Navigating the college process can be complicated. Your teen might need help as they do their best to apply to colleges and learn what funding options are available to them. However, you also don’t want to go overboard and take over the process, preventing your student from learning valuable life skills. So how can parents find the right balance? According to a survey from Kaplan Test Prep, about 75% of college admission offices believe parents should be “somewhat involved” in the process. If you’re hoping to provide guidance to your student, here are some ways to help out without taking over.
When to help your child
There are certainly some things you can do to help your student where they’ll need it most. Here are three important times to step in.
1. When it’s time to fill out the FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required for those who want to apply for federal grants and student loans. On top of that, many states, colleges, and universities use the FAFSA when determining which type of additional aid you may be eligible for. You might need to let your student know how important this form is, and it’s something you’ll likely need to help them fill out since parent tax information is required. However, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool can make getting this information fairly simple, allowing you to import your tax data directly into the FAFSA online.
2. When it’s time to find scholarships or grants
You can also offer to help your student find scholarships and grants. While there are grants available to pay off student loans, it’s easier to find scholarships in the first place, reducing the need for loans to begin with. While you shouldn’t fill out applications or write essays for your student, you can point them toward scholarship resources that offer databases of awards and other opportunities and ask people in your network if they’ve heard of local scholarships. Additionally, you can work with your child to create a schedule and show them how to organize a calendar and to-do list so they don’t miss deadlines.
3. When it’s time to apply for loans
As the parent, you should also provide guidance as your student applies for loans. They don’t always need a cosigner, but you might be needed if your student uses alternatives to federal loans. Help them understand the difference between federal and private loans and the protections that come with federal loans. Additionally, if your credit score doesn’t qualify you to cosign on private loans for your student, you might be eligible for a parent PLUS loan to help. However, you should carefully consider your situation and only turn to private loans or parent PLUS loans after scholarship, grant, and federal loan options have been exhausted.
When to take a step back
With all that being said, there are equally crucial times when parents need to step back and let the student take the reins of their own process. Here are the two most important times to leave them in control.
1. When it’s time to pick a college or major
Even though you should provide guidance and talk through different options with your student, the choice of where and what to study is ultimately theirs. Don’t dictate which schools or majors they should consider. However, you can use various resources to help your student make an informed choice. Be clear about how much you can afford to put toward a college education, and help your student make a comparison about costs and loans needed to cover those costs. For majors, you can use resources like the College Scorecard from the US Department of Education to help your teen understand that some fields pay more than others. Don’t force your student into a school or major they’re not committed to. Instead, help them understand their options so they can make their own choice.
2. When you’re concerned about their academic performance
You don’t want to become a helicopter parent who demands to see your student’s grades constantly or call the school when you become aware of performance issues. Federal law provides privacy protections for student education records, and schools don’t have to provide education records without consent from the student. While there are situations in which schools can provide records without your student’s consent, they are limited. Rather than immediately supervising their performance, work on teaching them appropriate skills for time management and focus so they can accomplish the work required of them in college.
The college search and admission process is a time for your student to learn valuable skills about navigating life and making smart choices. They’ll spend the rest of their lives filling out paperwork, handling various processes, and making big decisions. You can help them now by offering guidance and teaching them how to handle these issues rather than taking over and making them miss out on a learning opportunity.
For more advice on navigating the college admission process with your student, check out our Parents section.