10 Conversations Parents and Students Should Have Before the First Year of College

The summer before your student heads off to college is exciting, busy, and stressful.  There’s lots to do  — forms to complete, finances to consider, orientations to attend, shopping to do.  Your student may have a job and is also busy trying to spend time with his friends.  Communication with your student may have its wonderful moments, and may also be strained. Be prepared. You feel it is your last chance to impart your wisdom, and he is increasingly anxious to be independent.

The process of heading off to college — for both your student and for you — is filled with expectations.  However, your expectations and your student’s expectations may not be the same.  Use the summer months to talk about those expectations. Clear the air — and avoid difficult situations later when you realize that you, or he, made some assumptions. Good communication now will lay the foundation for quality communication later.

Here are ten conversations to consider before your student leaves for school.  Don’t try to cover them all at once, but touch on some of these topics.

What are your student’s reasons for going to college? 

This may sound like a strange question.  You and your student have spent the last several years working at getting into college.  You made the college visits, your student took SAT’s or ACT’s, he planned his high school schedule carefully, you filled out stacks of financial forms, he filled out applications and wrote essays, he waited for those acceptances and wrestled with decisions.  But in spite of all of the work you’ve both done to get him here, have you had a conversation with him about why he wants to go to college?  Does he have a goal?  Is he focused on a major or a job?  Is he looking for a social outlet?  Is he going primarily for athletics?  Is he going to college because it’s the logical next step?  There is no right answer, but it helps to know why you’re going and what you want. As you talk about this question, you may learn a lot about him — and he may learn some things about himself.

How much contact do you expect to have with your student? 

In this age of texts and tweets and ubiquitous cell phones, we can be in touch with almost anyone in the world instantly — and constantly. Talk to your student about both of your expectations about communication.  Do you expect to talk to him daily?  Several times a day?  Once a week?  Does he have the same expectation?  Agreeing now may avoid disappointment or strain later.

Do you expect to send your student money or will he be responsible for his own expenses? 

Some parents send their student spending money on a regular basis.  Other parents expect their student to be responsible for his own expenses.  There is no right or wrong answer, but it’s important that you and your student be on the same page.  If you send money, will it be once a semester, once a month, once a week, as needed?  If your student is responsible for his own expenses, will you step in if he runs out?  Who will pay for textbooks?  Travel costs?

Will your student have a credit card? 

Many college students have a credit card — or multiple credit cards.  Unfortunately, many students also graduate from college with significant credit card debt.  At the same time, responsible use of a credit card is an excellent way to begin to establish a credit history, and a credit card may be useful or necessary for emergencies or online purchases.  Discuss any expectations about use of a credit card.  Will you co-sign if necessary?  If he can’t pay a bill, will you step in?  Are there limits on how you think he should use a card?

Do you have expectations about your student leaving campus overnight? 

Other than visits home, do you have any expectations about your student making overnight trips away from campus?  If your student visits a friend at another campus, or goes home with a roommate, or takes a trip with new college friends, do you hope to know about it?  What is your comfort level?  You certainly won’t know everywhere your student goes, but perhaps you’d like to be informed — for safety — if he is going to be off campus overnight.  Discussing your expectations with your student, before the situation arises, will help you both feel more comfortable.

When, and how often, will your student come home to visit during the first semester? 

Whether or not your student will come home to visit during the first semester may not be an issue if your student is far away from home.  But if your student’s school is close enough, do you anticipate that he will come home often?  Some students head off to college planning to come home every weekend.  They want to see their friends, they may want some home-cooking, or they may have a weekend job at home.  Of course, you don’t want your student to feel as though you don’t want him to come home, but discuss the importance of spending time on campus to establish his new life and connect to his new school outside of the classroom.

How do you both feel about grades? 

The simple answer to this question may be that everyone hopes that grades will be good.  But beyond that hope, do you have any specific expectations?  Remember that, with FERPA rules, grades will go directly to your student, not to you.  Do you expect to see grades?  Do you expect your student to attain certain grades?  Do you expect your student to tell you if he fails a course, or is on academic probation — or makes Dean’s List?  What will happen if low grades impact financial aid?  Talk about your expectations before those first grades come out.

Will your student be taking a car to school?

Many colleges do not allow first-year students to have a car on campus, so this may be a conversation for a future summer.  But if your student is taking a car to school, be sure that you agree on how you hope and expect that it will be used.  May other students borrow and drive the car? Is your student comfortable being the one who will have to drive his friends everywhere?  Is your student a responsible designated driver? If repairs are needed, who will pay?  Who will pay for gas?  Who will pay for insurance?

What are your expectations about alcohol? 

This is a difficult subject for many parents to broach with their students.  Your student may be under the legal drinking age, and your student’s school likely has clear policies regarding alcohol on campus.  You may believe that your student will follow all of the laws and rules.  For many students, that may be the case.  Your student may never drink, may wait until he is of legal age, will follow school rules and will drink responsibly.  For other students, going to college may be synonymous with partying and drinking.  You may or may not be comfortable with that. You may have discussed alcohol with your student during high school, but it’s time to revisit the issue as he enters the world of college and increased independence.  What are your honest feelings about underage drinking and what do you expect from your student?  Remember that your student will need to make his own decisions and be responsible for his own actions, but he should make those decisions aware of your feelings.

What are your expectations and/or concerns about sex?

This is also a difficult subject for parents and students to discuss.  Chances are that you’ve already talked about this subject when your student was younger.  But your student will be living on his own and there will be new situations that will arise.  Talk to your student about your concerns.  Talk about safety.  Open the door now for future conversation.

What do you both expect may be issues when your student returns home for vacations? 

Your student hasn’t even left home yet, but it’s time to think about vacations. When your student returns home for his first significant break, he may have been on his own for several weeks or even months.  He will not be the same person who left for school in the fall.  Will there be different house rules or expectations when he returns?  Anticipate changes.  Negotiate if necessary.  You will need to recognize his growing independence, and he will need to recognize your comfort level. Will he have a curfew?  Should he let you know if he will be out overnight?  Can friends from college come to visit?  Can a boyfriend or girlfriend from college share his room?  Will you expect him to pitch in and help with chores at home?  Are there siblings at home who may have difficulty with a seeming double standard in rules?  Lay the groundwork now for that first visit home.

Hopefully you will find that some of these questions will lead to wonderful conversations with your student.  You’ll learn about him and he’ll learn about you, and you both will have opened the door to communication throughout the first year of school — and beyond.

Related articles:

How – and Why – to Help Your College Student Create a Budget

Three Things You Should NOT Ask Your College to Share with You

Important Academic Conversations with Your Student Throughout the Semester

Twelve Things You Can Do to Help You Listen to Your College Student

If your student is in high school, check out our e- 60 Practical Tips for Using the High School Years to Prepare for College Success. This guide is not about getting in to college. It is about how to work now to help your student succeed once they get to college. Open the door and get the conversations started!


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