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Answers to Your College Questions

6 Tips for Parents of Future First-Generation College Students

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tips for first-gen college studentsI often have the chance to speak to parents whose children will soon embark on the path toward college. This can be a scary time no matter where the student comes from and especially if his or her parents have not had their own college experience. There is much to learn about the processes, the culture, and the financing of college and how to achieve the ultimate outcomes of a college career and a successful life after.

Try these tips that other parents have found interesting and useful:

1. Forget the idea that your student has to pursue a particular major or path to achieve success after college.

There is so much pressure to attend college because it has become an economic imperative—the path to good jobs and financial security includes a college degree. But college also provides a broad skill set that can be used across the many careers your children will engage in over a lifetime of work. College provides networks that lead to professional success and support, and opportunities to build résumés full of skills that employers will find relevant.

Students should choose a major they can excel in, not necessarily one that seems career-specific. Employers will hire an English major with a 3.6 GPA over a finance major with a 2.6 GPA. It is most important to prove that you are smart. Remind your student that the big picture skills will come with either choice. Narrow skills can also come with graduate school if needed (Law, Business, Medicine, etc.).

2. Do the financial homework together with your student.

The best source is and it is free! Beware of websites or consultants that charge large fees for scholarship searches that you can conduct yourself with some time and effort. When researching, remember, too, that there is a difference between what is called the “sticker price” and the actual price of college. The majority of students do not actually pay the published amount of tuition. Deduct any scholarships, federal or state financial aid, or work-study funds from that amount and what remains is your actual price. Thus, the actual price per year can go down from $40,000 to a few thousand dollars in the case of some private colleges, or from a few thousand dollars to zero for public colleges. This is why it is so important to work with your student’s financial aid office.

Create a budget that includes such costs as visits to colleges and test fees. Plan on a savings account. This may mean having a conversation with your child about what is important—the new kicks or the college degree?

3. Encourage your student not limit themselves to classes and the library.

They also need jobs, internships, and extracurricular activities to build résumés, relationships, and workplace skills ranging from time management and customer service to leadership. Connections made through a part-time job or an internship can lead students to their first job after college or provide letters of recommendation. Ask your child if they have visited the Career Office by second semester of their freshman year and encourage them to get the ball rolling on internships. Throughout high school most students have part-time jobs and engage in some form of community service; they should keep it up in college. Ask how they plan to stay involved in the things they have enjoyed before. There will be resources on campus to help them pursue those interests.

Need more guidance on answering those tough college questions?

I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide by Dr. Marcia Cantarella has the answers you and your student need to succeed, stay calm, and thrive in college.


4. Communicate with your student about asking questions in class, seeking help, and using resources like the tutoring center, career office, or counseling center.

Silence is not golden in college. Asking for help or support is a sign of your student’s interest, engagement, and strength. Faculty members and advisors on campus value students who are curious and who (politely) advocate for themselves.

Furthermore, campus resources are funded by tuition dollars. Not to use every resource is a waste of your tuition dollars. If your student says he or she is struggling to write a paper or has not done well on an exam, then ask if he or she has been to the campus writing center or met with their professors or tutors. Remind your student, using your own experiences if you can, that it is better to get guidance than muddle along alone.

5. Prepare your student for a college culture of reading.

Reading makes a difference on the SAT. It makes for better writers. A parent once asked me if it mattered what her daughter read (her current thing was vampire novels). The answer is no. Encourage your child to try advanced books in any genre but to mainly always have a book their hands. Over time their interests will broaden. They have to value the experience of reading, as college demands so much of it. Try reading the same book as your child so you can talk with them about it. This integrates yourself into the college culture your student will soon become part of and helps support them.

6. Expose your student to cultural experiences before college.

Students should be exposed to museums, concerts, the New York Times, and other things that are commonplace for families with several generations of college behind them. My children and grandchildren know almost every museum in New York City. Sharing articles from the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the Times with family members is common for us. We do it in part to share items of personal interest but items of professional interest as well. And this is key. This kind of interaction and cultural awareness will make a difference in the workplace and fitting in there.

This exposure now will make your students more comfortable when they are in groups of people that may already have this kind of cultural awareness. In her autobiography My Beloved World, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself a first generation graduate of Princeton, talks about how she had to catch up in order feel part of a group at school and at work. Give your first-generation college student a head start by exposing him or her to as much worldly culture as possible early on.

Preparing for college is a collaborative experience. Students need familial support. What they tend not to need is pressure. I have found that students already have an internalized a desire to please parents. We do not have to add to it. Being a cheerleader and a guide will be the most useful. The long-term goal is the same: college graduation.

Don’t know what your child should expect in college?

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Dr. Marcia Y. Cantarella has held positions at Hunter College, Princeton University, New York University, and Metropolitan College of New York during her distinguished career as a dean and vice president of student affairs. Through her expertise in delivering student services and strategies, she has enhanced the academic experiences of and outcomes for generations of students. She is now president of Cantarella Consulting in New York City where she works with colleges and organizations on issues of higher education pipelines, access, diversity, and student access.

Cantarella is the author of I Can Finish College, which you can find in the College Countdown bookstore.