sharing a Google calendar with your kid and setting up weekly reminders.
Visit colleges early. Remember your student is choosing a home for the next four years; this isn’t a small decision. Plan an overnight stay so your kids have all the time they need to explore campus facilities, dip into local shops and restaurants, and, of course, meet the people who will become their peers and advisors.
Make a post-grad plan. Establish your expectations with your teen. Where do they want to live after college? What do they expect to make their first year post-grad? Would you be okay with contributing to their living expenses? What if they wanted to move back in with you? Ask these questions ahead of time, and they won’t shock you when they come up after college.
Stop trying to communicate. Adolescents are likely to resist serious conversations about grades, money and work. Sometimes these conversations will go poorly. Eyes will roll. That’s okay; you’re not a perfect parent. Just make sure these lackluster attempts don’t discourage you from trying again.
Handle all your student’s finances. Encourage kids to become an active participant in their savings. Help them set up a Roth IRA, and before their senior year encourage them to fill out the FAFSA4caster, which projects an estimate of what they can expect to receive in aid. Don’t let the numbers scare you. Remind your kids that these money talks aren’t about scaring them into submission. They’re about breaking down barriers.
Push your teens to tackle more than they can handle. Most universities require 15 credit hours per semester in order to graduate in four years. Taking an extra year or even an extra semester can open the financial floodgates. Instead, try to anticipate what is realistic for your teen to accomplish each season. Maybe a 20-hour part-time job is essential; maybe it’s too much. Only your child will know.
Force your child to go to college. The truth is, it isn’t for everyone. Discuss a gap year if your kid is still struggling to decide on a career path. Or look into trade schools — these programs offer a fantastic (and often lucrative) alternative to the traditional 4-year university. Most importantly, remember that college is not what makes or breaks your child’s future. It’s the way they continue to educate themselves throughout their entire lives that will make the difference.