The Parent Role in College Transition

My mother doesn’t read my blog so she has no idea how often she’s referenced here.  Meanwhile, I’ve been sharing the story that I’m about to tell you readers for many years now (very often in her presence), so I know she won’t mind me telling it again.  Here goes:

When I was a wide-eyed college freshman at the tail end of the 90s (to students that makes me old and to parents that makes me young), my undergraduate institution hosted an overnight orientation program that everyone attended so that we could meet professors and sign up for our fall classes.  Students were assigned roommates similar to the way we would be come the fall and so my mother helped me move into my temporary room, then looked at me and said, “Do you have everything you need?”  I said yes and she said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

No problem, right?  It was just one night after all.

Flash forward: On freshman move in day (the real thing), both of my parents carried my belongings (with the help of some friendly upper class students) up the stairs of my circa-1912-era residence hall (a radiator in every room!), made small talk with my new roommate and her family, and took me off campus for a quick lunch before we returned to finalize unpacking.  Then, just as before, my mother (speaking for both herself and my father) asked, “Do you have everything you need?”

“I think so,” I said.

“Great,” she replied.  “Call us if you need anything.”

With that, both parents hugged me and walked out of my dorm room without a look back.  No tears, no lingering.  (And I feel it’s important to mention that I’m their only child – this was a momentous occasion, for pete’s sake!)


Meanwhile, down the hall in our all-freshman dorm, I don’t recall a lot of other emotional departures either – there were a few tears here and there, but for the most part, our parents all departed quietly.  Then in the rush of school opening events, we forgot to call them for a week or two.  And that was the process of going to college in the late 90s – the parents came and saw, then left we students to conquer.

Six years later – my first as an admissions counselor – I helped with freshman move-in and found myself walking across the back parking lot of the residence hall toward the mother of one of my incoming first-years.  On the way, I greeted my student with a quick, “Hey, Sam!” and received a high five in return (this was pre-fist bump remember).  As I approached his mom, however, she returned my wave with a quivering lip and outstretched arms:


In six years, I realized, the relationship that parents had with their college-bound students had changed a bit – and after my near-decade in admissions and now my handful of years as an educational consultant, I’ve seen the picture evolve far more drastically.

How drastically? you ask.

Considering that Coldwell Banker and other real estate companies have noticed a sharp uptick in parents of college students packing up and moving to school with their kids, I’d say pretty drastically.

Now I’m sure that there are two types of parents who are reading this blog entry – those in the camp of, “What’s wrong with moving to college with my kid?” and those in the camp of, “That’s insanity!  I’d never do that!”  From my perspective as an educational consultant, I don’t think that either side is wrong per se, but I think the idea of following your student to college opens a conversation between student and parents that you need to have sooner rather than later.

No matter what your own housing plans include for your student’s college years, what kind of conversation should you have?

  • Discuss expectations.  Are you the type of parent who expects your student to check in with you multiple times every day?  How do you expect this relationship to change (or not change) when he or she is away at college?  What does your student think?  Is he or she the type who will want to check in whether you expect it or not?  Is your student expecting to be able to truly spread his or her wings without any supervision from you during that first semester?
  • Discuss trust.  The relationship and trust between you and your college-bound student is a dynamic that is unique to your family.  If your teen has a long history of making really smart choices, perhaps college offers a wonderful chance for you to allow them a wide latitude away from your daily guidance to see if they really can fly on their own.  If your teen still relies heavily on your input and seems uncertain, college might offer a way to begin to offer more and more decision-making power over time but not necessarily all at once.
  • Discuss emotions.  For all families, the moment that a student goes away to college is extremely emotional and tensions can sometimes run high as a result.  Homesickness on the part of students, in particular, can incite panic and doubt in parents who previously thought their kids were going to adjust well – which in turn can kick off a cycle of helicopter parenting where previously none existed.  Realizing that such emotions are reactionary and usually short-lived is usually enough to prevent said panic, but talking about it before move-in day can also be helpful.

Are there situations where parents following their students to the same general town/area as the college can be beneficial?  Absolutely!  Parental support is a key component to the creation of successful college students and having them nearby can bolster this substantially during a student’s undergraduate years.  But conversely, parents who wrap themselves too fully into the lives of their children can hinder the learning and growth process irreparably.

Have the transitional conversation early and have it often if you need to, parents.  If you do, I’ve no doubt you’ll move a successful college student into their first-year dorm in the fall:

thumbs up

(Need help with the college search?  Contact me and I’ll help – or pick up a copy of my book to guide you along the way.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s