By Kerry Alexander, Senior Director, TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc.

August 16, 2022

As August turns to September, those of us with college-bound freshmen remember when we left home for the first time. As a student, the experience involved a constant mix of excitement about meeting new friends and facing new challenges, along with a sense of loss in leaving behind childhood friends, family, and familiar routines to face unknowns in front of us. The conflicting emotions also impact those of us who are parents of incoming freshmen. Preparing will lay the foundation for positive experiences for first-year students and parents alike. As a father of four sons ranging from 15 to 29, a former college professor, and currently, in my 23rd year working with 529 college savings plans, these are my suggestions for both the student and parent that may help with the transition.

Suggestions for College Freshmen

  1. Develop Productive Routines. Living away from your family home for the first time is one of life’s most significant adjustments. Things you may have taken for granted, such as preparing meals, buying food, and household items, are now your responsibility. Learning your way around campus and possibly a new town (or even state), setting up your living space, meeting roommates and classmates, and adjusting to the college workload can be overwhelming. Developing routines, such as attending all classes, setting aside time to study, exercising, eating healthy, and maintaining a regular time to get up and go to bed, are critical to a strong start. Whether you use an app or a planning calendar, track your classes, activities, homework deadlines, and schedule time for relaxation and exercise.
  2. Always Go To Class. Professors emphasize what they want you to learn during class. There is no substitute for being in class and taking notes. Also, sit up front. There is a reason why seats at concerts and athletic events cost more the closer you are to the stage, field, or court. There are fewer distractions, and you will be less tempted to check social media, daydream, etc. Also, you will develop a better relationship with your professor. This can come in handy when you need a recommendation down the road.
  3. