Being the parent of a teen means you’ll need to have all kinds of stressful conversations with your kid on a range of hot-button topics. And for that reason, it may be tempting to put off talking about the college process until you absolutely have to. But that would be a mistake. It might sound premature, but starting these conversations early—at, say, the end of eighth grade—can relieve a lot of the pressure your kid might be experiencing. Here’s my blueprint for a successful first college conversation.
Before you talk to your kid
- Get on the same page. It’s important for you and your partner to talk before approaching your child. You might be surprised to discover how differently you feel about college. Maybe you’d rather tap your 401(k) before even considering student loans, while your partner feels it’s smart for your kid to take on reasonable debt. These can be emotional, loaded conversations. That’s why it’s so important to think it over and talk it through, so you can present a unified front to your kid. Talk about what your family is able (and willing) to spend on college costs.
Will your kid need to take out loans? (The vast majority of kids have to borrow some money to help pay for college, so don’t feel guilty about not being able to foot the full bill.) Will you be willing to take on loans yourself? For more on the ins and outs of borrowing, see Paying for College.
- Take your financial aid temperature. Use the government’s FAFSA4caster to get an early, ballpark estimate of how much federal financial aid (we’re talking low-interest Direct Loans, Pell Grants, and work-study money) your family could get. This won’t give you the whole picture because it doesn’t estimate how much money you’ll get from a particular school in the form of grants and scholarships. But it’s still a helpful start that’ll get you thinking.
- Peel back the sticker price. Unfortunately, figuring out how much you’ll actually pay for college is not as simple as looking up the full cost of tuition, room, and board. To get a better sense of what your family will be expected to pay for freshman year, pick a few schools your kid might want to go to and then fill in their net price calculators, which you can find here. These calculators look at your family’s income, the number of kids you have in college, and your family’s savings and assets to predict how much you’ll be expected to chip in. Again, this number will likely be thousands of dollars off, but it’ll give you an even clearer starting point.
When you talk to your kid
- Choose your moment. This is not a conversation best shouted out between the shower and coffee maker as your kid rushes off in the morning. Pick a low-stress time—maybe on a long car ride to Grandpa’s or during a dinner out. Start slow: “Hey, I’ve been thinking about how much I loved college, and in a few years you’ll get to go, too.”
- Plant seeds. Most kids hate change, so don’t be surprised if yours doesn’t immediately dive into the college talk—or claims she’s got a chem exam each time you bring up the topic. You don’t need to force it. Talking about college is actually a series of mini-talks. If your kid isn’t responding, rest assured she’s hearing more of what you’re saying than she lets on. Laying the groundwork now means that when you’re choosing schools and figuring out how to pay for it all, you’ll have a better sense of where your kid stands.
- Don’t think you know what your kid’s thinking. When you look back on college, a little voice inside your head might be saying, “Wooooo! College! Freedom! Learning! Self-discovery!” The voice in your teen’s head might be more of a whimper: “Who’s going to do my laundry? How will I compete with all the other smart kids? What will I do if I don’t find my people?”
If your kid seems freaked out, let her know that you, too, felt nervous about going away to college. Finding a college that has a great record of job placement and solid first-year salaries might be high on your list—but your kid might not have heard of data science or chemical engineering. Don’t push too hard about concerns of yours that are not in sync with your kid’s—especially when your goal here is to try to get a conversation started. It’s really hard to bite our tongues, but sometimes simply listening to our kid’s concerns is a much better way to get where we want to go.
Talking about college is actually a series of mini-talks.
- Ask your kid if he wants a million dollars. If he takes the bait and says yes, explain that that’s how much more he’ll make over his lifetime if he graduates from college. That should get most kids excited about higher ed. But your sales pitch doesn’t have to end there. Follow up by describing the amazing range of schools—from big state schools to small liberal arts colleges to Ivy League universities. (You may have to explain the differences.) Share a bit of your own experience (the positive stuff, that is). And appeal to your kid’s interests. Is she into robot-building competitions? Tell her that many schools have robotics labs. More of a poet? Many schools have famous writers on the faculty.
- Give your kid the financial lowdown. Now it’s time to share a bit of your financial reality with your kid. You don’t need to tell him everything, but he will need to know the basics, including things like whether you expect him to get a summer job to save for his share of tuition—or whether he’ll need to take out loans. (Be sure to point out that about 70% of kids who go to college take out loans.) And then explain that you will look for low-interest loans that he won’t need to pay back before he graduates. It’s important to be honest but calm. Don’t impart your own anxiety about affording college to your kid. Overall, keep the money talk positive, stressing that you are in this as a team and you’ll figure out a way to find affordable schools that are great.
- Deliver a report card pep talk. Good grades can qualify your kid for scholarships and grants that can take a divot out of college costs, so emphasize that, starting in ninth grade, the report card “counts” for college admissions.
- Make a plan. It’s good to end this talk with some takeaways and goals. For your kid, it might be as simple as “bring those grades up.” She may also be tempted to get a part-time job to help save for college, and if that’s the case, you’ll want to make sure that her work hours don’t interfere with school.
Good grades are more important than whatever paycheck your kid earns, which will be a drop in the bucket of college expenses. (I recommend working during the summer; limit jobs during the school year to 15 hours a week or your kid’s grades can suffer.) For you, the plan might be to start saving more for college, figure out ways to earn more, or do more research on financial aid. If you and your kid come up with a plan, you’ll show her that you’re all in this together.