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The first time Rocio Guerrero sat down with her son’s guidance counselor at Alhambra High in Martinez, California, Danny was a junior. He was being placed on athletic suspension because of grades. The football player, who hoped to play at the nearby community college after high school, would not be on the field his senior year. For Danny, it meant the possibility of his dreams being crushed. For his mom, who wanted him to go to college, the advice wasn’t cutting it.

“She was giving us instructions to take him to another school, recalls Guerrero. But a new school — especially an alternative school — didn’t seem like the best choice for Danny’s future. Beyond her son’s sports dreams, Guerrero knows the importance of college. But she’s just started to see all the things she needed to do to support Danny’s — and the family’s — dream of college.

The right classes

Now Guerrero is helping Danny push through a predetermined course schedule set by the counselor. “They don’t let you choose,” she says. “They assign some things to you.” And those assigned courses aren’t necessarily of much value for anything beyond earning a high school diploma.

Experts say parents can — and should — insist on challenging classes for their children, and they should do it early on, starting in ninth grade. A demanding high school curriculum (especially in math) helps with success getting into, and staying in, college,” says Peg Tyre, director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation. “Kids who get through Algebra 2 are something like 500 percent more likely to graduate.”

“If you don’t do something about your future, no one else is going to do it for you,” Guerrero says. She’s very aware of that. It’s why she’s back in college herself, earning her associate’s degree in the nursing field at night. While she did that, cared for her family, and worked full time during the day, Danny was falling through the cracks at Alhambra. So the lesson is reinforced for her. Parents need to know the details of what’s going on with their children’s education.

Meet the counselor in ninth grade

The process to get your child on a successful road to college begins — at latest — when your child enters high school. In most cases, parents need to lead the charge – even if that parent is busy, and even if that parent has never attended college and doesn’t know what it takes.

The first step is to set up a meeting with school officials before ninth grade begins.  The parents absolutely must set the tone about the expectation for their child. “Talk to the teacher and counselors and tell them you have college in mind for your child,” says Tyre. “Articulating it to the school is critical. It’s scary, but that’s what it takes.”

It may be even scarier for a parent who didn’t attend college. But that’s what it takes, the experts advise. The parent is putting their child on a road to a more secure financial life. These students will be “first-gen” students in college, a title that reflects the pride of a family striving to reach new heights. Specialized programs, classes, even living arrangements, are available to youth who make it into college. But it’s an uphill battle that begins in ninth grade and continues even once a child is in college. This is not the time for doubt or clamming up. Parents can use their lack of experience to justify asking more questions and get more help and advice early on.

“Parents who get involved early not only set a great example for their children, but also learn more about the process and how to help their kids navigate it,” says Joe Deal, founder of FirstGenerationStudent.com.

College nights and campus tours

In addition to reviewing course schedules — making sure the classes are challenging and making sure college requirements are being met — parents need to find out when college nights are at their high school or even attend a neighboring schools’ college nights, which are generally open to the public.

“Regardless of where one lives, there should be opportunities to attend college fairs, meet with campus representatives, and learn more about what it takes to apply and gain admission to local colleges and universities,” says Deal.

The next step is to spend time on a nearby college campus. Why? It can remove some of the college mystery. Danny visited the University of California, Berkeley campus with his class and Diablo Valley Community College on his own. While Guerrero “didn’t have a chance to really check out any colleges with him,” she says she would have encouraged her son to take advantage of the virtual tours many schools provide, if she’d known they were out there.

For her younger daughter, Guerrero says she will look into tours — both on campus and virtual. Free campus tours are a great way to learn about school specialties and offer plenty of opportunities to ask college representatives questions. Also, an insider secret is that when it comes time to apply, some schools waive application fees for tour attendees.

Another fun way to get the family familiar with local colleges is to attend a sporting event, a concert, or one of the many events regularly happening on college campuses. Even walking the grounds, eating in the dining hall, or studying in the library can go a long way to reducing the anxiety of the going-to-college experience.

To visit more distant campuses, contact schools, particularly private schools, to find out whether they provide ways and means for prospective students to visit.

