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Mansfield Magazine

HomeStyle: A New Curriculum

Jul 18, 2015 02:05PM ● By Laurie Fox

Sending a child off to college can be one of the biggest undertakings that a family will face. Most spend years preparing their student to make that big leap to higher education.

And while securing admission and paying for college are daunting tasks, there are some other important skills that your student needs for college: how to successfully live away from home for the first time and how to make the academic leap.

Higher education and financial experts say how a student handles these life hurdles can mean the difference between them thriving in college — or ending up back on your couch.

Parents and K-12 teachers likely have provided increasing responsibility and have allowed students more calendar control.

But officials say new college students can be their own worst enemies when it comes to certain “soft skills” like how they spend their time, how they study and how they manage their money. The best part about college, students initially discover, is that their parents and teachers won’t be nagging them about these things every day. That also can be their downfall.

“Some of these kids are so over-programmed and they’re so used to mom or dad moving them off to their next activity,” says Heath Einstein, director of freshman admission at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “In college, there’s no one telling them where to be and when to be there. It really jolts some kids.”

Catherine Marrs, a Dallas college admission consultant, says families should start expecting their children to be responsible for their own schedule in high school so they’re learning how to manage their lives in college. “Past the ninth grade, students don’t need their parents to tell them when they have swim practice. They need to learn that accountability,” she says. “Parents need to let their students take ownership of their opportunities and their schedule.”

A high school student may work hard to build a solid academic record and an impressive resume that gets them into the college of their choice. But higher education officials say that often isn’t enough to guarantee academic success at the university level.

Many strong students are heading toward college without “non-cognitive” skills that can benefit them the most, things like time management, calendar planning and a willingness to ask for help.

College officials do admit that it can be a steep learning curve from high school to the university classroom and they’re doing more than ever to better prepare students and providing more resources to help students get comfortable with college.

“They have to learn that the first time they fail, they can’t give up,” says Bill Coppola, president of the Tarrant County College Southeast campus in Arlington. “And they don’t always understand when to ask for help.”

Coppola says many schools provide peer mentors to help students find their way and offer supplemental instruction to aid struggling students. “It’s about balancing the work load and being able to compartmentalize your brain,” he says.

Local college and university officials suggest finding the student advising office and student success center early on and to be proactive and reach out for help from a professor or a tutor before they fall behind. Getting a calendar and sticking to it — remembering to block out enough time for daily studying — also helps shore up time management.

Kimberly van Noort, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, also directs UTA’s University College program which provides support resources and academic success initiatives like advising and tutoring. She recommends that parents help ease the college transition by making it OK for their children to talk about their successes — as well as the times when they’re not feeling so confident. “Over the summer before college, parents can work on building those lines of communication,” van Noort says. “A lot of students are afraid that they’ll disappoint their parents if they’re homesick. So they don’t say anything.”

College also may be the first time that students have had discretionary income and ample opportunities to spend it away from the watchful eyes of their parents. Even with a meal plan, the temptation to order a pizza, indulge in a daily latte or eat out with friends can dent the checkbook. Social outings and buying toiletries also can require more money than students realize. Many colleges include on their web sites cost calculators and lists of suggested ancillary expenses and additional college fees and costs that parents should keep in mind.

Karen Freeman, a Mansfield CPA and financial advisor, says many parents are caught off guard by how fast such spending adds up. And they often haven’t had a frank pre-college discussion with their children about how much they can spend and who will foot the bill for major expenses such as cell phone bills, a car, gas, clothing and insurance. “The incidentals can really add up,” Freeman says. “It can help to set some spending guidelines or give them only a certain amount to live on for two weeks or a month. They have to have a limit or they just keep spending.”

Freeman says budgeting is a valuable skill for students to learn because it makes them aware of where the money goes. Whether it’s in high school or college, she says families can benefit from setting monetary limits. “You have to draw the line,” says Freeman.

Marrs recommends working with students in high school to create an allowance that students have to use to pay for certain things. “Some of these kids go off to college and never learned to manage their lives,” she says. “They need expectations and boundaries early on.”

College preparation can be a whirlwind of deadlines and choices that can take focus away from some less noticeable but equally important life skills conversations that parents should have with their college-bound students. Talking about money and time may not seem important now, but the payoff can be great in the long run. 

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