Preparing for College

Big decisions await you as your child prepares to enter college.

As your child, or even you, prepare to enter the world of higher education, a multitude of questions arise. Which school? Which major? Should you minor? You must make decisions on paying for school, where you or your child will live and, in the case of new high school graduates, how in the world to do laundry correctly. Here you find answers to some of the hardest questions, including: How do I help my child transition to independence? Should I take out student loans, and how do I do it carefully? Should we visit campuses and is work study a good idea?

[nextpage title=”The Paradox of Loans”]

The Paradox of Loans

Paying for college and related expenses may be necessary, but students must beware the consequences of large debt.

Should I have a work-study job or not?

You should. College students need extra money in their pockets and on-campus jobs fit their class schedules. Since it is on campus, employers realize that being a student comes first. Work-study shows employers diligence and teaches time management. Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors, says: “Work-study is always a good idea. Building a resume while in college, creating network opportunities, and getting to know the staff on campus – all of these options can lead to job placement upon graduation.”

For many college graduates in their 20s and 30s, loans that financed their educations have become albatrosses around their necks.

National reports indicate more than 44 million Americans have more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. Somewhat typical of this situation is Morgan Hope, a University of Oklahoma alumna in the banking industry. She struggles with a six-figure debt and describes private student loans as “the devil.”

She received two private student loans – one in 2005 for about $16,000, the other in 2007 for about $11,000. Never missing a deadline, she has repaid more than $8,000 toward each, but, because of interest, she owes more than $20,000 on the first and more than $15,000 on the second.

How do you prepare teens to live on campus?

  • Teach them to do laundry – and insist that they do their own for the summer.
  • Teach them the basics of banking and how to manage money.
  • Teach them how to cook a few basic meals. Most freshmen are on some kind of meal plan, but knowing how to cook can come in handy.
  • Discuss the reality of their decisions. Tell them what to expect and how to handle possible social, financial and medical situations.

Hope seems to be going backward instead of forward, and that’s not all she owes.

“The remaining seven years of my education was financed via federal student loans, originally consisting of both subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans,” she says. “My current balance due is $152,865.23. This loan is currently in forbearance, after having been deferred in August 2017 after I went back to school.”

When in repayment, Hope follows an income-based plan; however, without such a plan, the monthly payment comes close to $1,500. Combined with the private loans, her usual monthly payments are almost $2,000, she says.

With a college degree and steady work history under her belt, one might think Hope could handle those payments. Not really, she says.

“I work in banking actually,” she says. “Queue the irony, right? I have been in my current position for five years. I do not have an entry-level job, and my salary has doubled since entering the industry seven years ago. But I still don’t make enough to cover the minimum payments on all of my loans under the standard 10-year repayment plan … even now that all of the federal loans are consolidated.”

Should I minor in something, or is that old-fashioned?

Minors allow you to explore something new while also getting a leg up on other students in your field of study. There’s nothing wrong with added knowledge, and it can be a resume booster. Having a minor also emphasizes your work ethic to future employers because it is not mandatory at most colleges and adds versatility to your skills and career path.

Hope’s experience serves as a warning of how to pay for college. Brad Burnett, associate vice president for enrollment and student financial services at OU, teaches a class called The Nine Things Every College Student Should Know About Money.

No. 1 on his list is “you’ve got to have a plan,” Burnett says. “And No. 2 is, ‘So, hey, ya got a dollar I can borrow?”

Not everyone can rely on parents to pay for meal plans, housing, tuition, fees and books, so students entering college must know that loans may be necessary, he says. But Burnett says using that option must be carefully planned.

“Once they have a plan in place, we talk about the difference between what they need and what they want,” he says. “And having that conversation with a 20-year-old is really eye opening because it isn’t something they’ve necessarily put a lot of thought into before.”

Burnett says many students fall into a trap by taking out loans for optional expenses. Students frequently getting in the most trouble with loan debt are those paying for “an elevated lifestyle.”

Should we visit colleges in person before choosing one?

