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Sending your child off to college: Preparation for their first year

Sending your 18 year old off to college can be a daunting experience for both the parent and the child. All parents want to have that last pre-freshman year conversation full of encouragement and warnings. That conversation is important because it can assist in making the college experience productive, fun, and worthwhile. Here is some advice to help you send your child off to college.


Do discuss your expectations

College is both an academic and social experience but it is important not to neglect the former in your conversation. Talk about course selection and what classes your child will be taking both first and second semesters of the freshman year. Think about their academic strengths and weaknesses in high school. Some schools have required freshman courses, some are all elective, and some are a mixture of both. If the college has mostly required courses discuss them with your child and think ahead about which classes may present a challenge.

It is very easy to get overwhelmed freshman year when brand new to the academic experience and the competition may be more difficult than expected. Look at the college website and see what type of academic support exists.

Many schools have writing tutors available in a structured writing program if that is a weakness. Many upperclassmen and graduate students earn money by assisting freshmen who are finding a particular subject difficult. Encourage your child to reach out to you or the academic dean if in need of financial assistance for a tutor as most schools can arrange for this service either free or for a reduced rate. Encourage your freshman to take a mix of courses that are both manageable and difficult. Finishing first semester with a feeling of confidence in academic ability is important and it is more likely to happen if you discuss course selection together.

Do discuss how to get the most out of the college experience

The four years of college fly by and when it is over many students have regrets over the things they did not do. College is not just about academics. Today the range of extracurricular activities and opportunities is astounding and if your college student does not participate he/she will really miss out on an important aspect of the college experience.

Encourage your freshman to forget about their high school years and whether or not they could be described as a joiner. Encourage your freshman to think of this as a brand new start.

To do so go to the college website and familiarize yourself with the clubs and organizations. The opportunities for networking and making the college experience more meaningful lies in joining and ultimately taking on some leadership positions in these clubs.

Do have your child read the college handbook

No one reads the college handbook until there is an emergency reason to do so. It is a good idea for you and your child to be familiar with the rules of the college. It may help to avoid issues in the future. The college handbook will discuss plagiarism, gender harassment, academic standing, medical issues, and other wide ranging topics. The handbook also covers disciplinary proceedings, academic sanctions, behavioral standards, and punishments from infractions to expulsion.

It is important for every freshman to understand that at some schools minor seeming infractions can become part of a permanent school record which may then be reviewed when applying to graduate school or for employment. Reviewing the handbook can be an excellent preventative measure.

Do learn about the presence of Greek life on campus

Fraternities and sororities are a part of most campuses. The percentage of students who decide to affiliate differs from school to school. At large universities greek life can serve the purpose of making the school seem smaller and more intimate. It can provide a supportive family for a new student. At many schools, whether or not a student is a member of a fraternity or sorority, social life may still revolve around those institutions.

If as a parent you were a member of greek life you will have undoubtedly discussed issues of rush, pledging, and hazing. If you were not part of greek life it is harder to do so from an educated perspective. Try to speak with other college fraternity students in your family or from your community. Read the college website and see what it says about greek life. Discuss pledging and what your child might expect to be asked to do and when that might devolve into unsafe hazing. Discuss the positive and negative aspects of this experience and encourage your freshman to make an informed and independent decision.

Do encourage your college student to get to know the faculty

The idea that a college student could spend four years on a campus and leave with no close relationships with any faculty member may see unlikely but it happens all the time. It is a mistake and a missed opportunity to have this happen to your son or daughter. At both small and big campuses professors are anxious to get to know the students but sometimes it requires a bit more effort than a student might anticipate.

In any course in which a student is having any difficulty with the work it is important to make an appointment to see the professor and get advice on how to conquer the material. Some professors might schedule extra time to work with the student, some will recommend a tutor, but all will notice the student’s extra effort. If the student is not having problems in a course but is very interested in the material and might like to major in that area getting to know a professor or two will assist in making that determination.

It might be surprising to know that there are numerous students applying to graduate school who find it difficult to produce one or two faculty recommendations. This is entirely avoidable. A professor can be a lifetime mentor and every student should be encouraged to make this happen.