Admission tests

Most four-year schools (and some two-year ones) require competitive SAT and/or ACT test scores for admission. These tests need to be taken before the application is submitted. As practice, students can (and should) take a PSAT (also known as the pre-SAT) in grade 8 or 9. The PSAT score doesn’t count for a child’s college application, but it gives the student a hint of what’s expected and lets the family know what the child needs to work on. It can also help families begin the college discussion well before junior and senior year. High schools often offer classes — or know of community opportunities — to learn how to take the test and to take practice tests. Practice may not make perfect, but practice will improve scores on these tests, and that’s important.

If unaffordable fees are involved, the local library has how-to books and books with practice tests. But whenever a cost arises during the college search process, the penny-pinched parent must learn to ask: “Can that fee be waived?” There may be times counselors aren’t advertising it, but some money is available.

Applying to college

After tests, the application process starts. CollegeBoard.com says five to eight college applications is generally enough to ensure at least one acceptance letter. (For this expensive endeavor, the must-ask question to direct at each college: Can that fee be waived?) Also, filling out the Common Application, an online form accepted by more than 400 colleges, can streamline the intense and repetitive application process.

But choosing where to apply is its own joy … and headache. Consider the school’s basic academic requirements, your child’s career goals and interest, and of course, cost.

Figure out what you can afford, says Tyre. “If you haven’t saved money for college … look at a (nearby) geographic area if the child is going to live at home.”

School counselors can also help navigate through college options. What is best for the student? There are four-year, two-year, and vocational options; private and public; small, medium, and large; urban, suburban, and rural. What offers the best fit and the best options for aid, programs, and outcomes?

Students usually start filling out applications at the beginning of senior year. Each college has its own deadline. Nov. 1 is the deadline date that comes up often; many schools offer two sets of dates, which include a November deadline and a January or February deadline.

Dates become very important senior year – calendar dates that is, not dates for dances. Parents from all walks of life find themselves prodding their nearly grown children during this time. It can be stressful all around. Part of the reason may be because these aren’t applications where you fill in your name, address, and Social Security number and call it done. Usually essays must be written, recommendation letters must be solicited and sent, and sometimes portfolios must be prepared.

“Parents should work with their kids to create a college game plan,” says Deal. “(This) will increase students’ odds of navigating the college application process without unexpected problems.”

Paying for college

Financial aid — federal grants and loans, college-specific grants, loans, and scholarships, and other scholarships — are also deadline driven with first-come, first-served ramifications. But here are a couple of little-known facts. Many scholarships can be applied for as early as ninth grade. Private schools, including the Ivys and Stanford, as well as small, liberal arts schools, often give meatier financial aid packages that ease the burden of college costs.

So many scholarships are available — and some are specifically targeted at first-generation college students, some at minorities. Some are based on financial need. Some are easy to find; others take digging and research to unearth. But who counts solely and completely on scholarships? No one. But they still go to college.

Experts, counselors, and educators say over and over: don’t be scared off because of the cost of college. Don’t see college as impossible or something other people’s children do. Don’t think community college and state colleges are your only option. Most first-generation college students will need financial aid to afford school. This aid is often mostly in the form of grants, which are not loans and don’t have to be paid back. . But financial aid will also often include work-study as well as low-interest loan options. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA as early as junior year. The earlier these are filled out, the better the chances for grant money. Parents can find local workshops (at high schools, community colleges, and libraries) to walk them through filling out and filing the FAFSA.

Guerrero says she didn’t realize how much she could have done. She expects to take advantage of the opportunities and pursue a different approach when her daughter, Claire, now in middle school, enters high school. “I’m going to try my best,” she says. “With the first one, I didn’t know what to do, but I think I’m going to be better at this with her.”

As for Danny, he now has his mother looking over his shoulder. They both still have hopes of him going to college in the fall. If not the fall, soon after. Guerrero says she knows the financial difference a college degree can make, and she wants Danny to have a secure future.

Read more:
• See the tips this family picked up: 7 things to do to support your child’s college dream
Resources for the first in the family to go to college.

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