Yes, visit campuses if possible. You learn about meal plans and average class sizes, and you can ask all the questions that you can’t find the answers to online. If you’re on the fence about where to go, visiting should be part of the decision-making process. However, families with limited travel budgets can take virtual tours online and many questions can be answered in chat forums with admissions officers. Many students save visits for the 30-to-90-day window between acceptances and the national commitment date of May 1.

“To take a student loan to go on a spring break trip – that is a want, not a need,” he says. “We say keep your lifestyle in check while you’re in college, so you have to live like a college student now, but you don’t have to live like a college student for the rest of your life.”

In Hope’s case, it wasn’t a desire to have money to throw around and extravagant vacations that drove her borrowing.

“I always worked, from my very second day on campus, and when I was in grad school I often had a job off campus in addition to my GA position,” she says. “But it’s hard when you see your parent struggling, only making $12,000 to $15,000 a year, or your grandparent on a fixed income, and you have this option for this ‘extra’ money that would make things a little easier for them, you know?

“I gave a grandparent some funds, occasionally, and to my parent also. But I was never balling out with expensive clothes and other frivolous things.”

Which matters more, choice of major or choice of college?

In College Majors Handbook With Real Career Paths and Payoffs, three economists from Northeastern University in Boston conclude that choosing a major is more important to future financial success than the college attended.

Hope says she may have made different choices if she were better informed 15 years ago, when she first sat in a financial aid office; it felt like the only advice she got was, “Sign here.”

“I’m not blaming anyone for my situation, but I honestly don’t remember anyone ever sitting me down and running through the numbers with me,” she says. “All I heard was, ‘Don’t worry; this is good debt – it won’t count against you like credit cards.’

“I do wish I would have been more informed of the process. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and none of us understood how the process really worked. Looking back, I can say that I should have been more proactive in seeking out the information, but I was only 18. I had never had a finance or economics class, and I had been told my entire life that to make something of yourself, you’ve got to go to college. Do whatever you’ve got to do to get there, and stay there, but you’ve at least got to go.”

Burnett says OU, like many colleges across the state and country, tries to make the process easier, less confusing and less of a hassle for today’s students. OU has money coaches who advise newcomers when they enroll and can stay with those students through their collegiate careers.

OU has put its financial aid, bursar and scholarship offices all in one place, he says. That way, students aren’t bounced from one office to another with questions about their financial statuses, and one person can help them rein in all issues and figure out solutions in one place.

From a practical standpoint, Hope advises those enrolling in college: “Please take advantage of the wealth of information out there regarding student loans and their implications on your future. Do your research. Start applying for every scholarship, literally, right now.”

[nextpage title=”Freshmen Fear Factors”]

Freshmen Fear Factors

Students heading off to college face common problems and challenges, but learning to cope is part of the process.

Excitement abounds – moving into a dormitory or apartment, meeting new people – but in the shadows are issues many college freshmen encounter. How they deal with these challenges often determines whether their paths to graduation are rocky or smooth.

Common sense, open communication and no overreactions lower these hurdles, according to counseling directors at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. They say all freshmen face difficulties and parents should remove (not necessarily discard) their problem-solving hats and become sounding boards.

In the process, parents see resilient young adults handling life.


Scott Miller, Ph.D., director of OU counseling services, says today’s teenagers “developmentally have fewer skills in dealing with people” than those from previous decades. Freshmen can make their lives easier by cordially communicating with instructors and staff.

“Some students don’t necessarily understand what to do in a university setting,” he says. “We need to communicate with students better on how to show respect.”

Trevor Richardson, Ph.D., director of OSU counseling and sports psychology, says relationships outside class are vital, too.

“Making connections is always the key to success,” he says. “It could be another classmate, a professor, a counselor, a mentor, a friend. They let you know that you’re not in this boat alone.”


Setbacks can prompt collegians to cut themselves off from life … and exacerbate problems.

“Those who are isolated aren’t retained,” Richardson says. “The more you isolate yourself, the more power it has over you. It’s important for students to meet with each other. When you join a group or organization, you take ownership of your school.”

Miller says isolation can occur quickly.

“More relationships are virtual now,” he says. “We speak more harshly on social media, so some students don’t know how to receive criticism face-to-face. On social media, you can craft an image that doesn’t reflect reality. Also, more time online leads to less sleep and more anxiety.”

