A Complete Guide To Parenting College Students

Mother hugging daughter goodbye as she moves into a dorm

An individual’s college years can play an integral role in shaping their self-identity by providing enriching experiences, new social connections and purpose for the future. However, parenting college students is not without its challenges. The college planning process can be intensive, and it can be emotionally difficult — yet also satisfying — to watch your child grow into an independent young adult.

Just as children can benefit from parental guidance as they mature, so too can parents benefit from advice on how to nurture their young adults. The following parent’s guide to college offers a rundown of the major areas to address, including fostering independence, working through financial planning, and conducting the college search and application process. It is offered in hopes of easing the hearts and minds to the parents of college students.

In This Article:

Parenting College Students in a Way That Cultivates Independence

Parents of college students walk a fine line between micromanagement and being excessively hands-off. On one hand, parents need to encourage their children to take steps toward becoming independent young adults who are capable of managing their own life and making their own choices. But on the other hand, it can be bittersweet watching your child grow into the young adult they become. They may also require oversight and ongoing guidance as they work toward developing greater maturity.

Earlier on in high school, you can help your child develop a foundation for independence by taking steps such as the following:

  • Social maturity: Talk to your child about not only how to make new friends, but also how to be a good friend to others.
  • Activities: Encourage your child to join extracurriculars like clubs and sports teams. These activities may help kids learn how to function as part of a team and how to behave themselves away from a parent’s watchful eye.
  • Time management: Help your child develop a schedule for school work and extracurriculars, and teach them how to prioritize.
  • Life skills: Students need to arrive at college already knowing how to do their own laundry, choose healthy meals and keep their spaces clean. Begin teaching such important life skills early.

As your child grows and gets closer to the college search process, it can be helpful to give them more decision-making power over their own lives. For instance, you might provide guidance regarding which activities your child participates in, but ultimately leave the choice up to them.

Another important way to foster both responsibility and independence when parenting college students and college-bound students is to teach personal finance concepts. Open checking and savings accounts for your child and teach them how to create a budget and manage their spending and saving.

A Parent’s Guide to College Financing

College can be expensive, but most universities offer scholarships and financial aid opportunities. Earning your bachelor’s degree may lead to potentially higher pay. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, workers age 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree made more money than high school graduates — about $579 a week more.1

The following is your parent’s guide to college financing.

Finding Scholarship Opportunities

Did you know that it’s possible for college-bound students to start applying for scholarships in elementary school?2 If your child is under 13, they’ll probably need more help than a high school student would to identify and apply to scholarship opportunities. However, if your student is already in high school and hasn’t yet started applying, don’t fret — there are plenty of opportunities out there.

Guide your young student in searching scholarship databases and help them set up a spreadsheet to keep track of scholarship awards they’ve applied to and those they plan on applying to. Remind your child that scholarships with smaller awards may have less competition and that the more scholarships they apply for, the better their chances of landing one or two.

There are also potentially many great scholarship opportunities that can be offered by the college that they are interested in attending. These scholarships can vary based on the purpose, eligibility requirements and tuition amount. So, it is important to reach out to a college representative to discuss potential scholarship opportunities. Here at Grand Canyon University, we offer a variety of scholarships to many students. If you are interested in seeing if you qualify for any, reach out to a counselor and they will be able to help you with the process.

Filling Out the FAFSA

No parent’s guide to college would be complete without a look at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Unlike much of the college planning process, the FAFSA is largely your responsibility as a parent. Because your college-bound student is likely your dependent, you’ll be providing your own financial information.

The FAFSA typically opens in October each year, although in some years it may open as late as December.3 Begin filling it out once it becomes available and submit it as soon as possible. If need be, you can fill it out online across multiple sessions — it will save your progress.

You’ll need to fill out the FAFSA for each year that your student is in college. After submitting it, you’ll receive a notice detailing your financial aid package, including the federal grants and student loans your family may qualify for.

Considering Private Student Loans

Although federal student loans offer better terms and interest rates, your federal financial aid package may not cover all of your student’s expenses. In this case, you might consider private student loans. Research a range of different banks and credit unions to find the best rates and terms instead of simply choosing the financial institution you already use for banking.

Your soon-to-be college student will be responsible for making their own life choices and structuring their daily schedules very soon. It may be difficult, but it is important that parents resist the temptation to direct and manage the college search and application process. Instead, offer guidance and assistance while letting them do the bulk of the work, as this helps cultivate independence and self-agency.

Making College Recommendations

High school students may begin doing some preliminary research on colleges as early as 10th grade or perhaps even sooner. During the summer heading into 11th grade, their college search should ramp up. It all begins with creating a long list of colleges that should be gradually whittled down into a shortlist of schools that the student will apply to.

You can make suggestions along the way, and check in from time to time to see how the search process is going. For instance, you might make suggestions on specific colleges based on your son or daughter’s area of interest, intended major, career goals or religion.

Scheduling Campus Tours

Generally, students should begin going on campus tours during the summer prior to 11th grade and continue through the summer prior to 12th grade. (Fall of 12th grade is college application season.) This part of the college search process does require more parental involvement.

Heading into the summer prior to 11th grade, sit down and have a talk with your child about their shortlist of colleges. Identify a handful of the top schools that the family will visit. (Ideally, your student’s shortlist should include some “reach” schools and some “safety” schools ranked according to your student’s likelihood of admittance. Try to visit a mixture of these.)

Depending on the locations of the schools on the list, it may be worth your while to plan a big road trip that will allow the family to visit a bunch of them at once. It can be tough to visit schools that are very far away; consider virtual visits for these if in-person tours are not possible.

If interested, you can schedule an in-person tour here at GCU to see the student life on campus. We also have live virtual tours if that is easier for you to learn more about GCU and what we have to offer.

Remind your student to prepare for the campus tour and information sessions in advance, such as by:

  • Researching points of interest to visit on and near the campus
  • Developing a list of thoughtful questions to ask
  • Preparing for (and scheduling) campus interviews

Your student should arrive on campus ready to take lots of notes and pictures to review later during the enrollment decision-making process.

Submitting College Applications

Most application deadlines are set in stone, so this is another part of the college admissions process that you’ll want to get more involved with. Ensure your child has a list of all of the relevant deadlines and is on track to meet them.

Although your son or daughter should do the work of filling out applications and writing personal statements, parenting college students can call for some oversight. You’ll want to review everything to ensure that your student has put their best foot forward and that their application materials contain no typos or grammatical errors.

Trust Grand Canyon University With Your College Student

You’ll find hundreds of academic programs across 10 mission-oriented colleges at GCU. Our private Christian university offers extensive support services to students and their families, including financial resources. Fill out the form on this page to explore our learning community in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona.

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, May). Education Pays, 2022. Retrieved on April 10, 2024. 

2 Finaid. (n.d.). Resources for Students Age 13 and Under. Retrieved April 10, 2024.

3 Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). FAFSA Form. Retrieved April 10, 2024. 

Approved by the assistant vice president of GCU Marketing on April 12, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.