The college years are a time of growing independence for most college students. When students leave home to go away to college, they learn not only what they are being taught in their classes, but they learn many life skills as well. College students living away from home learn to manage their time, balance priorities, budget their money, hone their life skills, maintain relationships, and conduct the logistical necessities of their lives.
But what about students who attend college while continuing to live at home? Will they develop the independence that their classmates living on campus do? What about the parents of college students living at home? These parents face a unique set of issues. How will they cope with having an emerging adult in residence at home? How can parents help their at-home college student to gain independence while still maintaining a household in which everyone is comfortable?
Why is your college student choosing to live at home?
Students may choose to live at home during college for many different reasons. Perhaps one of the most common and obvious reasons is to save money. Although tuition costs are high, they are only one portion of the cost of attending college. A student who can live at home, and therefore reduce or eliminate room and board costs, can save thousands of dollars.
But cost may not be the only reason that students choose to live at home during the college years.
- Some students enjoy, and need, the extra support that family members can provide. Some students have a health or other issue that requires that they stay at home.
- Some students find separation extremely difficult and so choose to ease the transition to college by remaining at home – at least for a portion of their college years.
- And some students choose to separate their college experience from their life experiences. These students may view college more like a job than lifestyle. They opt to attend college classes, but keep their day-to-day life separate.
One factor that will help you help your student living at home is to understand why your student has chosen to remain at home. The reasons may or may not be obvious. A student who is living at home for purely financial or other necessary reasons may require different things from parents than a student who has opted to live at home largely for the closeness and support of family members.
Are there problems that may arise from living at home?
Living at home may go more smoothly for some students than others. One factor is certainly whether the student is living at home out of choice or out of necessity. If your college student is forced to live at home, but would rather be on campus, there may be some tension. It is important to talk with your student about options. Perhaps they can live at home for a year or two and then move to campus or an apartment later. Having a goal, even if that goal is a year or two or three away, can help. Getting everyone’s feelings out in the air, and acknowledging them, will help both you and your student.
Living at home and commuting to school may work better at some schools than others. Is your student the exception, or do a large number of students commute? Your student may worry that they will be left out of the college experience. Help your student investigate the college’s attitude toward commuters. It may be helpful if your student realizes that they are one of several, or hundreds, or even thousands of students who will be commuting to classes. They can investigate commuter lounges, or clubs, or special meal plans designed for commuters.
One of the difficulties for students who live at home during college is how to differentiate this experience from high school. Students, and their parents, need to realize that this is not simply more of the same – thirteenth grade. Parents can help students recognize and embrace differences. Talk with your student about their expectations of the college experience and their “college knowledge.” Help your student recognize that even though they will still be living at home, this is a big step. Help them realize that you also understand that life at home may change in the next few months and years.
As a parent, what should you encourage your commuter student to do?
Perhaps one of the most important steps toward helping your student is to remind yourself that you are now the parent of a college student, rather than a high school student, and that your relationship with your student should now change. It may be easy to forget this when your student is living at home.
As your role shifts from no longer being a caretaker, to being a coach, you can still do much to encourage your student to gain independence by being active and involved in the college experience.
Consider encouraging your student to do some of the following things:
- Make a conscious effort to meet new people at school. Maintain contact with high school friends, but reach out to make new college friends as well. If other high school friends also remain at home, it is tempting to continue to socialize only with them. Encourage your student to expand their circle by reaching out to include new people they meet at college.
- Stay on campus between classes. Spend some time “just hanging around” to get the feel of the college and to meet new people.
- Do some studying at school – in the library, a lounge, in the cafeteria or snack bar. This will give your student the chance to absorb the atmosphere, learn what is happening on campus, and meet people.
- Get involved in activities and clubs on campus. Be involved in college life. College is about more than studying. Students who do not live on campus are still able to participate in most organizations on campus. This is an excellent way to meet other students with similar interests – and to expand horizons.
- Form study groups. Get together with others to study and support one another. This is an excellent way to study even for students who live on campus.
- Be a “host” to show out-of-town students around the area.
- Consider a summer internship or study abroad opportunity to have a chance to live away from home for a time.
What can you do at home to help your student adjust?
Students who live at home during college need to make adjustments. Parents of students living at home obviously need to adjust as well. As parents, you can help your student ease the transition to the new college experience.
- Schedule a time to discuss the new arrangement with your student. Don’t just assume the status quo. Talk about their expectations and talk about your bottom line. Listen carefully to your student’s hopes and dreams, as well as their concerns. Make sure that both of you recognize that you are entering a new phase of your relationship – and living arrangements.
- Address family expectations. The more that you talk about before awkward situations arise, the more smoothly things will go later.
- Will you expect your student to help with chores around the house?
- Will they be expected to be home for meals – or let you know if they will not be home?
- Will they help with younger siblings or elderly relatives?
- Will they be paying you rent?
- Will they have access to the family car?
- Can they bring overnight guests home?
- Are there household rules about drinking or smoking or boyfriends or girlfriends in the house?
- Do they need to let you know if they decide to stay overnight with a friend on campus?
- Don’t become a caretaker for your student, or if you have been, let them know that things will be different now. Don’t wake them up in the morning, don’t make appointments for them, don’t do their laundry or dishes or pay their bills. Don’t nag if they don’t seem to be doing a sufficient amount of studying. Encourage your student to function independently – and to take responsibility for their actions.
- Help make studying at home possible. Your college student will have more out-of-class work than in high school. Make sure they have a quiet place to study – away from siblings, family TV, other intrusions.
- Give your student privacy.
- Suggest that your student consider rearranging or even redecorating their room to give the feeling of a fresh start. As superficial as this may seem, it can help your student mentally prepare for a different life.
- If your student rebels at family rules, remind them that college residence halls have rules, too. There are policies about drinking, smoking, guests, quiet hours, etc. They would be held accountable for their actions – even if they lived on campus. Remind your student that as adults living in the same household, everyone needs to feel comfortable. This may require some negotiating and compromising on everyone’s part.
- Agree with your student on the common courtesy that adults afford each other. Consider each other’s expectations and comfort level. This may include picking their things up, not leaving dirty dishes around, not making noise during the wee hours when others need to leave for work in the morning. Ask your student what you can do to help them feel like an adult living in the house. You may be surprised, and pleased, to learn what it will take to help them feel respected as an adult and what they are willing to do to help you view them that way.
A new phase
Parents and adult children living in the same household face challenges. But the experience can also be a wonderful, eye-opening time. Both you and your college student will need to work at making adjustments, and there may be continual re-evaluating of decisions; but once you have negotiated a comfortable life-style for everyone, you may be surprised at how much you enjoy knowing, and being with, this young adult.
As parents of college students we recognize that the college years are about letting go. When we deliver our students to college on move-in day and drive away, we know without a doubt that we have let go. For parents whose students may continue living at home, the letting go process may be more gradual, and it may be more difficult to negotiate. However, conscious work by both parents, and their college students, will make the inevitable process go more smoothly.