College 102: Top Questions of Newbie College Families

A professor responds to college parents' concerns.

Posted Jul 21, 2019

In my most recent article, I addressed some questions that new parents have as they embark on this new journey of sending their kids off to college. In that one, I dealt more with some of the social issues related to this adjustment. In this article focusing more on academics, I provide questions I've received from parents and my responses, based on my experience as a professor for over twenty years. I hope this will further assist and support newbie college families. 

Element5 Digital/ Unsplash
Source: Element5 Digital/ Unsplash

1)   I’m worried my student won’t get the classes s/he most wants, and look at all the money we’re spending! That’s right. Your student is likely to not always get the classes s/he wants. Surprisingly, they may wind up in classes and develop an interest when they did not expect it. Or, maybe they get exposed to a professor they grow fond of who teaches in areas they did not expect to gravitate to.

I would love to have everyone who wants my classes get a chance to register for them but that’s not always possible. Often, I have to tell students I will not over-enroll, and I hope they’ll try to take the class at a future time.

And, hopefully, students will learn to check their emails often and to stay abreast of advising and registration deadlines so they can do their part to get what they want. 

2)   Should my kid take online classes?  Unless a class is only available this way for the first year, absolutely, positively, no! There is no reason to increase isolation and certainly not the first year. Online classes are extremely alienating and deprive students of real mentoring relationships that are crucial for success. The sooner students find meaningful mentors who might accompany them on their college journey and far beyond, the more things will fall into place. Students will be well served to also find out how much of a curriculum will be done face-to-face versus online so they don't get caught in wanting to pursue a major that is not face-to-face. 

3)  I want to get a jumpstart on planning holiday travel, but what happens with classes and tests? Oh wait, what about what you said in #6 about wanting to get your money’s worth with their education?! Really, though, it would be best to wait and have your students attend all their classes the first week, check their syllabi and see what is being planned. And, this is also a time where students can go early in the semester to meet their professors in office hours and ask about this, without asking for special exceptions but with an effort to connect and scope things out. For example, when I was an undergraduate, I was enrolled in a class where we put our information on index cards to help the professor get to know us. My father wanted to make airplane reservations to fly me home from Madison to Cleveland, and I approached that professor. Well, it turns out she had also grown up in Cleveland, attended the same school, and even worked at my favorite ice cream parlor growing up. She became my mentor, thesis advisor, and eventually became one of my dearest friends. And the sweet part of the story is that her boyfriend was the one who made all that yummy ice cream and then later became her husband. The moral of this story is that professors are human beings with their own families and lives, we want your students to have fulfilling, happy lives and time with family and friends all while demonstrating a strong work ethic. 

4) I'm used to being involved in my kid's schoolwork, knowing their grades and communicating with their teachers. Now what? Much like HIPPA in the medical arena, FERPA mandates that professors are not in touch with parents about students and their performance. We will be thrilled to celebrate with you as your students dance across that stage at graduation and we love it when your students introduce us to you then and want pictures! 

Furthermore, the more neutral you try to remain about your student's classes and professors the better, both for your children and for reducing your own aggravation. If and when your child contacts you freaking out about a class or a professor, it is natural to glom onto anything they tell you no matter how partial and decontextualized it might be. The more upset and agitated you become, or the more you vocalize your distress to them in the context of how expensive college is, the more your child will pick up on it and it will fuel their own negative self-talk and their own hostility which is never good to take back to the classroom. The more you can convey to your child your belief in the professors and the college as a professional place interested in their success, the better. Otherwise, you risk amplifying an overplayed narrative that "The customer is always right and is entitled to whatever it is they want" and this very much backfires with professors. This is college, not Burger King, and students cannot have everything their way. 

5) I'm concerned my kid is going to get lost in the shuffle at college. It's a whole lot bigger than high school. It's an understandable concern. Even the seemingly most self-assured students are concerned about this. It can be intimidating and overwhelming. The sooner students create healthy routines and make connections to peers, mentors, and organizations, the more of a strong network they have, and they are less likely to get lost; or if they are struggling, they have more of a solid base to help them get back on their feet. 

Here are some things that students can do that can ensure they won't be lost academically: 

  • Get to know their professors by name and meet with them in person with a scheduled appointment. And, remember that is likely preferable instead of hundreds of emails from tons of different students. 
  • Find out from their professors if there are events, research projects, conferences, experiments, and internships they are involved with that could use student time and help. 
  • Seek out the services and resources offered at centers for student success on campus. These offices typically sponsor sessions on time management, taking notes, studying for exams, writing papers, etc. Campus writing centers are also a valuable place for seeking help, and students benefit so much from improving their writing. 
  • Sit closer to the front in larger classes. Participate in substantive and thoughtful ways without dominating or being a class clown. 
  • Take deadlines really seriously. 
  • Take the syllabus really seriously. Read it thoroughly and follow it like GPS. Check it before emailing professors questions that are already answered. 
  • Turn off your cell phone before every class. 

6) Everyone’s kid knows what they want to major in but mine! 
It’s okay! The point of going to college is to uncover the patterns of one’s interests and passions. For a year and maybe two, Undecided is the perfect major! It is a way for students to see for themselves the thread they are following.