Transitioning from high school to college is an exciting and empowering experience. While some high school graduates delay attending college, about two thirds of attendees are still considered “traditional” college students, enrolling immediately after their senior year of high school. Students in this demographic are usually just beginning to assert their independence, while remaining partially dependent on their parents as they test their new freedoms. They may still live at home over the summers, or rely on their parents to help pay for school.
Though parents usually share in the excitement of this adventure, they must also understand the transitional nature of this time in their role as parents. While your son or daughter seeks the independence of living away from home, they may simultaneously ask for your council as they encounter real-world responsibilities for the first time.
Choosing a College
Choosing a college is a huge decision that should be made jointly by parents and their children. Once you all have decided to apply to schools, there are several key factors to consider as your child compares colleges. Below, we’ve identified the first steps prospective students should take as they begin preparing for the next phase of their life.
Taking Placement Tests
Before applying to college, students should take either the SAT or ACT. The SAT and ACT are similar but not interchangeable. Each test measures academic aptitude, but the tests have slightly different structures and emphasize different subjects. If you are unsure about which test is accepted by the colleges on your child’s list, consult school websites for specific application requirements.
Registering for the SAT and ACT
Registering for a placement test requires advanced planning in order to meet application deadlines. Students have six opportunities to take the SAT and eight to take the ACT throughout the year. Generally, both tests require students to register roughly a month in advance, though late registration may be offered for an additional fee. You can check the latest test dates and registration deadlines for the SAT and ACT near you to be sure.
Experts recommend that students begin preparing up to a year in advance of taking the SAT or ACT, as well as taking the tests multiple times. Studying for and taking the test in January and in May or June of their junior year can allow students to become familiar with the testing format and relieve some of the pressure of test day.
Timing the test in coordination with application season is crucial. Once students have taken the test, they should allow at least three to four weeks for it to be scored and for their results to arrive at their designated schools. Students applying for regular admission typically have college application deadlines in January or February of their senior year of high school, so their last opportunity to take the SAT or ACT is December of their senior year. Those applying for early decision should finish their tests by October of their senior year to meet earlier application deadlines.
SAT or ACT: Which Should My Child Take?
The SAT and ACT emphasize different subjects and have separate scoring scales. Ultimately, you should take whichever test your target schools recommend. Below, we have listed a few of the differences between the tests.
|Strongly emphasizes vocabulary||Includes a science section|
|Scored on a scale of 400-1600||Scored on a scale of 1-36|
|Essay is optional||Essay is optional|
|Tests advanced math concepts, including Algebra I & II, Geometry and Trigonometry||Tests advanced math concepts, including Algebra I & II, Geometry and Trigonometry|
Discuss colleges of interest with your child and, if possible, plan to visit a few of them. Many parents find that a college visit helps their child visualize the next four years of their life. Allowing them to see the campus and absorb the energy of the students and instructors may help them find a school that feels like a good fit. If possible, engage with the students, ask the staff questions, and tour the campus.
Applying to Colleges
Students should apply to multiple schools, including one “safety” school where you are 90% sure you will be accepted. Parents also need to ensure their child stays on top of application deadlines. Deadlines for colleges and universities are firm for a reason: the process is an exercise in discipline and organization for young applicants, some of whom are using these skills independently for the first time. Encourage your child to follow application instructions to the letter, and do not expect admission staffs to extend deadlines.
Making a Final Decision
Once your child has has been accepted by a few schools, it is time to help them make the big decision. If they’re struggling to evaluate their options, researching the academic merits of each college may help tip the scales. If they were accepted into three schools for a business degree, for example, you may want to dig a little deeper into each college’s business school.
The financial aid options at your child’s top schools can also guide your decision making process. Affordability is a primary concern among families of college-bound students and receiving a significant financial aid package from one school may strongly influence your decision.
Paying for College
A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that the average cost of tuition and living expenses for college undergraduates exceeded $20,000 per year. Even if you’ve run the numbers with your child already, they may not fully understand the magnitude of this expense and how important financial aid is in paying for their education. The mechanics behind applying for financial aid may seem complicated, but there are actually just a few different types of assistance commonly available to college students:
Federal aid is financial assistance from the federal government for education expenses, including grants, loans, and work-study programs. Filling out the FAFSA , or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the first step toward determining a student’s eligibility for federal aid. This aid is need-based, and students must complete the FAFSA to determine their level of need and eligibility for benefits based on their family’s citizenship designation, income, education level, marital status, and other criteria. The following are the types of federal aid available to students:
|Federal Grants||Need-based federal aid that does not require repayment and is typically awarded under specific terms or for specialized programs; includes Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.|
Federal student aid that is borrowed and must be repaid with interest, after the student’s education is complete or they are no longer enrolled in school.
Federal loans can be subsidized (need-based; USDE pays interest, as long as student remains enrolled at least half time and during the first six months after they leave school) or unsubsidized (student does not have to demonstrate need to qualify and is responsible for paying interest on their loan at all times). Student loan amount is determined by each school and must not exceed individual loan limits for any given academic year.
