A Guidebook For Parents Of High School Students

This guide helps parents and students understand the common first-year challenges for parents and their children.

Updated September 14, 2023

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Guidebook For Parents Of The College-Bound

The transition to college is challenging for both students and their parents. Going from high school to college is a major milestone, one that marks the student's eventual transition into independence. However, neither the student nor the parent needs to handle the transition alone.

Affordable Colleges Online created the following guide to help ease the transition process by addressing the common first-year challenges for parents and their children. The following guide helps parents prepare for the high-school to college transition; explores the financial aid process; discusses concerns about housing and student independence; identifies on-campus resources for students; and offers resources for parents of high school students, college freshman, college students, and graduate school students.

Parents of High School Students

Countdown to College: Helping Them Get Ready

Freshman Year

Although college is four years away, the preparation process can begin during the first year of high school. Students can start planning for Advance Placement courses, participate in extracurricular activities, and begin thinking about college in general terms.

Sophmore Year

The second year of high school is still dedicated to general thinking about high school. Parents should encourage their student to do well in the classroom, continue participating in extracurricular activities, take Advanced Placement classes, and study for the PSAT. The sophomore year sets the foundation for the junior year, the year when college planning shifts into high gear.

Junior Year

Parents can help students begin to explore possible majors and colleges. Leading the prospective college search, parents can assist students think about location, educational reputation, school size, academic programs, and cost. This research allows students to develop a general list of preferences that can be used to narrow the list when it comes time to apply. During this year, parents and students should start searching for scholarships and start a conversation about the college financing process. Finally, parents can help their students study for standardized tests—the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT).

Senior Year

The final year in high school is the start of the college application process. Students should help their student register for the SAT or ACT (registration occurs a month before the test). Secondly, parents should assist in helping students narrow down their list of target universities. If possible, arranging a campus visit is a great way to provide students (and parents) an opportunity to gain a true sense of what the campus is like. Parents should ensure their student applies for scholarships and compiles a list of application requirements for each institution. Although students should take the lead for the application process, parents can ensure all required materials are submitted and deadlines are met. Finally, parents should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to get an understanding of the financial commitment they will have to make to finance their student's education.

Making a Decision

Once the acceptance letters come in, an important decision has to be made: where to attend college. Parents can help students navigate the various financial aid packages, discuss the pros and cons of each institution, and make a final school selection.

School Decision: Made. Now What?

How to pay for it

As early as possible, communicate with your student about how much you can contribute to their educational expenses and tuition. Beyond a parent's support, there are other financial avenues to finance a college education. The most common include outside scholarships and grants and college- and federal-based student aid. To start the process, students and their parents must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The FAFSA® determines the “Expected Family Contribution”—the amount each family/parent is expected to pay towards their child's education. The FAFSA® is sent to the financial aid office of each university listed on the student's application. Financial aid offices uses the FAFSA® form to determine the student's eligibility for financial aid.

Federal Financial Aid

Federal financial aid can be used to pay for nearly all expenses related to colleges, such as tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and technology fees. Federal financial aid falls into three different categories: Loans, Grants, and Work-Study.


Scholarships are awarded by non-government organizations such as charities and nonprofits, philanthropists, and private businesses. Scholarships are traditionally merit-based and can be used to pay for educational expenses such as tuition and books. It is important to realize that each university has its own rules as to how scholarships are applied to each student's overall financial aid package.

College-Based Grants

In addition to federal grants, college-based grants are another avenue of potential funding for students. These grants are typically need-based and serve as a supplement to federal financial aid. They are designed to make college affordable and each postsecondary institution has its own eligibility and disbursement criteria for college-based aid.

Private Student Loans

Private loans are provided by private companies to finance a college education. Student financing experts recommend parents and students only turn to private student loans after maximizing federal- and college-based aid. Loan and interest amounts vary from company to company.

Out-of-Pocket Funds

Depending on the situation, parents may be able to contribute via their own savings or income. Parents and students should have real conversations about the amount parents can pay toward tuition each year. Secondly, students should also have an understanding of whether they will have to work during college to afford their education.

“There are two general areas where parental support is really necessary. The first is financing. Not a lot of people understand the financial pieces of college. When I was coaching some students, they didn't understand the difference between scholarships and loans.”

Shannon, Student Coach, InsideTrack

Paying for College in the U.S.

