Yes, You Do Need to Talk College With Your High School Freshman — Now

“My kid just started high school — and now you want me to bring up college?”

I sure do.

Get that awkward conversation rolling now — yes, even while your kid’s a mere high school freshman struggling to remember her locker number and find her homeroom in those endless identical hallways. Starting now will be a big help over the next few years as you both wrestle with what you want to get out of her eventual higher-ed experience — and how the %$&@ you’ll pay for it.

For my new multimedia project, We Need to Talk: College, I recorded a set of fly-on-the-wall college conversations between real parents and their kids. Each was surprising and touching in its own way. But this one, between Lake Oswego, Oregon, mom Julie and her teenage son, Perry, really got to me.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were catching them for their very first sit-down on the subject. Perry was a 15-year-old student at Lakeridge High School — and let’s just say college was the last thing on this kid’s mind. “He likes to FaceTime with his friends when he gets home,” his mom said. “And he likes Legos. He likes laughing and playing Frisbee and tennis with his dad.” So when they entered the recording studio outside of Portland, they were both in for a lot of surprises about the realities of the planning-for-college experience.

Here’s what Julie and Perry learned: Three unexpected reasons to get your own college conversation underway ASAP.

1. You might think you know what your kid wants, but…. 

Julie was genuinely shocked to find out how petrified Perry was by the prospect of college. But maybe parents shouldn’t be so surprised. As much as we wring our hands over the idea of empty nest syndrome, it’s just as scary to be the one taking flight. 

When we talk to our kids about college, we’re often focused on how valuable undergraduate education is — and we’re right. In terms of financial rewards, graduates make, on average, a million dollars more over a lifetime than their peers who stopped at a high school diploma according to a Georgetown University study. Our teens, meanwhile, probably have a lot of emotions to work through before they can even begin to get excited about taking on that campus adventure solo.

2. You’ll reexamine your own college experience — in all its messy glory

In the video, Julie confesses to her son about her “bad choices” paying for her own higher ed. As a young parent, she couldn’t make her student loan payments and had to defer. (Luckily, she’d taken out federal student loans, which offer more flexible payback plans than do private loans from banks.) The downside: She’s still making those payments. Julie admits to Perry that her choice of major (art) was a factor. “The idea is that you have a job when you graduate,” she tells her son, “unlike me, who was qualified to babysit.” Our kids can have a hard time believing parents ever make mistakes, but they can learn from our foibles — so it might be time to fess up to yours. It might make you feel better too.

3. Your kid will find out how important their college education is to you

One point that didn’t make it into the animated video was just how much Julie was sacrificing to put her kids through college. (She also has a daughter, who’s already attending school.) After decades working at her own one-woman design business, Julie had to make a tough call; she took an office job to pay for college tuition for both of her kids. As Julie told Perry in a part of our recording not included in the video, “I’ve been working for myself for a long time, but that’s not enough to pay our monthly bills and send you both to college.”  

To guide you through the first college conversation and the many more that will follow, check out We Need to Talk: College

Oh, and for one more surprise, ask your kid: How much do you think college will cost? If you’re like Julie, you might be shocked to learn just how little they know about what they’re getting into.

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