A Quick and Essential Guide for Parents of New College Students

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The thrill of the acceptance email has subsided. Your child’s hard work and late-night volcano-building sessions, calculus homework, and chess-club membership have paid off, and now the light of your life is definitely going to college.

But as campus move-in day approaches, there are new worries for parents and incoming freshmen preparing for the changes of dorm and college life. To ease mounting anxiety, here are some tips that will make the transition from live-at-home high-schooler to autonomous college student a little easier.

Tip #1: Money Management

At the top of many parents’ list of worries is money.

While parents are acutely aware of the official costs of tuition and room and board, there are plenty of miscellaneous expenses that’ll pop up throughout the year. These are in addition to the cost of textbooks, which the National Association of College Stores estimates is about $655 a year, a new laptop—not necessarily “required” by colleges but it is the single most “recommended” item for students—and new dorm bedding.

Think extra thumb drives, a new outfit, weekend road trips, sorority or fraternity fees, and even the occasional Cheesecake Factory birthday dinner with a new friend.

College advisors refer to these expenses as the cost of the college experience, and they stress it can be just as important as the classroom education. But in order to avoid potential bankruptcy or the start of years of credit card debt, it’s imperative for parents and students to establish limits and expectations upfront.

Consider your financial aid packages, money from grandma, and work-study income to set up a realistic budget and reevaluate it often throughout the first semester, says Galia Gichon, founder of the website Down-to-Earth Finance.

Usually, says Gichon, the first couple months of the year are the most expensive since students buy a variety of odds and ends, but eventually spending levels out.

Figure out if a monthly allowance is ideal or if one lump deposit into a checking account each semester makes more sense. If a student has to work to help cover these expenses, be sure the time to work doesn’t impede on study time. Finally, consider opening a credit card in the student’s name.

Alexa von Tobel, the founder of LearnVest, says, “Your credit score is the only grade that matters after you graduate from college.” But she warns against having too much plastic. “Opening a card is a big thing for your finances, and it shouldn't be something you do freely for a 15 percent discount.”

Tip #2: Roommates

Packing for college and wondering about the compatibility of a roommate can cause more than a few freakouts. 

The adjustment to cramped dorm life is among the greatest challenges for students, says Nathaniel Miller, Associate Director of Resident Services at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The average size of a dorm room at LMU is 14 x 13 feet and each room is furnished with two twin beds, two nightstands, and two desks.

“The idea of sharing such a small space with a complete stranger is especially daunting for those students who are used to having their own, often much bigger, room at home,” Miller says. “But we also know that the experience of living with somebody in that capacity leads to a lot of growth.”

An easy way to avoid the stress is by beginning to build the roommate relationship over the summer.

Conversations over Skype, email, or the old-fashioned telephone allow students to get to know about one another’s interests, class schedules, and habits before moving in together. It’s also the best way to plan what big items—such as a TV, mini-fridge, or couch—each student should bring.

But a priority, says Miller, is talking about what functions each student would like the room to serve.

For instance, Roommate A may have several friends on campus and would like to have a “hosting room,” where people show up to watch TV or play video games. While Roommate B views the room as a more private space or a study sanctuary.

Having a frank conversation about each person’s expectations and finding a middle ground is the key to ensuring a peaceful coexistence, says Miller.

Miller’s final word of advice is to hold off on bringing everything you think you need. He suggests waiting until students have lived in the space for a few months to decide whether a drum kit is essential.

“Many times students realize they don’t really need the things that they thought they couldn’t live without.”

Tip #3: Homesickness

Though it may seem improbable to independence-seeking students, most experience (at least a bit of) homesickness. Similarly, parents may find it more difficult to let go than they had anticipated.

Moving on to college represents a significant step towards adulthood, and represents an emotional separation for both parents and child, says F. Diane Barth, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst who writes for Psychology Today.

A study in the Journal of the Freshman Year Experience found that 69 percent of freshmen report feeling homesick, many for the first time in their lives. The good news is it generally doesn’t last long. Nearly two-thirds of students said the homesickness lasted more than one week, and only about 20 percent reported feeling homesick for two months.

“Almost every guide written for parents of college students these days [says] that parents cannot and should not do the work of this transition for our youngsters,” Barth says. “But we can and should be available to remind them that they have our support and our concern and our love.”

Students are strongly encouraged to get involved in campus activities. Most universities run special outreach programs for new students during the first six weeks of the year to get them acquainted with the school’s clubs, organizations, and campus resources.

Other universities take it a step further, offering courses on dealing with the emotional upheaval of becoming an adult.

New York University has developed a course called “Transition to College and Young Adulthood” to address this transition head-on. It is taught every semester and is open to all undergraduate students.

Finally, parents should resist the urge to swoop in and save the day. This is especially tricky for students attending college near home. An invitation to come home for dinner may seem like small thing, but it can prohibit a student from breaking through the discomfort of making new friends.

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