How to start the college conversation

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Graduating from high school and attending college are milestone achievements for students and their families. Getting to this stage requires hard work, financial planning, and communication between parents and their children.

According to a National Center for Education survey, 69% of high school graduates enrolled in college in 2018. Thus, furthering their education is likely a possibility for your child’s future, and talking about college early could better prepare them for success.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting ready for college, and the same goes for college conversation starters. If you’re reading this, then you’re likely thinking about how to bring it up in a respectful and effective way.

Here are some tips and strategies to consider as you prepare to have the college talk with your child.

Related: Do
student loans count as income?

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1. When is it too Early to Talk about College?

How to start the college conversation

Putting off the college talk is generally a greater concern than starting too early. While kids are young, you can begin planting seeds in everyday conversation about college and careers. Consider taking a gradual approach. This can give your child time and space to come forward with their own thoughts to create a college conversation rather than a college lecture.

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2. When is it too Late to Talk about College?

How to start the college conversation

There isn’t a definitive best time to start talking about college, but waiting too long could put your child at a disadvantage.

Many college admissions offices evaluate every year of high school to calculate students’ grade point average (GPA) and academic performance. While junior year can be given greater weight, a bad grade in algebra as a freshman doesn’t disappear either. For this reason, the transition from middle school to high school can be an opportune time to begin talking about college.

While the academic side is important to emphasize, an overly direct approach could potentially stifle the college talk. Starting early can help you build a better foundation to discuss the more difficult and stressful parts of preparing for college.

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3. Do Your Own Homework on the College Process

How to start the college conversation

As a parent or guardian, doing some initial research can inform you on the nuts and bolts of the college process and show your child that you are supportive of their education. It’s no surprise that college is expensive, but there are options to make college more affordable.

First off, gauge how much financial aid your family could qualify for with FAFSA4caster. This tool provides a free estimate of federal aid eligibility, including work-study, grants, and federal student loans.

There has been a growing call for waiving standardized tests for college admission, but most schools still require SAT or ACT scores for admission. Not every family is in the position to pay for tutors and prep classes, but it is worth noting that students can take these tests multiple times to improve their scores.

Through a process called “superscoring”, colleges accept a student’s best section-level scores for math, evidence-based reading and writing, even if they are from different test dates.

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4. Other Things to Talk Through

How to start the college conversation

Some other useful tidbits to be aware of as you start the college conversation include:

  • College application fees: The cost varies by institution. The average application fee runs at $44, though some schools charge as much as $90 to apply. However, applicants could qualify for a waiver if they meet certain criteria for financial need.
  • In-state vs. out-of-state tuition cost: Each state has its own public university system that is partially funded by taxpayer money. Therefore, the base tuition cost for in-state residents is less than out-of-state students, though this does not account for potential scholarships and financial aid. Students attending out-of-state public universities may be able to obtain in-state tuition after one year, but this could require proving twelve months of consecutive in-state residence and some level of financial independence, such as filing taxes in that state.
  • Local scholarship opportunities: Community organizations, nonprofits, and businesses may offer scholarships specifically to graduates of your child’s high school or within your community. Criteria varies, but common elements might include academic merit, leadership, and financial need.

Now let’s move on to some helpful college conversation starters.

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5. Asking About Their Goals, Dreams and Worries

How to start the college conversation

Adolescence is a journey in self-discovery, but also insecurity and social pressure. In addition to your child’s future aspirations, acknowledge that they may have doubts and worries about attending college or moving away from home. Simply listening and showing your support is a good start to moving forward with the college talk.

On a lighter note, your child doesn’t need to have it all figured out by the time they decide to enroll in college. Some students do not declare a major until a few semesters into college. This means they can take a variety of classes before making a final decision for their degree.

Still, there are hundreds of college majors to consider, and not all colleges have the same offerings, so narrowing it down a little beforehand can help your child find a college that fits their needs and graduate on time.

Attending a local college with friends may be really important to your child, or they may be dead set on a specialized subject only offered at a handful of colleges. Either way, there is still plenty to discuss for their future plans.

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6. Attending College and Career Events Together

How to start the college conversation

Many high schools host career and college fairs throughout the academic year. Often, these events are marketed towards juniors and seniors who are approaching application deadlines and graduation. 

If your student is a freshman or sophomore in high school, these fairs can provide a convenient opportunity to start browsing their options without the pressure of applying yet.

Having the confidence to speak with college admissions recruiters at these events is not only great practice, but can gain application fee waivers and insight into scholarships and other opportunities.

Similarly, colleges organize open house events and tours for prospective students and their families throughout the year. Starting with an unofficial tour of a nearby college campus can be a low-stakes introduction.

Incorporating college visits and tours into a family vacation is another way to test the waters of living and studying away from home.

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7. Sharing Your Own Experiences

How to start the college conversation

Sharing personal experiences from college can be a natural way to broach the subject, as well as connect with your child on a more peer-to-peer level.

Your child may be surprised to learn which friends you made in college that they’ve known since birth. There are a lot of practical and logistical topics to cover during the college conversation, so this is a chance to bond over more personal stories.

If you didn’t have the opportunity to attend college, that’s okay too. Letting your child know that college is a possibility for them is what matters.

Asking friends who attended college or whose children are in college for advice could offer some insight.

Also, inviting a trusted family member or friend to join the college talk with you and your child is another way to continue the conversation in a caring environment. If your child will be a first-generation college student, keep in mind that they may be eligible for specific types of programs and scholarships.

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8. Letting Them Know Your Financial Plan

How to start the college conversation

Your child may be more intuitive than you think. If you’ve haven’t brought up the matter of paying for college yet, they may assume their education options are more limited than the reality.

Talking about money with your children may feel awkward, but college isn’t cheap, and paying for it is a critical piece of the equation for selecting a school that is right for them.

You don’t have to get too deep in the weeds, but discussing payment options is a necessary step. Fortunately, there are several ways to pay for college, such as scholarships, grants and student loans.

Grants and scholarships generally do not require repayment and are used for education and associated expenses. Both can be awarded through financial aid packages or nonprofit and community organizations.

Additionally, scholarships can be awarded by colleges directly or through a competitive application process. Learning about these opportunities early on could better prepare your child for receiving scholarships and grants.

When approaching student loans, an important piece to convey to your child is the impact of interest. Unsubsidized federal student loans can carry interest rates that start accruing when the loan is disbursed, and continue accruing until the loan is paid back.

For subsidized federal student loans, the interest is covered by the government while the student is in school at least half time and through the grace period after the student leaves school.

Generally, interest will also start accruing immediately with private student loans too. But the terms on private student loans vary by lender, so confirm with the loan servicer to be sure.

The loan terms will determine when repayment begins, including a monthly minimum payment based on the loan amount, interest rate, and duration.

Paying off loans ahead of schedule could result in a lower total repayment, but consult with your loan provider to be sure. For more information, take a look at this primer on student loans.

This can also be the time to have a candid conversation about getting a summer job and pitching in to save for college.

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9. Paying for College

How to start the college conversation

Federal student loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study programs may be sufficient to fund all or at least a portion of your child’s education.

However, some students take out private student loans to pay for their education and associated living expenses, when federal aid and savings aren’t enough to cover the costs.

Alternatively, college parents can borrow loans to support their child’s education expenses. The federal government’s PLUS loans program for parents is one option to consider. 

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