4 Tips for Parents Sending a Student Off to College for the First Time

It’s still summer, but many students will start heading back to school over the next few weeks. If you have a newly minted college student in the family, there can be a lot to navigate and you might be feeling especially nervous about sending them off on their own. What if they get sick or have a problem with their class schedule? What if they’re homesick (and what if they’re not)? We talked to some experienced parents to get their take on how to successfully adjust and came away with 4 essential tips for letting go and easing the transition.

Daughter packing car for college
Make sure they’re prepared to handle the most likely challenges without you.

Getting sick at some point or needing to fix a class schedule are near universal experiences for college students. Make sure yours knows where to go and what to do when these issues arise. Help them identify the location of the student health and counseling offices and check the procedures for making an appointment. Help them locate the bursar (tuition/payments), registrar (enrollment/class registration), campus life (dorm assignments/roommates), and other important offices on campus and be sure they understand who can help solve which types of problems.

If they’re living on campus, make sure they meet their Resident Assistant (RA) and know where to find him/her if needed. If they’ve been assigned an academic advisor, make sure they know where to find that professor and how to set up an appointment.

If you have a student with a chronic health issue, make sure you’re sending them off with a good supply of any needed medications and info for how and where to get a refill when necessary. And make sure they have the contact information for their primary care doctor at home, as well as any specialists. While you may still want to be involved in their healthcare decisions, making sure they understand their own health issues and can get help when needed is vital when they’re away from home.

Knowing your student has the tools to access help if they need it should help ease your worry as a parent and make your student feel more confident on their own.

Do stay in touch and be available to talk things through. Don’t be a helicopter parent.

As someone who went off to college before cell phones, I remember calling my parents once a week to check in, which I know was hard for them at first. With today’s ability to be in near constant contact, it’s tempting to text all the time, or to worry if your college kid isn’t responding as quickly as they used to, but experienced parents say to be patient and let your student stretch their wings a bit.

Set a regular day/time to check in, let them know you’re available anytime, and step back. If you sense your teen is experiencing more than the usual bout of homesickness and/or isn’t connecting with other students and making friends after a month or two, keep that counseling center information handy and encourage them to talk things through with an impartial pro. University counselors are great with these issues.

Now is also a good time to start encouraging more independent problem solving. If you follow the first tip above, your student will know where to go and who to talk to in order to fix any issues they might have with class assignments, roommates, or other things. Helping them talk through how they’ll go about solving a particular problem is great; solving it for them not so much. A college professor friend of mine tells horror stories about parents accompanying their graduate student children to academic advising appointments, which does not improve his impression of the student.

You’re not doing your child any favors by serving as their personal assistant and may actually be negatively impacting their self-confidence. A 2014 study from the University of Colorado found that children who were not given opportunities to problem solve on their own may fail to develop executive functions necessary to successful adulthood.

So keep the lines of communication open, but try not to sweep in and take care of everything for your student.

Help your student set reasonable academic expectations and know when to ask for help.

College-level work can be quite challenging and even – sometimes especially – students who got straight A’s in high school can struggle with heavy course loads and time management. Help your student set reasonable expectations for grades by encouraging them to do their best while also recognizing those top grades may be harder to earn in college.

Most students will have an adjustment period during their first semester as they learn to balance their new-found freedoms with going to class and studying. The natural consequence of a bad test score or low grade on an assignment will hopefully be enough to jolt your student into a better routine, but if they’re still struggling after a month or more, they (and you) should know what resources are available on campus to help. Students will need to be proactive in asking for help when they’re falling behind.

Many colleges have tutoring centers staffed by other students that offer low- or no-cost help in a variety of subjects should your student need help with subject matter. Most professors and teaching assistants also have office hours when students can make an appointment (or sometimes just drop in) to ask questions about assignments or grades. This article has some additional tips from a Dean of Students.

Talk about finances before they get to school.

Every family handles college finances differently, but no matter who’s paying for books and meals it helps to talk budget with your student before they’re on their own on campus. In addition to tuition and other expenses you may have already paid – like housing costs and a meal plan – there will likely be a need for books and other supplies, as well as discretionary spending like midnight pizzas and emergency study chocolate. Help your student think through both the necessary (books) and the optional (pizza) items and make sure they know what they’re responsible for vs. what you’ll pay for.

If Work Study is part of your family’s financial aid package, make sure your student knows what s/he will need to do to find and secure a job on campus, as well as what those paychecks are expected to cover. MyFico offers a budget calculator with a lot of customization options to include known expenses for the academic year and NerdWallet has a great list of expenses to think and talk about.

And don’t forget to talk about scholarships and other outside financial aid your student may be receiving or be eligible for. As a federal employee, your student might be eligible for FEEA’s merit-based scholarship program, which requires an annual application. FEEA’s program awards more than 200 scholarships from $1,000-$5,000 to students who excel academically and are engaged members of their communities. In 30+ years running this program, FEEA has interacted with more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, helping to make college more affordable for federal families. Get more info on our Scholarship page.

Know requirements and deadlines for award renewals and applications and be clear with your student about expectations around submitting on time.

There are bound to be bumps in this new college road you’re traveling with your student, but hopefully these tips will help ease the transition and make you both feel more confident as you pack up the suitcases or car and say goodbye for awhile. We’re wishing you and your new college student a great first semester!

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