Do not expect the college to act as a parent

Many parents expect the college administration to show a parental level of interest in the individual student. For better or worse this is not the case. There are numerous reasons including actual legal statutes impacting this issue. The Federal Education Privacy Act (FERPA) gives parents certain rights regarding a child’s education records but those rights transfer to the child at 18. Therefore, all college students are covered by FERPA which means that the parent has no right to access student grades, school records, or academic sanctions without the permission of their college student.

Check with the school and find out if they have the student sign a waiver of this privacy right so that a parent can get this information. If this is not the case, either have your child sign a waiver or have an agreement between the two of you that you will be shown a copy of the transcript at the end of each semester. Do not fail to do this. Countless parents are faced with complete surprise with a totally unexpected academic probation or suspension.

Do not shy away from discussing college sexual assault issues

The coverage of this issue in the press of late may mean that you have already discussed this issue with your high school student. It is important to discuss this once more before they leave for school and this in fact applies to both men and women. The statistics on college campus sexual assault are shocking. We talk about campus sexual assault as if it is a different type of rape, but in fact it is no different than a rape by a stranger according to the criminal code of every state. Issues of intoxication, consent, and victim blaming permeate this issue.

Each college has been mandated by the federal government to create specific prevention and response programs to combat sexual assault. Tell your college freshman to review these on the college website. Make sure that your son or daughter does not become a victim or a perpetrator by talking about the definition of consent prior to going away to school.

Do not ignore financial issues

College is wildly expensive today and most students and parents have taken on a significant financial burden to afford this experience. Even when that is not the case, the costs of books, college breaks, and day to day living can add up. If the college is in an expensive city; New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco the issue is even more important. Creating a budget ahead of time which will likely have to be reconsidered once your freshman is actually at school is a good idea.

After freshman year and whenever your child feels acclimated they can consider part time employment. There are many employment opportunities on campus. Many schools have dorm counselors or residence assistants (RAs) which can pay for room and board. The different academic departments hire tutors and writing assistants for students who are having academic issues. The bookstore, coffee shop, and numerous other entities hire students looking for employment. Even though tuition, room and board are paid for there are always extra expenses.

Do not forget to discuss substance abuse and binge drinking

The drinking and drug culture on many campuses is considerably more prevalent than many parents expect. This applies to men and women equally. Drinking can begin on Thursday nights and continue through the weekend. Prior to attending parties, students “pre-game” which means drinking in excess before they go somewhere to drink in excess. All this means is that being aware of this issue is important for every parent.

If your child should become ill as a result of binge drinking or substance abuse and placed in a medical infirmary or taken to a hospital you will not be notified because of HIPPA. HIPPA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and because your child is over 18 he/she is an adult in the eyes of HIPPA. This means that all health and medical information and all conversations with medical personnel are privileged and you are not entitled to receive any of it.

Check to see if your student has been asked to sign a waiver by the college and if not call the school and see if they have a medical privilege waiver form that you and your child can sign and keep on record. Have an honest conversation about social drinking and binge drinking with a focus on when the first becomes the second.

Do not believe your college son or daughter no longer needs you

Many students leave for college and want few restrictions and much less contact with their parents. College is a great opportunity to transition to adulthood and learn independence. This should be encouraged to a point. Most college age students are still depending on you financially while they are becoming adults. Even if this is not the case when they run into academic, social, mental health, or financial problems it is important that they still know that you are there to turn to.

While it is true that colleges have offices to assist with these issues it is still a fact that you have one child at that college and they can have anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000 students on whom to focus. If you have real difficulty contacting your college student do not hesitate to reach out to the dean of students. Let your child know you expect them to keep in touch and stay in touch with them.

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College can be the most interesting and enlightening experience of your child’s life. There are many decisions made both social and academic which impact on the richness of this experience. Talking about these issues prior to and during the four years will greatly enhance the likelihood of a meaningful and productive college life.

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Lisa C. SmithProfessor

Professor Lisa C. Smith is a graduate of Franklin and Marshall College and Brooklyn Law School. At Brooklyn Law School, she is Director of Externship Programs and has taught the Prosecutors Clinic, the Family Law Violence Project and Innovations...

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