Examples include Federal Perkins Loan, Direct PLUS Loan and Direct Unsubsidized Loan.
|Federal Work Study||Need-based part-time employment providing not-less-than minimum wage pay for students to finance college education costs; includes jobs in student’s area of interest and may be on- or off-campus, depending on individual school opportunities.|
Scholarships are usually based on merit rather than need and are available from both colleges and private sources. Scholarships award money to students based on their academic achievement, ethnicity, athletic talent, and more.
College grants are typically need-based and do not have to be repaid. Non-federal grant opportunities can come from the school itself or from state funds. Grants for state residents and minority students are among the most common grants available.
Private loans are available to some students on a case-by-case basis. Many private companies offer their own scholarships, and other lending institutions (such as banks) may offer private loans to students with their own set of terms and interest rates.
While many students assume that paying out of pocket is too expensive, some schools ease the burden with a tuition payment plan offer. Students who qualify may be able to split their tuition into equal monthly payments, paid out over the course of the entire year instead of in one lump sum. Contact the financial aid advisor at your child’s school for payment plan eligibility.
Moving Away From Home
Helping your child prepare to live on their own for the first time can be particularly challenging for parents. While you may have discussed finances and study habits, for many students, college represents the first time they will pay their own rent and utility bills, and buy their own groceries and household supplies. They’ll discover that all of the amenities they take for granted at home cost money, and that they’ll need to stick to a budget while living on their own.
There are a variety of living options available for first-time college students . Where your child lives may depend on several factors, including the availability of student housing, the cost of living on-campus and off, and the safety of the surrounding neighborhoods. If available, your child may choose to live on campus in a dorm or in Greek housing. Residence halls are common, particularly for undergraduates. Here, all housing and utility costs fall under one prepaid plan.
Apartments are another option; some apartments are part of campus housing, but many others are not, and may be less expensive options for students. Some schools that do not offer on-campus housing maintain student apartments away from campus for new students. Whether or not student housing is available on campus, your child may want to live away from school. They may also want to live at home, which is financially convenient if they are attending school locally or online.
If your child chooses to live off campus, there are a variety of resources to help you find them a safe and affordable place. You may want to start by checking any apartment-searching resources provided by the school. Some schools even have unofficial off-campus housing nearby, where students live in the same apartment. If they want to find a place of their own, or an apartment or house with friends, encourage them to search for housing on sites like Craigslist, Apartments.com, Rent.com, and Zillow.
Supporting a College Student
This may seem obvious, but it is an important part of helping your child through the college experience. Your support – academically, morally, and financially – will go a long way towards preparing them for the real world, while still letting them know you are there to help. This is the time of life where they start to take care of themselves to a certain extent, but they may still feel overwhelmed at times. Your support can help them endure rough patches and prepare them for future obstacles.
Visiting Your Child
Many parents are anxious to plan their first visit before their child has even left the nest. Whether your child lives on or off campus, the impulse to constantly check on them is overwhelming for some parents. Particularly if your child is still living close by, it may seem especially reasonable to drop-in whenever you see fit or visit your child, unannounced, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their new life. Only you know your child, but in general, you should plan your visits with respect to your child’s privacy, the privacy of their peers and roommates, and their surroundings.
Be an educated parent
At many schools, drinking and partying are part of the fabric of the fundamental college experience. In fact, four out of five college students drink alcohol, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Even students who do not drink themselves can be affected by the negative consequences of binge-drinking, through car accidents, sexual assault, and other unintentional injuries. Your child may have to face questionable decisions in precarious situations. Being an educated parent means understanding the potential hazards of the college environment and communicating with your child about these risks, and the value of healthy choices.
Another potential hazard to college students is mental illness. Due in part to the stress of the new academic and social setting, many students show symptoms of mental illness that may be overlooked or misunderstood due to the circumstances. According to the American Psychological Association , 41.6% of students suffer from anxiety and over 35% have some form of depression. These conditions should be taken seriously, as they can be life-threatening if not treated, and may require behavioral modification therapy or medication. If you believe your child is demonstrating symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, or serious mental illness, let them know you support them and encourage them to seek help immediately.
After college, the real transition begins. When school ends, about 45% of graduates find themselves back at home. While this may not seem like an ideal living situation, it is a good way to save money, especially for those repaying their student loans. Roughly 71% of students have to repay loans after they finish school, and the average graduate accumulates roughly $35,000 in student debt . Moving back home offers an affordable living arrangement, and your child can quickly eliminate as much of their debt as they can before interest compounds.
This is particularly important because students often graduate without a job, and among those who are working, many are underemployed. A 2013 study found that, among the 62% of graduates with jobs that require a college degree, only 27% had a job related to their major. Whether or not your child is living at home after college, support them in their job search. Once they begin generating income, teach them the importance of maintaining a budget to account for regular monthly expenses, including payment on their school loans.
Some college graduates feel they have it all figured out after experiencing their first taste of independence in school. Those who move back home after college may feel confused about suddenly being dependent again after finally adjusting to living on their own. In reality, becoming an adult is a process that does not begin or end with college. If your child has moved back home, you can still impose a measure of responsibility by charging them rent, for example. Even if your fee is nominal compared to what they’d pay a landlord, this can help prevent them from taking advantage of your living arrangement and prepare them for the monthly expense when they move out.