5 Questions Parents of College Students Should Ask
How to step back but stay connected to your emerging adult
The transition from home to college can be exciting as well as rocky for you and your college student child. So much is unfamiliar and unknown for both generations.
For parents, this transition means defining a whole different structure for your lives now that you no longer need to offer homework help or three square meals a day. For college students, it means creating everything from scratch in a brand-new place: residence, roommates, friends, higher academic requirements, and for many, figuring out how to combine school and a job. Freshman year can be the most challenging — more students drop out their first year of college than in any that follows — as new students try to adjust to all the unknowns of campus life.
You can play a crucial role on your student’s support team, especially freshman year. From then on, your student’s need for attention and support will both ease and occasionally intensify. The task for you is to know when to step in and when to step back, when to offer support and when to let your children figure things out for themselves.
Here are five potentially tricky questions likely to crop up during your child’s college years and how best to handle them:
1. How much should you keep in touch?
Even if waiting for the phone to ring makes you feel like a teenager all over again, usually it’s best to follow your child’s lead and let him or her initiate the calls or texts to you at home. These can vary widely from a blizzard of texts on the way to and from classes to a random email or two every few days to an occasional call.
On your end, emails may be a less intrusive way to show you’re thinking of your son or daughter than a call or text that may come at just the wrong time. You’ll always be your child’s backup, but you want him or her to build self-reliance and develop new networks of friends whenever possible.
Once a pattern is set, if there’s a longer silence from campus than usual, consider sending a text asking what’s up and making a plan for a call. But silence can also mean your student is deep into classes and social life, which is a good thing. And for even the most independent students, an occasional care package can be a welcome taste of home.
2. What about money matters?
Money Management 101 is not on most college course lists, so it’s up to you to impart your family’s most important lessons and strategies. It might be a steep learning curve for your student. For 18 years, Mom and Dad have paid all, or most, of the bills. High school students often have part-time jobs, but most of them spend their wages on their own fun, not on groceries and heating costs. Even in college, at least for the first year or two, dorm life is a kind of semi-dependence, and parents are still in charge of providing for food and paying the electric bill.
Nevertheless, college students have to manage money for their other expenses, such as books, travel and weekend leisure. Where should that money come from? How much should parents provide?
Each family has its own customs and values around money. So ideally, you would have begun an open discussion before college started, working out a budget for the first semester and figuring out who'd pay how much. But once your child is in college, you two should review money questions on a regular basis. At the end of every semester, calculate how everything worked out financially and adjust next semester’s budget accordingly.
Of course, students who are paying their own way, as many are, also have the right and responsibility to manage their finances on their own. But in most cases, parents are contributing some, most or all of the money required, so they should be involved in how it is spent.
Keep in mind also that your children’s capacities are growing greater with every year of their twenties. The ultimate goal is for them to be able to handle life independently, including their finances. So, encourage them to take on as much financial responsibility as they seem ready for each year.
3. What if your child has roommate problems?
Many students have high ideals for their roommate, imagining someone who will be a companion, a confidant, maybe even a best friend. However, when imagination meets reality, conflicts are likely and compromises are necessary.
Maybe your daughter gets a roommate who also checked “early to bed” on the roommate selection questionnaire, but finds that her roomie borrows her stuff without asking, something the questionnaire didn’t cover. Maybe your son and his roommate selected “likes rock music” on a similar questionnaire, but your child hadn't anticipated that the roommate would like to play it at high volume on weekday evenings when he was trying to study. It could be that one roommate has a boyfriend or girlfriend who comes to visit on weekends, sending the other roommate into “sexile” to sleep on the sofa of someone down the hall.
So what can, and should, you do? Probably the first step is to resist the temptation to intervene immediately. Of course you feel annoyed and want to do something to make things right. But at first, it is probably best to have students try to handle the situation themselves, and frame it as an important step toward learning to take on their own responsibilities.
Even if your child is complaining bitterly on the phone, that may not mean he wants you to jump in right away to save the day. Maybe he just wants you to listen. Start with that, and help him generate options for how to handle the problem, but without dictating what to do. Sometimes confronting roommates calmly but directly can work wonders; they may not even have realized that what they were doing was annoying.
If the conflict persists, then it’s time raise the ante and get others to intervene — but it’s still better if the student, not the parent, looks for extra help. College dormitories usually have resident assistants (RAs) as well as experienced administrators and staff who may be able to mediate a solution. If none of these strategies work, there is also the option of trying to switch roommates or get a single room, a request most colleges will accommodate if possible.
4. If your student is struggling academically, should you help?
You might have assisted your daughter a lot during high school, checking her math homework, typing occasional assignments and giving her advice on projects. Now that she’s at college, the academic demands may come as a rude awakening. College classes and the homework required can be a big jump up from even the best high schools — many professors give two hours of reading for every hour spent in class (that’s 30 hours of studying for 15 hours taking classes). It’s not at all unusual for students to be reeling from what’s required and take a while to adjust.
But now that your daughter’s in college, your homework help needs to end. If she’s still requesting your assistance, it might be part of the first-year transition that is difficult for many students, and it may be that after she gets used to college work, she’ll be able to do it on her own.
If she continues to feel unsure or overwhelmed by the workload, encourage her to make use of the resources available on campus. Most colleges have student enrichment centers that offer a variety of support: a writing center to help students organize their ideas and work on papers, a math lab to review theorems for a test even speed-reading classes to learn to plow through their required reading more efficiently. Professors are usually accessible during their office hours, and their teaching assistants make themselves available in small meetings outside of class. Make sure your daughter knows there’s no stigma in reaching out for help; in fact, it’s often the better path to an A.
5. What if your child can’t graduate in four years?
For some, college is a smooth academic and personal journey. Students take the first two years to investigate a wide range of courses and the last two specializing in their chosen field. If all goes well, they stay on track and graduate in four years.
But often, all does not go well. In these cases, the journey through college is not smooth and direct, but full of fits and starts and delays. Today it often takes five to six years for the typical student to get a “four-year” degree. Along the way, students may switch majors, transfer schools, decide to double major, spend a semester or a year abroad or take time off to work or reassess.
For concerned parents on the sidelines — often watching mounting tuition bills with dismay — it may help to realize that these changes are a normal part of the explorations of emerging adulthood. Most students arrive at college unsure of what they want to study and what work they want to do. College is the place for exploring these Big Questions, and not every student can answer them in four years.
Changing paths or taking five or six years to finish a four-year degree does not mean your child is failing to grow up. It means he is sorting through the complex issues of identity and life purpose and doing his best to find a path that will feel like the right one and lead to gratifying and rewarding work.
Of course, it’s not unreasonable for parents to say, “We’ll pay for four years, but after that, you have to pay more (or all) of the rest.” Have an open discussion with your child about what you feel is appropriate and financially doable and how he or she can help contribute with work-study, a part-time job, or a student loan if necessary.