Typical Family Funding – 2014

Paying for College in the U.S.

Average Amount Spent
at public institution in 2014:4-year: $21,072 2-year: $11,012

61%of families believe college
payments is a shared responsibility
between student and family (SallieMae)

Pell Grants were awarded to
9.2 million
students and averaged $2,240 per full-time enrolled student in 2013-2014 (CollegeBoard)

Borrowed funds accounted for
22% of college financing
in 2013-2014(SallieMae)

Student Records

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of a student's educational records. Once a student attends a postsecondary institution or reaches the age of 18, they receive control over their educational records, including the right of disclosure of those records. That means academic information such as transcripts, GPA, and discipline records are given to the student and not the parents. In turn, college representatives are prohibited from discussing or disclosing information about the student's academic record or performance with parents.

“It can be hard for parents to understand when their child is stressed because they have less access to information about course performance and assignments. I have had parents call my office, but any professor who knows FERPA rules will refuse to provide any information to parents.”
Curtis, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Tennessee

Students may choose to sign a waiver that allows records to be released to parents and for college representatives (e.g. faculty members) to discuss information about the student with parents. However, students may or may not wish to sign a FERPA release. Parents can feel frustrated because of FERPA guidelines, but parents should remember that college students are growing toward independence and greater levels of responsibility.

“I never ask them about their grades. I just want to know how they are, who their friends are, if they like their classes, that kind of thing. I don't ask them about their academic achievements, but they usually choose to share that with me.”
Janet, Parent

Where to Live

Next to selecting which college to attend, the question of where to live is the second most important decision during the college selection process. Undergraduate students have a variety of living options, from traditional, on-campus residence halls to off-campus houses and apartments. Parents should review the college's residential policy in regards to campus housing as many institutions have on-campus residency requirements. Below is an overview of common housing options available to students:

Residence Halls

The most common form of college housing, residence halls provide students with the opportunity to live and learn together. The number of students per residence hall varies by college—some halls may be capped at 200 students, while others may be limited to 50. These buildings include common space areas (e.g. kitchens, bathrooms, lounges, study spaces) and various types of student rooms. Depending on the residence hall, students may be in single, double, triple and quad rooms. Residential halls are often first-come, first-serve and should be reserved as early as possible after the student is accepted to the university.

Special Interest Housing

Some institutions may offer alternatives to traditional dormitories, such as living and learning communities or alcohol-free communities. For example, living and learning communities are special residential buildings that house a cohort of students who live together and have the same class schedules. There may be restrictions on the availability of special interesting housing, so parents should discuss options with a residential life advisor at the target institution.

Apartments and Campus Houses

As students transition into upper-class standing, they may be able to move to campus-owned apartments or houses. These houses may be co-ed and typically include multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, common living areas, and a full kitchen.


After matriculating, students may choose to join Greek-letter organizations and room and board in their respective fraternity or sorority house. Each sorority and fraternity is required to have a resident house director who lives at the house. Parents should be aware that most Greek organizations require an annual membership fee in addition to the yearly room and board costs.

Off-Campus Housing

Before making a decision, parents should check whether their student's college is a residential institution. Residential colleges require all students to live in campus housing – including college-owned off-campus properties. For non-residential colleges, off-campus housing is not regulated or certified by the university. For parents interested in this option, various types of off-campus housing can be rented, from apartments to single rooms in a multi-person house.

Summer Housing

For students planning to live in a residence hall, it is important to note rules and regulations do vary by college. Some universities allow students to leave their belongings in the room during the summer, but do not allow students to stay there without paying an additional fee and signing an additional license. Other institutions close residential halls during the summer and require students to move their belongings over the summer break.

Will They Bring a Car?

It's a major question. Should students bring a car to college or is leaving the car at home a better option? Below are four items parents should consider when deciding whether or not to send their child to campus with a vehicle.

  1. University Policies
    It may come as a surprise, but most universities and colleges do not allow incoming college freshman to have a car on campus. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education maintains a list of campus car bans.
  2. Parking
    At most universities, parking is limited and comes at a premium. Students (and faculty alike) must purchase parking permits in order to use the school parking lots. Parking permits add another cost that both parents and students should consider.
  3. Need and Use
    Will the student need to use the car often? College freshman living on-campus can take advantage of self-sufficient communities and may not need to travel off-campus often. Parents and their student should be realistic about how often the car will actually be used.
  4. Freedom
    Having a car allows for greater freedom, while not having the car may restrict a student's ability to travel. In addition, students with a car may face frequent requests for rides and students without a car may end up in ride asking situations.

