Congratulations. You're sending a child to college for the first time this fall. After a year or more of researching admissions policies, applications timetables and financial aid packages, you may think you know everything there is to know about being the parent of a college freshman.
But you might not.
While college brochures and official campus visits are good for many things, they don't always cover practical matters, such as how to get a student to and around campus, pay bills, cover medical care and find cheaper textbooks.
Here are some basics I've accumulated as the parent of two current college students, from other parents, and from attending a recent two-day orientation for parents of incoming college freshmen:
1. You won't automatically get a bill. At most colleges, tuition and other fees are a student's responsibility, which means parents don't get statements, even if they're the ones picking up the tab. If you want copies of bills, ask your son or daughter to add you as a designated payer on their account, which they can do by signing a form online or at the campus finance office.
2. You won't get grades, either. Unlike elementary or high school, colleges and universities don't send parents grades. As with bills, students can authorize schools to provide access to grades to their parents. But Santa Clara University administrators who spoke at the school's 2011 freshman orientation don't recommend it. Putting students in charge of telling their parents about grades is one more step toward becoming responsible adults, they say.
3. You can ship dorm necessities straight from the store. Retailers such as Bed, Bath & Beyond have college programs that let students shop for what they want at a location near home and pick up their purchases at a location closer to school or have items shipped directly to the campus. And if your student is moving into a residence hall, check to see if they'll need twin XL sheets.
4. College health centers won't bill your medical insurance company. On-campus medical clinics pick up the cost of routine visits and procedures, but charge for extras such as X-rays. Such costs often are added to a student's school bill. If they're covered by your medical insurance, it's their responsibility — or yours — to bill the insurance company to be reimbursed.
5. Schools don't offer blanket medical waivers. If your student gets sick and goes to the campus health center, you can't talk to the staff doctor about the visit without the student's permission. Schools don't grant blanket waivers of health-care privacy laws, so your son or daughter has to agree to allow medical personnel to share information with you on a case-by-case basis.
6. There are cheaper options than buying new textbooks. E-book readers such as the Kindle and Nook are taking hold on some campuses, which means students can buy electronic versions of textbooks for less than what hardcover editions cost. But there are other ways to cut textbooks costs, too. Most campus bookstores rent textbooks and sell used books. Students can also compare prices online for rentals or used textbooks at sites such as Amazon, Chegg, eCampus and eBay's Half.com.
7. Beer is no longer the alcoholic beverage of choice. Hard liquor has surpassed beer as students' first choice for drinking, according to statistics shared by Santa Clara University administrators. They recommend talking to your student about alcohol before school starts, and paying attention during the first weeks and months of the school year, when many kids drink for the first time.
8. Contracts are an option. If you're concerned your student won't call home or tell you if they're unhappy, homesick or in trouble, ask them to sign a behavior contract. Santa Clara students who were helping with orientation and had signed contracts say that at first having to check in every Sunday night was a pain, but they grew to appreciate — even like — the routine.
9. Students don't need a car. Many schools don't let freshman who aren't commuters have cars on campus. That's not the issue it once was now that Zipcar offers a university version of its car-sharing service on more than 120 campuses, including Smith College, Emory University, the University of Michigan, Notre Dame and Rice. Students 18 and older with a valid driver's license can sign up; once they do, they can check out cars by the hour or day. Aside from car-sharing and bikes, long-board style skateboards are another popular way to get around campus, at least until it snows.
10. Book flights home before school starts. If your child flies to and from school, the sooner you book flights for visits home, the better your chances of getting low fares. Once they get their schedules, students should know when they're done with finals and ready to travel. Remember to allot time for packing, cleaning (there's always a chance), and if it's the end of the school year, moving things into storage.
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