Prices of college textbooks are faint-worthy. Are there ways around this expense?

Tricks to save money on textbooks include:

  • A search tool to compare prices
  • Buying used books
  • Renting books
  • Buying e-books
  • Sharing books with trusted classmates

Regardless, you should always make sure you have the edition that a professor wants. Having an older edition may be cheap, but it may not have all the information for the course.


Richardson and Miller decry so-called snowplow parents, the banes of young people acquiring problem-solving skills. Because many students lack resilience, anxiety and depression increase.

“Snowplow parents want to fix everything, but you can develop resilience,” says Richardson, adding that perseverance can keep a young person from having a crisis. “Taking that first step is tough and there are many services available to help a student who’s struggling. Snowplow parents don’t want their kids to have failure, but that’s going to happen in some way in college.”

Substance abuse

Straight talk, not judgment, must prevail with alcohol or drug abuse. Miller sees many substance issues beginning in high school.

“Some parents think that ignoring problems will help get their kids into college, but that just delays dealing with it,” he says. “If you see early signs of a problem, don’t avoid it. Enforce consequences. Have an open dialogue with your child. Don’t pretend that your child is perfect.”

Once children get to college, parents should consider a different tack.

“Parents should have open lines of communication,” Richardson says. “Make sure you understand what’s going on. Unless it’s a life-and-death situation, parents should give the child space to talk. You can help to find resources. Often, the student comes up with a plan on their own, which is what we want.”

My first child heads to college in the fall. I’m not sure I’m ready.

Children don’t leave forever. You will see your son or daughter again. Just remember that when you drive away from the dorm that s/he will still want the comforts of home … and mom sometimes, especially when laundry needs folding and chicken-noodle soup and crackers have grown tiresome.

Academic stress

Time management eliminates most academic stress. The generations-old guideline of spending twice as many hours for studies as for class time prevails. A student in class 15 hours a week should budget 30 hours a week toward reading, writing and preparation.

“Students today don’t realize how much time it takes to be successful,” Miller says. “They need to find places and times to work comfortably without distractions.”

Richardson says a student “should print a schedule and treat it like a work day. It includes class time, study time, social time, everything. You can avoid all-nighters and getting run down and sick.”

Problems can arise when students who had success in high school without much effort stumble as freshmen. Academic advisers and tutors are available on any campus.

“I always say, ‘If you already knew everything, why are you in school?’ You want to use all the resources available,” Richardson says.

Miller says rushing into a major can increase academic stress.

“Students need to determine their skill sets,” he says. “But if you really want a degree in a specific major and you’re struggling, go to the professor’s office hours, get tutoring, get into study groups.”

Miller also says many freshmen lack daily functioning skills, like making appointments or paying bills. Efficiently dealing with chores reduces academic stress.

“We don’t teach students how to deal with real life,” he says. “We need to let them practice these skills before they get to college.”

Advice for the folks

Miller reminds parents that “students aren’t going to get it right every semester. Be there to listen without fixing the problem.”

Richardson stresses that parents should “be a safety net, but let students make their own decisions and be independent. Your role is changing, and understanding that reduces frustrations for both the parents and the student.”

[nextpage title=”Test-Optional Admissions”]

Test-Optional Admissions

Some top-tier colleges now accept students without ACT/SAT scores.

Beginning slowly more than 30 years ago, but now gaining momentum, is a movement of collegiate admissions offices not requiring students to submit standardized test scores.

Bowdoin College in Maine, George Washington University in the District of Columbia, Pitzer College in California, the University of Texas at Austin and Wesleyan University in Connecticut are among an increasing number of highly ranked schools that make SAT and ACT results optional in the admissions process.

Essays, academic achievement in rigorous classes, non-inflated grade-point average, portfolios and participation in extracurricular activities are some of the factors that counselors weigh heavily when they don’t see a standardized test score on an application.

The University of Chicago announced in June its switch to test-optional admissions.

Do I have to know my major before starting college? I’m undecided.

According to the Education Advisory Board, 75 percent to 85 percent of students switch majors before graduation.