Parents of College Freshmen

First Semester Preparation and Troubleshooting

The first semester represents a time of uncertainty for both parents and their student. The following section details areas of concern, such as health, and provides an overview of steps parents can take to ease the transition process.

Student Health

Being away from home means students must take an active role in monitoring and managing their health. Here are several items parents and students should keep in mind


The Affordable Care Act allows children to stay on their parents' insurance until the age of 26. However, what if the student moves to another state? Will the insurance still provide coverage? Before the student steps foot on campus, parents should ensure their student has insurance coverage—either through a parent-sponsored plan, an individual student health plan, or other avenues of coverage. Parents can visit www.healthcare.gov for more information.

Health Accommodations

Students may have health issues, ranging from food allergies to disability-related problems. Parents can work with the college's various student services offices to ask about accommodations for everything from ADHD to food allergies.

Emergencies and Urgent Care

Parents should make sure their student knows where to go for emergency or urgent care medical treatment. Visiting the student health center on move-in day is a great first step in being prepared.

Create Health Information File

Parents can work with their student's pediatrician's or physician's office to assemble a medical file that includes health insurance information, emergency contacts, a copy of their insurance card, allergies, blood-type information, up-to-date immunization records, prescription medication information, physician contact information, and any records related to chronic health issues.

Develop a Care Plan

Whether the condition is a chronic health ailment or mental health disorder, parents should work with their student to develop a care plan. This includes a process of refiling prescriptions and accessing support through on-campus health care resources.

Health Checklist
Moving Day Checklist

Moving day represents the passing of the torch. It's a day filled with excitement and it is important to keep the focus on your student. Below is a list of tips to make move-in day go smoothly.

How to Transition as a Parent

Parents spend massive amounts of time, energy, resources, and finances to get their children to college. The transition to college is complex, filled with numerous challenges. For the transitioning parent, consider the following three tips to get the first year off on a successful start.

  1. Let your child call first.They will call when they need you, but allow them as much time as they need to adjust. Time is probably flying for your child and grounding to a halt for you.
  2. Plan a trip to campus.
    Parent and family days are ideal because other parents are around, meaning your child is unlikely to be embarrassed by your presence. (Yes, it still happens in college.) Moreover, you'll get to meet the families of your child's friends.
  3. Send a care package.
    This will allow you to channel your thoughts about your new college student into a gift he or she will really appreciate.

First Year of College Facts

Parents of Undergraduates

Students heading to college face the challenge of independence, discovering how to succeed on their own. College parents can provide support by helping their student understand there are college resources dedicated to their academic, social, emotional, religious, and financial well-being. Below is a resource chart of available services where students can receive assistance.

Academic Support

Health and Well-Being

Campus and Academic Life

Tips for Parents to Stay in the Loop

Eight Ways to Tell if Your Child Might Be in Trouble

College is a time for gradually letting your student go and simultaneously remembering that you raised them well. But, on occasion, students may struggle or need help. College is a new experience that presents unique challenges. Here are eight signs that your child may be having academic, emotional, financial or social difficulties.

Calling home often or wanting to come home outside of normal school breaks

Homesickness is a big problem for some students because it prevents them from fully enjoying college life. Surprisingly, it can also cause problems for students who attend school close to home. With parents and high school friends nearby, some students see little need to forge new connections.

Well-intentioned parents can exacerbate the problem by allowing too much contact. One way to mitigate homesickness is to visit your student on campus. It helps students think of the college as home and prevents them from trying to leave problems behind by getting off campus.

Not wanting to return to school after holidays at home

Not wanting to return to school is a sign of feeling uncomfortable integrating into school life. Since this can be for any number of reasons (e.g. academic difficulties, relationship problems), it's best to start a dialogue with the student. Many students genuinely feel they have made the wrong decision about where to attend school and may benefit from transferring. Others just need to know their feelings are normal. Campuses are chockfull of resources to help struggling students; help your son or daughter look into them.

Expressing excessive negativity about life

Being negative about nearly everything is a mindset. You have to find the root of it. What in particular is bothering the student? Identifying the underlying problem will help the student develop solutions.

