Many American families are comprised of families of blood relation. Many are based on choice – blended families, adoptive families, multi-generational families, and others. Many have also suffered through divorce, loss, or separation. In all families, but particularly in families where members are living apart but working together, it is of utmost importance to a student’s future that lines of communication are open, and family members know their responsibilities.
Recently, I wrote about navigating the college financial aid process for non-nuclear families. In this new blog, I’ll back up a bit to focus on the college search process and the components that are especially important in divorce and other family scenarios.
1. Pay extra attention to the basics of the process.
When everyone isn’t always living together or communicating regularly, details can slip through the cracks. Decide which family members are going to be involved in the college process early on, and begin a communication stream with that group, looping everyone in at appropriate points. The adult supporters should make sure they have a solid grip on the basics of the college search process and have assigned or delegated responsibilities.
Critical steps that should not be missed are:
- Expose your student to college campuses by 11th grade. Give your student enough exposure to understand some basic variables in choosing a campus (size, majors, etc). If travel isn’t an option, take advantage of colleges nearby or online tours to do this.
- Create a standardized testing plan, both for taking tests and for test preparation. This component will require a lot of adult support, from paying for testing and preparation, to assisting with registration and transportation.
- Meet college representatives and demonstrate interest to colleges. These interactions can happen on college visits or at a student’s high school, via online forms, or through alumni programs. Students need to begin practicing meeting adults and talking about themselves and their goals, and demonstrating interest can lead to greater admissions opportunities and monies. Spearhead the application process. In my experience, the process of a student applying to college requires an adult to be helping in big ways – paying fees, assisting with essays, and managing stress, deadlines, and paperwork. Someone needs to be the point person in managing all of this information in fall of 12th grade, as mistakes are easily made and very damaging.
2. Know Your Responsibilities
One of my former colleagues gave a handout listing student responsibilities and parent responsibilities. This handout helped students and parents understand what is appropriate for each role. In non-nuclear families, the lines between these roles can become blurry, especially if adult parties have different philosophies regarding roles. It helps if everyone on the team recognizes the benefits to defining their roles and starting the college search early.
For example: you might agree that it is Parent 1’s responsibility to help your student register for all standardized testing and pay for those registrations. You might then agree that it is Parent 2’s responsibility to research and pay for test preparation. Finally, you might agree that it is the student’s responsibility to keep a calendar of all testing events, commit to a certain number of test dates, and complete homework and all requirements of test preparation.
Another example: You might agree that it is always a student’s responsibility to express interest or do research on schools – sending in online communications, registering for representatives’ visits at your school or in your town, or arranging for meetings when on campus.
A final example: Then, you might agree that Parent 1 will be coordinating any travel to visit colleges, working with student and Parent 2’s schedules. Parent 2 will agree to work with student on follow up communications – writing thank you notes, scheduling interviews, etc.
3. How do you proactively prevent problems in situations that might already feel problematic?
In my experience working with families, about 99% of parents want what is best for their child. So the first step in preventing problems proactively is to make a promise right out of the gates – our student is at the center of this process. Keeping yourselves centered on this pledge from the start will be a powerful reminder to bring out the best in parent communications. Here are a couple of practical ways to keep your student as the hub of the wheel, and the rest of you working hard to support.
- Cultivate self-awareness. Many parents are dealing with challenging emotions throughout the college process, and those can interfere with your child’s needs. Whether you are grieving at the thought of an empty nest, or furious at your ex-partner for their attitude about college, try to process those emotions with your support system so that they aren’t unconsciously at play as you help your student. Sometimes blogs or social media outlets can help, too.
- Ask for what is most important to you. For instance, if you always dreamed of taking your daughter on college road trips, ask for that. Then, make those events as special as you can so you get rewarding time with your child and have the memories to treasure.
- Consider a Gap Year if you’re in the middle of a divorce when your child is junior or senior. This extra year may buy you needed time to finalize your divorce finances and give your child a better chance to resolve feelings about your divorce.
- Finally, agree on regular family meetings. For many families, Sunday is a great day to assess what happened in the prior week and check in about the upcoming week. Use this time to drive the process by addressing stressors and tasks in the pipeline, then help your student make a plan based on what needs to be done.
Nicole has dedicated the entirety of her 20 year career to encouraging higher education opportunities. After graduating from Vanderbilt, she worked in her alma mater’s admissions office. The, she completed her PhD in Counseling so she could bring that expertise into college counseling. Nicole partnered with her former Vanderbilt colleague, Fitz Totten, to form Find The Right College and support their mission to make trustworthy advising more accessible.