“Today, many under-resourced and under-represented students, families and school advisers perceive top-ranked colleges as inaccessible if students do not have the means to help them stand out in the application process,” writes James G. Nondorf, vice president and dean of admissions at the university. “The UChicago Empower Initiative levels the playing field, allowing first-generation and low-income students to use technology and other resources to present themselves as well as any other college applicant.”

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has test-optional admissions and “our students are better because we look at the whole person, not a test score,” writes Joseph A. Soares, professor of sociology at Wake, in the higher-education e-magazine The Conversation. “We emphasize high school grades because they have always been the best predictor of college academic performance.”

In his book SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, Soares “presents a roadmap for rethinking college admissions that moves us past the statistically weak and socially divisive SAT/ACT.”

Critics of the two major standardized tests have stated for decades that socioeconomic and racial disparities are reflected in students’ scores.

Yet the vast majority of colleges across the country require an SAT or ACT score and many admissions offices cite it as a prime indicator of a student’s success in college, including the University of Oklahoma, the University of Tulsa and Oklahoma State University. 

Admissions requirements regarding standardized test scores are clear on every school’s admissions website, so students should check there as they begin submitting their applications.

[nextpage title=”Web Exclusive: An Ongoing Challenge at College”]

An Ongoing Challenge at College

Some of the pressures that today’s young collegians face are relatively new because they can quickly isolate themselves via social media while, at the same time, they deal with the stressors of “snowplow” parents.

What has remained the same over generations, according to the counseling directors at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, is the temptation for those under 21 to drink alcohol. Illegal and binge drinking continue to be among the top concerns for colleges in our state and across the nation.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, citing a national survey, reports that about 60 percent of collegians drink and two-thirds of those engage in binge drinking.

Scott Miller, director of OU counseling services, says that “most students are either abstaining or just drinking moderately – 25 percent of the students are drinking two-thirds of the alcohol.”

Miller says students and the general population often buy into the stereotype of universities having an endless flow of alcohol and drugs.

“We have this misconception that college is ‘work hard, party hard,’ but research doesn’t show this,” he says.

Miller says many alcohol and drug problems begin before freshmen arrive on campus; they’ve just been covered up.

“We need to do better with substance abuse in high schools,” he says. “We can’t just have a one-week awareness program. But that doesn’t get colleges off the hook and we are addressing these problems every year.”

OU and OSU, like colleges around country, offer many services and counselors to help students battling these problems.

“It’s taking that first step that’s difficult,” says Trevor Richardson, director of  counseling and sports psychology at OSU. “We have a number of ways to help. There’s even an online program with work-through modules for students.”

Substance-abuse problems often compound depression and anxiety, commonly seen in today’s collegians, Richardson and Miller say. Both acknowledge that current students seem eager to address their mental illnesses because of an increasing acceptance of these challenges.

“Students are bringing higher levels of depression than ever before,” Miller says. “For instance, 18 years ago, only parents would come up to us at our table at orientation. Now, it’s almost all students.”

Richardson says anxiety is the top psychological issue at OSU, followed by depression.

“The causes are multi-faceted,” he says. “Students are more likely to access mental-health services before they get to campus. Students are getting help earlier in high school and middle school, so they know to continue getting help with us.

“If we can find risk factors – such as substance abuse or isolation – we can help students not reach a crisis point.”

Richardson and Miller see that collegians who address problems themselves by using campus resources often have positive outcomes. Parents don’t have to cut all ties to their children, but backing off and just listening can create an atmosphere of growth and grit for students.

“The hardest conversation for a parent is with the new student who wants to come home,” Miller says. “It’s tough because you don’t want the child to be uncomfortable, but you also want them to learn resilience.”

Instead of taking responsibility to remedy all problems, as snowplow parents do, folks need to be sounding boards and touchstones.

“Parents should take deep breaths and understand the situation before jumping in to fix it,” says Richardson, adding that this approach applies to any problem, be it substance-abuse, academic, medical or psychological. “Make sure that the student is aware of what’s available on campus. Most of the time, students come up with solutions themselves and handle the situation.”

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