College planning, for some, can start as early as the preschool years, when children begin to learn about different occupations, learn to make decisions, and start performing small household chores. Conscious college and career planning, however, generally begins when a child is in middle school or is just starting high school, and students can greatly benefit from the wisdom and guidance of their parents as they choose what courses to take in high school, consider career options, take aptitude tests, and begin the daunting process of selecting colleges and completing applications.
Choosing a college is one of the first major decisions a child will make for themselves, and parents have a delicate role in providing support, guidance, and encouragement without pushing their child.
"The role of the parent is critical, said Paul Francis, senior admissions counselor at the University of Washington. "Many parents just don't realize how what they say and do--or many times, what they don't say and dont do--affects their children."
Before entering high school, a student needs to be aware of their general career goals and the courses needed. Any student planning on attending college should take courses on the college prep track, and during the freshman year, a parent can stress the importance of these college prep courses as well as help their children strengthen areas of academic struggle.
In the sophomore year, parents can discuss with their children which honors and advanced placement courses to take during the junior and senior years. Students don't necessarily need to know exactly what they plan on majoring in at this point, but those who have an idea can tailor their studies accordingly. Those interested in engineering, for example, would be smart to take extra courses in science and math.
Also during the student's sophomore year, parents should remind their children of the registration dates for the PSATs and preACTs and help with preparation. This is also a good time to start visiting college campuses.
As juniors, children will need assistance preparing for the SAT and ACT exams. College fairs will be a valuable resource for both parents and children to gather information about prospective schools, as will be information nights hosted for parents to learn about the application process and financial aid options.
Seniors will benefit from parental assistance in tracking the deadlines for applications and final decisions. Parents will also need to file their income taxes as early as possible and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as well as other student aid applications required by prospective schools.
Francis noted that "parents can do a great service in helping students research possible avenues to help pay for college".
"Parents need to help students set a realistic framework types of schools, those that are affordable," said Tricia Petty, coordinator of undergraduate student recruitment at West Virginia University. "Then, [they should] give students independence with that framework so they can decide personally based on their own academic factors or social factors or a combination."
Sabrina Cave, director of the Mountaineer Parents Club at West Virginia University, said that parents should help their children develop and keep realistic expectations about what to expect during the application and enrollment processes.
"[Parents should] facilitate an open and honest discussion with their child about college," added Francis.
Some of the specific things Francis suggest parents do include setting appropriate boundaries, like informing their children that they should take the lead in setting up college visits, speaking with university staff, and filling out application forms.
"The gift of self-empowerment is one of the greatest things parents can give to their children," Francis said.
Once students and parents have a general idea of the schools that are of interest, campus visits can help narrow down the selection.
Visiting campus benefits both students and parents in myriad ways, said Francis. Students can visualize if this is the place where they want to spend the next four years of their life, while parents often feel relieved in knowing exactly what environment their child will be in during this new phase in their life, oftentimes very far away from the comforts of home.
"Students need to physically envision being there," said Petty. "Even with all the pictures and information available online, a campus visit engages the student with the school."
"Both students and parents can get a true sense of what college life is like--both in and out of the classroom -- and how many resources and support services (human and operational) there are to ensure a students success," added Francis.
The decision ultimately has to be made by the students, and both Francis and Petty warn parents not to try to live vicariously through their children.
"There arent many things we get to decide in life, but where we want to go to college should be one of them," said Francis. Allowing children to make their own informed decisions about higher education while providing emotional support will help to ensure a healthy relationship between parents and children long after college has ended.
Forcing a decision on your child sets them up to potentially not be successful where they are, said Petty. Students whove chosen a university based on their own criteria are more likely to succeed.
Administrators at some colleges and universities have coined the term "helicopter parent" to describe parents who are overly involved with their childrens' applications or general college lives.
Francis says that while the majority of parents at the University of Washington act entirely appropriate, there are parents that cross the line, especially when students are denied admission or when other problems arise. We really do prefer to counsel students directly, he said. Its the issue of the student being proactive about their education and looking toward the future.
Petty agrees. "Students really need to be the initiator when problems arise. We want to see our students become productive adults."
"[The helicopter parent] is a trend we welcome," said Cave, "as long as parents are engaged in a productive manner."
For parents who want to be involved in a positive way, Cave suggests finding an appropriate outlet. Many schools have organizations for parents such as West Virginia Universitys Mountaineer Parents Club that provide local events, special parent weekends, newsletter and email updates, and other activities that help parents stay connected to their children.
"When parents are knowledgeable about resources and services, such as tutoring and advising, they're better able to support their children," said Cave. "When a child calls home with a problem, parents are better prepared to help them deal with it."
Ultimately, Petty recommends that parents have patience and understanding throughout this process. "Kids change their minds as they try to figure out who they are. "It's a major decision, but don't make too big a deal of it"