When her son was born, Robin Cahn knew she wanted him to go to college. She didn’t go herself and she’s always regretted it.

“My brother and sisters got good grades and lots of encouragement,” Cahn says, “and I just got — silence. I felt like a freak.” Cahn recalls being a dyslexic kid relegated to classes for kids with behavior issues. When it came time for college, Cahn’s parents didn’t even encourage her to apply. Instead, her mother suggested she find a man and get married.

Cahn was determined that things would be different for her son, Shane. As a single mother, she saved what she could and applied for scholarships so Shane could attend private schools. But when it was time for Shane to apply to college, “I felt pretty clueless through the whole process,” Cahn admits. “I felt ill-equipped to help him through it.”

If you’re daunted by the college application process, you’re not alone. Between applications, standardized tests, FAFSA forms, essays, and deadlines, the process overwhelms the vast majority of American parents. But if your child, like Cahn’s, is the first to go to college in your family, there are additional challenges. The prospect of your children going to college is likely to spark fear as well as pride. It can be hard to imagine what your child will experience on campus, particularly if your child goes to college far from home. Even though you want to support your child’s move into a different social scene, different set of cultural norms, and (eventually) a higher income bracket, the process can feel uncomfortable for parents who haven’t gone through it themselves. But there is a path for parents through the tricky first-to-college terrain — and a number of ways to play a positive role in your child’s college success.

Creating a college frame of mind

“Parents often say, ‘I didn’t go to college, so I don’t know what to say about it,’” says Diana Adamson, executive director of ScholarMatch, a nonprofit that helps first-to-college and low-income teens navigate everything from college applications to college life adjustments. Despite not feeling in-the-know, “parental expectation is the most important factor in terms of whether or not a student goes to college,” she says. Adamson recommends introducing college in low-key ways, like driving by a school, looking up a new school you hear about online, or talking about schools when you’re watching college sports. “These kinds of things may seem inconsequential, but they make a difference.”

“Even if you feel like you don’t understand the process, it’s important for you to be a part of it,” says Joel Rangel, a college counselor at Gateway High School in San Francisco, where almost a third of students are first-to-college but 96 percent of graduates go to college. The school has multiple programs to help students get to college — like field trips, college counseling classes, and counselors helping students with applications and financial aid — but no matter how much (or little) support a school provides, Rangel says the parents’ role is still the most important. “It really makes a difference if students understand that education is a [family] priority.”

How to stay involved

By the time a student goes to high school, parents let kids take the lead on completing homework and preparing for tests — but Rangel cautions that parents still need to stay involved to help their child stay focused on academics and the big picture.

“A student’s success getting to college rests on how he or she does in high school, including freshman and sophomore year,” Rangel points out. “Sophomore year is particularly important, but freshman year sets the foundation and gets the student off to a strong start.”

What does staying involved look like? Rangel says parents should:

  • have high expectations for school work;
  • show an interest in teens’ classes;
  • make homework time and space a priority; and
  • sit down with teens to go over their grades at the end of every semester.

If your teen is struggling in a class, find out about tutoring options at your child’s school. Rangel also encourages parents to attend back-to-school nights. Introduce yourself to your child’s teachers so if an issue comes up, the teacher will feel comfortable calling you to talk about it. Take advantage of college information events and visit the school counseling center so you’ll be familiar with the resources they have to offer.

The key is not to micromanage but to create a home that supports and values learning. “Your child is going to take a cue from you about how important college is, so if you back off and don’t seem interested, they’ll get that message,” Rangel says.

It takes a village

You’re not alone. Take advantage of any resources offered by the high school college counseling office. Look into organizations (like ScholarMatch) that help first-to-college teens find the right school, get in, and even pay for it. Also, ask people you know for their insights and expertise.

  • Get creative
    Robin Cahn had no idea how to help her son, Shane, select a college or apply, so she got resourceful. Cahn is a hair stylist, and one of her clients is a college counselor, so she proposed a trade. “I cut his hair for a year for free, and he helped Shane with his essay and applications,” she says.
  • Tap into friends and family
    Because the college search and decision process can be charged for kids and parents, a non-parent can play a valuable role as a neutral sounding board. Gateway counselor Joel Rangel had that experience himself when his nephew was going through the college search process. “My nephew was pretty uncommunicative with Mom and Dad, but he would talk to my sister and me,” he says. “Sometimes information is better if it comes from an adult who is not the child’s parent.”
  • Learn from other parents
    Parents whose children are already in college are another key source of information and support. At its workshops, Scholarmatch invites parents of college students to come and talk to parents of soon-to-be freshmen. “It’s great for parents to hear what it was like for someone else, and to be able to get all their questions answered,” says Diana Adamson.
  • Get the lowdown from an expert
    Seek out other resources as well. Robin Cahn found the book, The Naked Roommate: For Parents Only, which is about how parents can help teens navigate college and roommate situations, particularly helpful. “Shane was all the way across the country, and he had normal transition issues his freshman year. He was homesick and his roommate had his girlfriend in the room every night. I think I would have been a lot more freaked out if I hadn’t read that book.”

Fear, pride, anger: dealing with feelings

While safety is the most common fear for parents of first-to-college teens, parents also tend to have concerns about children leaving the family behind. It can be hard for parents to admit these fears — even to themselves. “It’s important for parents to check in with each other,” Rangel says, about your college dreams for your child — and what changes college could mean for the family. He says many parents react with anger instead of showing fear, saying things like, “‘You aren’t going to X school!’” If you can, Rangel advises, be honest with yourself and your teen about your fears. If you can speak openly, he says, you’re more likely to have a conversation instead of an angry exchange and your child will see you honestly expressing your feelings.

Helping parents face this fear is part of ScholarMatch’s work with first-to-college parents. When they connect parent with others who’ve been through the same transition, Adamson says, “Parents whose kids are already in college tell freshmen parents: “‘Don’t worry, your child is still going to love you. They come back different, but it’s better different.’” It’s a description that Robin Cahn says rings true. Her son, Shane, is now a senior at Wesleyan, among the most selective colleges in the U.S. “Every time he comes home, he’s more grown up,” she marvels. “It’s cool to see.”

Still, seeing your child go far away for college can be gut-wrenching, especially at first. University of Montana (UM) student Zoe Garcia* (*name has been changed) says, “College was always [my parents’] dream for me.” Nonetheless, her parents were shocked when she announced that she’d received a scholarship to UM and was planning to accept it. Her family lives in California, so Missoula, MT seemed very far away. The distance was even more daunting because Garcia’s parents, who came to the U.S. from Mexico before she was born, are undocumented. This means they couldn’t visit her at college because they couldn’t fly without identification or risk being pulled over if they drove. “It really hit them hard,” Garcia recalls. “My family is really close — we all live together in one house, my family and uncles, aunts, and cousins. I was the first one to to go away.”

Garcia tried to reassure her parents. “I reminded them that they taught me how to take care of myself. I think they began to accept it after I told them, ‘You left to come here from Mexico. That was your big move. This is my big move,’” she says. Now that she’s a junior and her parents see that she’s thriving, they’re happier about her decision.

Adamson often reminds parents to trust that college is the best thing for their child — and, in the long run, for the family as a whole. “None of the kids in our program say they want to go to college to get rich,” she says. “They all say they want to help their families. These kids have seen the sacrifices their parents have made and they want to give back. For our kids, that doesn’t go away.”

Giving back to her family is Garcia’s goal, too. “I’m doing it for them,” she says simply. “When I graduate, my mother is going to have the biggest smile in the world. And when I get my diploma, I am going to give it to her and to my father.”

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Updated: November 18, 2019