As I prepare to send my oldest daughter off to college in a few weeks, I can’t help but wonder whether her mother and I prepared her well enough for the challenges she’s about to face.
These challenges aren’t just educational, they’re also emotional and social. So when I read a recent blog post from Andrew McAfee at MIT on how our higher education system is failing our children, I couldn’t help but wonder whether part of the problem is that parents aren’t preparing children for success in school and, ultimately, in their careers. After all, only a little more than half of students who start college graduate—and that’s in six years! Can we place all the blame at the feet of our higher education system? Nope.
I recall not knowing what hit me when I started college. I was ill-prepared for it. I went from a high school of 2,000 to a college of more than 25,000. I carried a full load and joined a fraternity. It was like stepping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. In retrospect, I made a smart decision to ease into college. I took a couple of the tougher basic college courses in the summer before my freshman year. That decision allowed me to start off with good grades and take a smaller but still full load in the fall, making it easier for me to handle the study load and the time commitment of pledging a fraternity.
Unfortunately, I can’t remember a conversation with my parents about college—either before or after high school graduation—other than where they could afford to send me. It wasn’t that they weren’t supportive of going to college. Quite the opposite. My father has a Ph.D. and my mother a master’s. I knew they expected good grades and that I would attend. But they didn’t give me much if any guidance on how to achieve those objectives. I can only assume that they thought my success in grade school would magically transform into success in college.
Fortunately, I did well in undergraduate and graduate schools and graduated on time, despite switching majors twice as an undergrad. I graduated with honors at both levels and earned a scholarship to attend grad school. So, to some degree (pardon the pun), I have to give props to my parents for at least instilling in me the value of good grades and higher education.
Nevertheless, I made a lot of mistakes, especially as an undergrad, trying to juggle the educational and social aspects of college life in large part because I lacked an emotional and social compass. It was my first experience with on-the-job training untethered to my home, and I sometimes wonder how I survived.
In reflecting on how well my wife and I have prepared our daughter, I definitely learned from my collegiate mistakes. I also read articles by people smarter and wiser than me on getting children college-ready. While I agree with McAfee’s advice to recent high school grads (and their parents) to “work hard, take tough classes, and graduate on time,” it is a bit lacking, simplistic, and short-sighted. Parents must start much, much earlier. By time they graduate, it could be too late or, at the very least, a much tougher haul in college.
Consider the following tips as you prepare your children for the rigors of college life:1) Save early and often.
It might surprise you (or not) that this first tip focuses on money. I can’t tell you how good a decision it was that my wife and I set aside money for our children’s education. While we don’t have it all paid for, we’re a good way down the road. Sending our two girls to college will be financially manageable, barring something unforeseen, because, when our children were very young, we purchased contracts for a portion of our girls’ tuition through our state’s guaranteed tuition plan. Many states offer such plans and other education-specific investment vehicles (e.g. 529 plans). Start saving now even if you can only set aside a small amount of money.
2) If one parent wants to manage your children’s school lives, let them go for it.
My wife comes from a family of teachers—her grandmother, mother, and both sisters are or have been teachers. So when my children entered school, my wife started to manage that part of their lives like a fish takes to water. I let her dive right in. That’s not to say that I abdicated responsibility. I made every parent-teacher meeting, school play, and sporting event that I could. (A key role of mine has been to manage my children’s athletic endeavors.) Indeed, research shows that when fathers are involved in their children’s education—broadly speaking—children get better grades than when fathers aren’t involved. But given my wife’s knowledge and skills in this area, it was a no-brainer to let her take the lead.
3) Focus as much—and more when necessary—on the social and emotional aspects of school life.
School is a laboratory for life. As such, it teaches children—for good or ill—how to interact with peers and authority figures. Children, as they say, can be brutal. Middle school is a particularly difficult time for girls because of their physical, social, and emotional development at this time in their lives. My daughters hated middle school not because of the academics but because of the way girls treated one another. I had a lot of long, intimate conversations with them about how to navigate friendships that change and dissolve, how to deal with the formation of cliques, how to better understand boys, and how to avoid drugs and alcohol. When children don’t effectively navigate the emotional and social aspects of school—regardless of school level—their academic performance can suffer. If your children need professional help, don’t hesitate to get it for them. Don’t wait for something bad to happen—expect it to happen and be proactive.
4) Stalk your children’s grades as if they were a Facebook account.
Let’s face it, grades and GPA matter when it comes to competing for a spot in the freshman class at many colleges. Moreover, good grades and a high GPA can help pay for college through public and private scholarships. This fact is especially important if your family won’t qualify for financial grants or aid (e.g. free grants or low-cost loans). Many school systems have an online service that allows parents to monitor their children’s grades throughout the year and in real time. This service helps parents know immediately when their children struggle, get their children help (e.g. tutoring) when needed, and to correct grading mistakes, which occur more often than you might think.
5) Help with subjects you’re good at, and get your children help in others.
My wife and I have different strengths when it comes to helping our children with school subjects. Unfortunately, neither of us are whizzes at math, so we’ve encouraged our children to get help in that subject from teachers, tutors, and peers (e.g. in study groups). There’s no shame in telling your children you don’t have the answers and getting them help from elsewhere.
6) To ease the transition into college, enroll your children in college courses while they’re in high school.
Fortunately, my daughter made the same decision that I did to take college courses before starting college, but she started her junior year of high school. She’ll carry a full load as a freshman, but not as full as she would have otherwise. That’s critical because she’ll have to achieve balance between her school work, holding down a job, and using her spare time to take advantage of the growth opportunities her program will offer that are outside of class time. This tactic saved us money, as well, because she took the courses at a local community college that had a lower per-hour fee than the college she’ll attend. Before enrolling your children, make sure that the colleges your children are interested in will accept the coursework (i.e. it will transfer) and on what basis (e.g. pass-fail or a minimum grade).
What advice did your parents give you about college?