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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

February 10, 2015 at 5:00 AM

Annals of a college parent: Keeping tabs on your kid

Back in December, I wrote about how my husband and I were fretting over the likelihood that our son, a freshman at Western Washington University, was going to end up taking more than four years to graduate. That’s the norm these days at many public universities.

As parents of college students, we’re not privy to any of the progress reports, grades, even class schedules that we used to get when our kids were younger. How do we strike a proper balance that keeps us from becoming helicopter parents, yet doesn’t give our son too much free rein — an approach that can be costly to us if he makes an academic mistake?

Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times

Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times

Recently, I received an excellent set of tips from reader Marlo Del Mundo, a Bellevue parent whose son is in his fourth year at the University of Washington in mechanical engineering. Like us, the Del Mundos are paying for most of their son’s college education. They’ve struck some sensible deals with him.

Since they’re footing the bill, they require their son to give them access to his schedule and grades. They sit down with him every quarter to go over his course path, and they also require him to do the same with an academic adviser.

The Del Mundos review their son’s grades at the end of each quarter (usually at his favorite restaurant).

They are paying for all of his tuition, books, fees, health care and food; he has to cover his rent. Their son received scholarship money that more than covers his living expenses, so they let him keep the remainder as pocket money. To keep some tabs on his social life, they asked him to befriend them on Facebook.

Finally, the Del Mundos have put away $37,000 for his education, and they’re keeping a running total of the cost. (Their son studied his first two years in community college.) If there’s anything left when he graduates, they’ll write him a check for the difference or give him a two- to three-week vacation in Europe as a present.

Nicely thought-out!

Marlo says that anytime you feel like you’re hovering too much, just go back and look at your checkbook to remind yourself of the investment. If the grades are good and your college student is managing his or her money well, you can always back off.

Among my friends and colleagues, everyone has a different way of treating college costs. We required my daughter, who’s in her senior year at a private California college, to take out some modest loans so she could study abroad for a semester, and she’s held a 10-hour-a-week job while going through school. My son is thriftier, and his tuition is much lower, but we’ll require him to take on some of the cost as well.

Going back a generation: When I went to college, my parents paid for about 75 percent of the cost of my degree; I paid for the rest through summer earnings, and graduated with a small loan that I paid off in about three years. (College was cheaper then, of course). Facebook — heck, the Internet — hadn’t been invented yet, but I kept my parents apprised of my grades and kept them up to speed on my social life. (Well, some of it.)

My parents both went to college as well, and for both of them, their parents (my grandparents) picked up the bill. In my family, it’s a generational pay-it-forward plan.

What’s the plan in your family? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in our new Facebook group for parents of college students.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Annals of a college parent, higher education

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