Preparing for College: How Soon to Discuss It and What Parents Should Say

It’s really never too soon to start preparing for college by talking to your children about the subject. Parental involvement is a good thing.

But what’s the right age and how much do young kids need to know?

“Because children can begin thinking about what they want to do with their lives at early ages, college should be a natural part of an ongoing conversation,” writes Patti Richards for “Talking with your child about college should be done early, often and in age-appropriate ways.”

That means  initial conversations should probably not include selecting a major or debating the merits of Harvard vs. Yale.

Laurel Barrette, K12’s director of guidance counseling services, suggests that one of the best ways to introduce young children to the concept of college is to expose them to a local campus.

“That can be a local community college that’s hosting a community event like an art fair or concert or taking kids to the student union,” Barrette says. “They might even play video games there.

“At some point, kids see themselves being able to go to college. They say, ‘I can do this, too.’ It’s about making sure kids have exposure and the opportunity to explore.”

Richards says it’s important to begin talking about college in terms children can understand.

“For example, ‘College is a school for big kids.’ Or ‘college is where you go to learn when you grow up.’ Using terms they can understand helps young minds wrap themselves around big concepts at a level that is appropriate for them,” she says.

As time goes on, discussions about college will become more complex, covering everything from grades and expectations to where to go to school and how a family will foot the bill. Those discussions will take a unique path for each family depending on a wide range of factors, including the goals and abilities of the student, the needs of siblings and the ability to finance continuing education.

Above all, Barrette says, children need to know that going to college is an “expectation” even for kids that might eventually choose a different road after high school. The importance of continuing education on careers and long-term earning potential is simply too big to ignore, whether the path leads to a two-year school, four-year college, a post-graduate degree or some form of career advancement study.

“Although parents want to be careful about not putting too much pressure on a child,” Barrette says, “the proper message is ‘someday you will go to college.’”

By the time a child reaches middle school, that student will be selecting courses that will impact their high school path.

“Conversations at this age need to focus on getting good grades and developing good study habits so they have the foundation to do well in high school, when colleges start paying attention,” Richards says. “But do not be surprised at struggles during the middle school years. This is a time of tremendous growth and development for students, and your children need a chance to grow at their own pace to be ready for high school.”

The realities of what college means to a student and his family, even if that family does not traditionally send members to four-year institutions, begin to come into play.

“At this point, they need to know that college is an option and that there are ways to pay for it,” Barrette says. “Sometimes, kids make the assumption that a family can’t pay for college and that can lower their own expectations.”

“A candid conversation with your kid about paying for college needs to start as early as possible,” Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial told “That can even be as early as middle school. It can save you and your kid a lot of grief to set expectations early instead of bursting her UNC-blue bubble right before she applies. If a kid is excited about or set on attending school outside your price range, have a conversation about whether that is realistic and what you as a family can do to make that happen.”

Once in high school, students can begin to think about where they’d like to attend college and what they might study. There is much to consider in terms of  living away vs. living at home, the size of the school, the courses offered and the social environment of a campus.

“It’s so important to find the right fit,” Barrette says. “What college is right for you? Where do they feel most comfortable. Getting into a school is one thing but being able to persist and thrive needs to be a focus.” Touring multiple colleges can be highly beneficial. Reading about the merits of a particular college is one thing. Seeing it in the flesh and feeling the campus environment is another.

“Begin looking at schools in ninth or tenth grade,” Barrette suggests. “There’s a lot of value in seeing a school beyond taking the ‘official’ tour. Make seeing colleges part of what a family is doing. If you’re going to the beach, incorporate a stop at a nearby campus.”

Of course, high school grades and test results will be important considerations by college admissions officers. “But you don’t want a kid to think that MIT is the only option,” Barrette says. “That’s too much pressure.”

When it comes to academics, Barrette says parents should also encourage students to take college courses in high school. “Start with something totally low-stress—a subject they have a perceived interest in,” she says. “Taking a freshman English class is always useful. Many colleges offer high school students the chance to take classes for free or at significantly reduced rates.”

In addition to speaking with parents, students should enlist the help of knowledgeable outsiders. Students who have recently attended a given college can add insight into selecting a school. So can guidance counselors.

“At K12, we provide tools and resources as well as a number of early college course options,” Barrette says. “Our Pathfinder college and career counseling tool is highly beneficial. Achieving college and career goals are paramount for our counselors who provide guidance and support.”

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