Not participating in school activities

College is about so much more than just classes. Not integrating into school social life means that a student is missing out on much of the college experience. For some students, this is because they put too much pressure on themselves to excel academically. Other students may have feelings of depression or social anxiety. When visiting campus, parents can offer to take their student's friends or roommates along to dinner. This provides a subtle hint to the student that Mom and Dad feel it is important for him or her to have a social life.

Getting low grades

Low grades are worrisome for a number of reasons. First, some scholarships require students maintain a minimum grade point average or have their funding pulled. Second, failing classes may put them in danger of not graduating on time. Third, it may be a sign of a larger problem, such as excessive partying. Ultimately, however, it's important for parents to give their children some time before demanding an improvement. College is more difficult than high school, and for some students may represent the first time they have ever been truly challenged academically. Fortunately, many students will make the necessary adjustments to their study schedule and learning approach to improve their grades.

“I think a lot of students have been trained to focus on grades and focus on learning for the sake of getting A's rather than learning for the sake of learning. And I think that can prevent students from being more successful. Learning is an important process and that failure is crucial to success. So it's kind of coming from the vantage point that students can really build on their success if they're able to focus on the growth they're seeing rather than just focus on the end piece.”
Shannon, Student Coach, InsideTrackNot going to class or completing school projects

Unlike merely getting poor grades, not going to class or completing school projects is a sign that a student's priorities are out of alignment. It may be time to have a tough conversation with your student and, if you are supporting them financially, remind them of your minimum expectations for how that money is being spentShowing a significant weight change

Gaining weight in college is normal. The lifestyle is different and students on their own must adapt to being responsible for how they take care of their bodies. Parents should look out for excessive weight gain or weight loss, which can be signs of underlying emotional or psychological difficulties, including depression.

Needing extra money often

Needing money often can be a sign of a few things. Students could be eating out a lot, which might mean the money already paid for dining hall food is going to waste. Or, they may be partying. There may even just be some unexpected costs that weren't budgeted for initially. Regardless of the reason, it's time to have another discussion about budgets and financial expectations. You and your student should come to a solution that requires him or her to manage money responsibly while allowing him or her to maintain a healthy social life.

“We had a concern with his partying life. The take I decided to take on it was to talk to him about it and tell him what my concerns were in a way that wasn't too demanding, but just tell him how I felt about it and ask him some questions—because he was drinking and smoking. The key was that if he was continuing to do well academically and things were going well in his life, I wasn't going to let that freak me out.”
Janet, Parent

Special Supplement:
Parents of Graduate Students

Most graduate students are on their own, but that doesn't necessarily mean parents have zero involvement. Graduate students may still rely on their parents for financial and emotional support, and some even live with their parents at home to save money.

Financing School

Most graduate students are considered independent, meaning that parents' information is not required on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Graduate students can receive five types of federal aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education:

Parents and students should keep in mind that Federal Direct Loans are unsubsidized, meaning that interest will accrue while students are studying. Perkins Loans, meanwhile are based on “exceptional financial need.” For many students, private lending sources may be more affordable. Additionally, students should talk with their schools before registering to determine what funding the school will provide.

Living at Home

Graduate students who live at home are in a peculiar position. On the one hand, they are adults and need a certain amount of independence. On the other hand, they are living under the same roof as they did as children, and parents feel compelled to establish boundaries. As with most things, it is best to communicate this ambiguity up front and make sure that both parties are flexible. They don't need the same curfew they had when they were 18, but if there are rules that are important to you, discuss them.

“Graduate students will spend a majority of their time reading and writing, and creating or finding the space and time to do so is important. Don't be surprised if your graduate student keeps strange hours.”
Diana, Graduate Student Instructor, University of California, Irvine


Graduate school requires a more advanced level of study. Therefore, the expectations on your student cannot be the same. Rest assured in knowing that students in graduate school have met every academic challenge put before them—your child has the skills to meet this one too. Where you can help is by making sure your student has an outlet outside of school

“Much more so than the undergraduate experience, graduate school takes a mental, physical and emotional toll on students. Expectations are vastly different, so stress levels can rise. Be aware that your graduate student might have emotional needs that differ greatly from those of undergraduate students. Finding techniques for stress and anxiety management (e.g., therapy, physical activity/sports, new social groups) is not uncommon and, in fact, should be encouraged.”
Diana, Graduate Student Instructor, University of California, Irvine

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