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Freshman Year of College: Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire

Mother helps son on graduation day

Your teenager has graduated from high school, having been accepted to a dream college whose bumper sticker you are proud to wear on the rear window of your car, and… knock on wood, it looks like you will be able to afford it. You breathe a huge sigh of relief! Now all you have to do is make a few trips to Bed, Bath and Beyond, and your college freshman is all set… As a college consultant, I could simply be saying, “Congratulations!” as you ride off into the sunset to drop off your kid at freshman orientation. But through my work with families throughout the college years, I know that life did not just get easier; it is actually now positioned to become much more complex and elusive. You have so much more to worry about than you did when your teen was in high school, yet you have so much less knowledge and control.

When your son or daughter was in high school, you may have occasionally felt frustrated by your lack of control over whether homework was completed, or what was happening at the party that your teen insisted on attending. Now, in addition to those troubling concerns, you now will have to also wonder whether your college freshman woke up on time and made it to class this morning, or whether he or she came home from last night’s party at all. Indeed, the high school to college transition is one of “out of the frying pan, into the fire.”

Womens_dorm_largeThe role of in loco parentis (Latin for “in place of a parent”) has all but disappeared in American higher education since the late 1960’s. Prior to the Sixties, college administrations routinely placed restrictions on undergraduates’ private lives, which may seem draconian to today’s college students. For example, female students were generally subject to curfews as early as 10 PM, and all dorms were singe-sex. Since that era of tumultuous social change, U.S. colleges and universities have required students to quickly become independent young adults, making autonomous decisions about their academic behavior as well as their private lives. On the surface, this shift appears appropriate; after all, most college students are eighteen, and will turn twenty-one while they are still undergraduates. However, the transition from living in the parents’ home to a college dorm with minimal supervision, except for a friendly  “RA” (resident advisor), also an undergraduate, can be a challenging one for many freshmen. For many, the experience of too much freedom too soon can have adverse consequences.

How can a parent prepare a freshman-to-be for such dramatic change?

1. Educate yourself. Try to relinquish any naīve, sentimental notions about college life so that you are not shocked by the experiences of young adults on campus. Read “normal” books for parents of freshmen, such as Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years by H. Johnson. In addition, however, you may want to stretch your concept of the challenging, and in some ways, toxic, campus culture your son or daughter is about to face by reading: Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You by B. Seaman, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus by K. Bogle, and College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It by T. DiGeronimo.

tailgateCheck out Youtube videos such as: College Freshmen and Substance Abuse and More Students Seeking Counseling on College Campuses. Watch the eye-opening video-infographic College Drinking Habits Revealed. Peruse college life news articles such as: “When a Hazing Goes Very Wrong” NY Times, “Fraternity Rush Sobers Up” Washington Post, “Does It Work? Substance Free Housing” NY Times, and  “A Bridge to Recovery on Campus” NY Times. Such preparation will help you to be a relevant, knowledgeable sounding board for your freshman, because you will accurately understand the pressures of today’s college peer environment.

fathergirlinhall2. Create firm, consistent boundaries at home, and encourage your teen to internalize those boundaries. Whether it be academic standards or behavioral house rules, it is essential to communicate clear expectations and model your family’s values while your teen is at home. Emphasize honesty and integrity. If your teen messes up (e.g., drinks at a party, gets a speeding ticket, receives a disappointing grade), I would suggest frank, teen-initiated discussion of the problem. Hopefully, you’ll be able to work together with your son or daughter to deal constructively with consequences and prevent repeated mistakes.

Based on my observation of a wide spectrum of parenting styles in my work with families, I feel that a straightforward, positive partnership will help your teen internalize standards. Such a relationship translates into autonomous adherence to personal and family values when on one’s own in college. You will not be physically present to supervise your young adult in college; ultimately, only having a firm sense of his or her own internal values will be the key to success in college and in life.

asianfatherson3. Communicate expectations of your young adult’s academic performance, and create a checkpoint structure appropriate for his or her level of maturity and self-discipline. If your adolescent has always been a self-driven straight A student, you may simply need to reiterate your expectations that a student’s “job” in college is to turn in excellent academic performance. If your teen has never been academically self-motivated, I would suggest creating an infrastructure to prevent academic disaster, especially if your student is attending a large, anonymous state university where no one will notice if he or she sleeps in and routinely misses lecture hall introductory classes.

Of course, you know your kid best, and every parent-teen relationship dynamic is totally individual. But do not be afraid to utilize a rather tight rein that first semester, with frequent checking on class attendance, progress on papers and projects, and exam grades. Your freshman will most likely resist your check-in questions, but it is much easier to loosen up later if he or she earns your trust, rather than to tighten up after there’s a poor GPA on record.  After all, you are perhaps paying as much as $250 thousand for this venture; in my opinion, you have every right to expect a decent return on investment and honest answers to your questions about how it is going.

The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) requires that college academic information can be given only to the student, not the parents; depending on your son or daughter’s specific situation, however, you may want to have the conversation of whether it is a good idea for your freshman to waive FERPA.

youngfootballOver the last half century, as expectations that most high school graduates will attend college have risen, Americans seem to have come to a belief  that four-year college is a rite of passage for young adults. Although I am as much a fan of National Lampoon’s Animal House as anyone else of my generationI also realize that our popular culture has encouraged unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, some American kids grow up feeling entitled to spending four years in a resort environment, escaping from the real world, not only enjoying the intellectual and artistic delights of the liberal arts, but also feeling it is “normal” to try addictive substances, explore risky behaviors, or just drift along without a purpose, funded by parents or government loans. I cannot help but compare these widespread generational expectations to my own father’s struggle to get his accounting degree at night while driving a truck during the day. As difficult as it is to push back against mainstream college educations, it is imperative to encourage your son or daughter to challenge that assumption.

My final suggestion is, try to stay closely connected with your young adult. You can always listen. Whatever the challenge, it is essential that your college freshman know he or she is working with a net.