Colleges and new high school graduates have what I think is a strange idea. They think every freshman is an adult who can make his or her own decisions. Students think going off to college is a declaration of independence. Colleges, by law and by inclination, don’t involve parents in their children’s academic progress and won’t give out any information.

Sometimes this is fine. When a student is mature, motivated, self-directed and responsible, he can be expected to make good choices, to learn from mistakes, and to use his time, money, and mind well. Sometimes the system even makes sense. When a student is footing the bill entirely by herself and is truly on her own, involvement from parents is disrespectful of the privacy she has earned.

But then there are the other kids – probably most kids. College is being underwritten by parents’ hard-earned cash, loans in both the parents’ and the students’ names, and student summer earnings. The student has uneven skills in managing time, money, and responsibilities. High school success was partly the result of parental monitoring and intervention. Students who are a little less mature than peers have needed some external structure like curfews and consequences for not getting things done; praise and reward for doing what they are supposed to do.

For students like these, it’s unlikely that the summer between high school graduation and the beginning of college has meant a magical transformation. Yes, some kids do have an enormous growth spurt of maturity. But most of the later bloomers, whatever the reason, need a longer period of parental guidance if they are to do well during that all-important freshman year. Without it, they are likely to be among the one third to one half of entering students who don’t become sophomores.

If your student’s maturity doesn’t match most colleges’ expectations, the best way to avoid disappointment, anger, and tears is to call the first year of college for a late bloomer what it is: a family project. The goal is to get your student headed toward a college degree. The means to that goal is a gradual letting go, not a jump off a cliff.

Steps Toward College Student Independence

  1. Make college a decision, not an assumption. Not every student is ready for college right after high school. There is no shame in taking a year or so to work, to travel, or to participate in a gap year program as a way to gain a little more maturity and autonomy. (See Are You Ready for College? Alternatives for the Unsure.) Have a clear discussion with your child about your concerns about readiness. Do listen. Your child may be more self-aware than you think.
  2. Consider starting with a community college or a half-time load. Your immature student may need time to acclimate before taking on responsibilities for both college-level work and living on her own. One way to soften the transition is to live at home for a semester while starting college classes. Another is to have a reduced course load for the first semester, in recognition that a successful adjustment is as important as a couple of classes.
  3. Make the financial realities and consequences clear. Make sure your student knows exactly how much college costs and where the money is coming from. Set reasonable expectations for the student’s proportion of the bill to be paid for by loans and summer jobs. Talk about whether the student feels ready to take on the responsibility of using this amount of money wisely. If you are spending anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 a year, is your student prepared to put in $10,000 – $50,000 worth of effort? What grade point average do you all agree is reasonable to expect for that investment? What will be the financial consequences if your student doesn’t meet those expectations? Often when confronted with these realities, students respond with a better assessment of what they are ready to do.
  4. Talk to your student about when you should be notified that she needs more help. Your student needs the room to make mistakes and recover on her own. But you need to know if she is slipping to the point that recovery will be too challenging. Consider negotiating that when a course grade is a C- or below after the midterm you will be called. Write a letter together to the dean of students asking for that notification and submit it with a release of information (see #5). Work together to define what kind of help is likely to be helpful.
  5. Make sure your student signs a release of information. Colleges will give parents no information about grades, progress, health issues, triumphs, or problems without a release of information signed by your student. Obtain the release form from the school, have your student sign it, and file it with the Dean of Students office.
  6. If your student refuses to sign a release of information, you need to talk. The purpose of the release is not to enable parents to hover but to make it possible to catch lapses before they seriously jeopardize a respectable showing for the semester. Come to agreement about what is and isn’t parental business. It will probably make both you and your student more comfortable if you limit what you ask the college to tell you to academic progress and serious violations of campus policies. Bottom line: No release, no financial help.
  7. Talk about what new freedoms will come with demonstrated maturity. Keep in mind that the purpose of this project is to gradually transfer control and choices from parent to student. Set meaningful, clear, intermediate goals where successes reflect your student’s growing competence and win your growing confidence in his or her ability to manage the demands of college wisely.
  8. Negotiate clear consequences for poor grades or poor behavior. If your student fails to meet the grades and standards of behavior you expect during the first semester, what do you agree should be the consequences? Perhaps your student needs more time to grow up before attempting college. Maybe a transfer to a less demanding school or a school closer to home is warranted.
  9. Make a clear contract and write it down. Having talked these points through and made agreements, write it down. Putting a contract on paper makes it more real. Signing it makes it a commitment. You can both refer to the contract as a point of reference if issues arise.

Glider parenting

Recent media stories have talked dismissively about “helicopter parents,” defining all parents who are involved with their college students’ lives as hovering parents who just can’t let go. I’m sure there are some parents like that. But my experience with concerned parents is that they usually have something to be concerned about. In such cases, I think a better metaphor is the relationship of a tug aircraft to a glider. The tug gets the glider into the air with a towline and lets go once it is sure the glider has enough lift to keep going on its own. The success of both is when the glider is sailing free.