Around May 1st, many students and families across the country breathe a collective sigh of relief. The work of applying to colleges, weighing options, and finally choosing one is over. It’s a time for celebration, pride, gratitude, and maybe even some well-deserved relaxation. But only for a moment, because your college journey is just beginning.
The process of actually enrolling in college brings a whole new set of decisions to make, conversations to have, and tasks to complete. These might include completing a roommate survey, submitting up-to-date medical records, and several next steps when it comes to paying for college, such as accepting your financial aid and completing entrance counseling and the Master Promissory Note to take out federal loans.
I used to give students bad advice about this. I’ve seen first-hand how complex, laborious, and at times obscure the enrollment process can be. So I prioritized moving students through the process as quickly as possible so they could make it to that end goal they’d been working for and dreaming about for so long: arriving at college. I would tell them: Just do this. Fill out this form. Get this taken care of. Jump through the hoops.
My stance, however, has changed. Now, my advice to students is: Own this. Engage with the process. Actually read the paperwork. Don’t let your parents do it for you.
I’ve changed my perspective in part because of society’s heightened attention to financial literacy. More and more data has come out in recent years documenting the growing student debt crisis, the increasingly challenging financial climate for young people, poor money management, and what can happen when these problems intersect (spoiler alert: it’s not good). People are realizing the importance of making more informed financial choices.
But on a personal note, I reflect with compassion on the financially illiterate 17-year-old I was when I started college. I was excited, nervous, and frankly, terrified to begin this new chapter, and I was doing the best I could (as I believe we all are, in every moment). But when it came to setting up a checking account, filling out tax forms for my campus job, and figuring out how much cash I needed to get through the semester, I felt totally lost. I remember my first encounter with the concept of overdraft fees. It was a hard but important lesson. I felt embarrassed, like I should have known better, and like everyone else either didn’t have to think about money or was already on top of it. I would later learn that this wasn’t the case.
My parents tried their best to help. College, however, often represents a fundamental shift in a family’s division of labor. For years, the parent has been the one earning income, paying bills, and nourishing the family physically and emotionally. Children may have other roles, like going to school, doing chores or working part-time, and just being a kid. Logistically, this makes sense. But this is also about values. Parents don’t always want to involve their children in the ins and outs of the family’s finances. This instinct is understandable, and it comes from love. So I get why around this time of year, well-meaning parents call us with questions like, “How do I complete my child’s entrance counseling for them?”
But here’s the thing: They can’t. (No, really, it’s illegal!). And in a few months, as soon as you start school, your college will only be able to share financial aid and billing information (as well as other information, like your grades) with you and not them (per the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA). Suddenly, the parent is no longer the one carrying the responsibility on their own.
And in this moment, the pile of enrollment paperwork in front of you presents an incredible opportunity to prepare for this transition of responsibility. It’s so easy to approach the enrollment process as just another set of boxes to check off on a to-do list, but real growth and learning can happen when you truly own the process.
I understand that what I’m asking isn’t easy. Finances can be extremely stressful between the convoluted jargon, the challenge of finding good information, and the fact that at the end of the day, sometimes the numbers themselves are difficult to face.
But this is about acknowledging your own power in a big way, maybe for the first time. It might feel confusing and uncomfortable, but in the end, with each form you sign, you are essentially declaring: I have agency. I can make important choices and take responsibility for them. My finances and my future are in my hands. There’s power in that.