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What role should parents play in the college planning process?

Parents typically have a lot of questions about the college planning process. They want to help their child navigate it successfully but often don’t know where- or when- to start. Some in the industry say it’s never too early start shopping around for schools, but one local expert takes a different approach.

In the latest episode of Talking College with Admissions and Planning Expert John Dragone, host John Dragone gives his take on the best time to start college planning, how parents should approach the subject with their child, and the most helpful ways for parents to get involved in the process.

Related: College planning: How to choose the right major and career

When is the right time to start planning for college?

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to determining the best time to kick college planning into gear. It all depends on the individual student.

“You get some students who may be ready to begin the process at a certain point in time or at a certain grade level, and you get other ones who aren’t quite ready yet. Adolescence is a very unpredictable developmental stage. Students develop intellectually, maturity-wise, and motivation-wise at different points in time,” said Dragone.

Asking your child how they’re feeling about college is a good place to start. Sometimes parents are more excited than the student about beginning this process. Understanding the stress your child may be under is important to the overall success of the process, as well as taking time to assess your own feelings about your child going off to college.

Dragone accepts students as clients of John Dragone College Guidance Services in January of their junior year. By this time, first semester grades are available, and students will have likely taken the PSAT that past fall. Second semester junior year is when students are generally more motivated about the process and in that ‘college mindset.’

Related: The college application process: Understanding the ACT and SAT

How do you talk to your child about college?

Parents can play a pivotal and positive role in the college planning process by supporting, understanding, and encouraging their child. It may be tempting to persuade your child to choose a school close to home, but they ultimately needs to make their own decision.

Your high schooler may not express their feelings verbally, so being attuned to nonverbal ques is crucial. This is likely the most important and difficult decision your child has had to make thus far in their life. It’s easy for parents to interpret their child’s difficulty in starting the process as laziness or apathy, but avoiding assumptions is key.

“It’s probably more likely, you know, if they get stuck or have trouble getting going, they probably just simply don’t know where to begin,” explained Dragone. “The student and the parents are like two ships passing in the night. They never sit down and have a real straightforward conversation. That’s really the first thing I want you to do. I call that the ‘hopes and dreams meeting.’ It’s a starting point for the student and parent with regard to this whole college process.”

Ultimately, giving your child a little nudge to get started can be helpful, but don’t overdo it. Bringing up college everyday or expressing a lot of frustration with your child can do more harm than good.

Related: When attending your dream college means massive student loan debt

What role should parents play in college planning?

Dragone advised not getting carried away with the ‘prestige factor’ when researching schools. The prestige of a certain school does not dictate future success and happiness, he said.

“It’s what [students] accomplish and what they bring to the table, rather than where they went to college, that matters most,” said Dragone. “Ask your son or daughter, ‘what is it that you’d like me to do to help you out here? What role would you like me to play?’ While it’s important for a parent to play a role in helping their son or daughter choose a college, it’s extremely important for parents to know this: While you should assist your son or daughter with the process of choosing a college, you should not take control of the process.”

Here are some potentially helpful roles parents can take on in college planning:

  • Offer to do research if student suggests interest in certain colleges
  • Ask student, ‘What do you want me to focus on in my research?’
  • Making spreadsheet of potential schools with information like cost to attend, distance from home, standardized test (ACT/SAT) scores, GPAs of admitted students, application deadlines, campus visit dates, etc.
  • Bring them to college visits!
  • Help student prioritize dates to submit applications depending on due dates
  • Fill out SAT/ACT registration forms
  • Fill out financial aid forms

Related: TALKING COLLEGE: The Right Way to Choose a College (podcast)

You can listen or watch the full podcast episode “Excessive Student Loan Debt Can Ruin Lives” here.

New episodes of Talking College with Admissions and College Planning Expert John Dragone are released every Thursday at 4 p.m. Check this page for the latest episode.