As college parents, we want to support our college students. However, defining that support is sometimes more difficult than it seems. Each school is different. Each parent is different. Each student is different and may take a different path. Some students need more support than others at different times during their college career. As a parent, how do you know how best to help your student?
You will, of course, need to find your own way, but there are three essential elements that might provide the foundation of any plan to help your student. Start with these. Think about what they look like for you – and for your family. Then let your plan build from there.
Insist on honesty
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you expect your college student to share every detail of his daily life with you. There are probably some things you’d rather not know. It does mean, however, that you expect your student to be honest – with himself and with you – about the reality of his progress in all of its potentially ugly details. If he’s failing a class, he needs to let you know. If he’s on probation, he needs to tell you. If he’s gotten into some kind of trouble, he needs to share that with you. If his credit card is maxed out, he might ask for advice about how to deal with it.
Once your student attends college, FERPA rules prevent colleges from sharing student information and status with parents unless students grant permission. Of course, you might insist that your student sign such a form. However, even better might be a conversation with your student about the importance of keeping you in the loop. Let your student know from the beginning of this college journey that you expect him to share important information about his status with you. Decide together what will happen if he doesn’t.
Recent research has suggested that students whose parents contribute significant financial support to their education without sharing expectations, may have lower GPAs. The problem appears not to be with the financial support, but rather with the lack of shared expectations. Share your expectations with your student early. Insist that honesty be one of those expectations.
Whatever your student’s situation, encourage her to take ownership of her progress and her life. Help her learn to set goals and create the action plans necessary to reach those goals. Remember that your role as a college parent is to coach your student through this experience, but that your student is now in charge. Remind her that she must own her actions – and the consequences of those actions.
Ownership may take many forms, and you may need to help your student to know what to do. If you have provided significant help in the past, you may need to work to help your student learn what to do on her own. Consider reviewing many of the softer skills of readiness such as financial literacy, time management, communication skills, responsibility. Help your student make a commitment to controlling her life and seeing herself as an active participant and not a victim.
Of course, one of the keys of being a supportive college parents is simply being there for your student. Although you are insisting that your student take responsibility, your presence behind the scenes makes all of the difference.
This “presence” may take many forms. You’ll be there just to listen when your student simply needs to vent. You’ll point your student to the resources available at the college and encourage her to take advantage of them. You’ll insist that she have goals and a plan. You may help her with financial support – or at least financial planning. You’ll help her find value in her mistakes. And you’ll naturally make suggestions, share your guidance and wisdom – while insisting that she take action.
This form of “presence” or support may look very different from the support you provided to your teen in high school. This time you won’t call the school or teachers, you won’t provide homework help, you won’t intervene. You’re the coach rather than a player, but any good athlete relies on his coach. Your presence and guidance are still essential.
As a college parent you will find ways of tailoring these essential elements to your personality, style of parenting, and your student’s personality and needs. But the foundation will be the same. If you keep in mind the greatest goal of helping your college student grow and become an adult, the elements of honesty, ownership and presence will help both you and your college student move toward that goal.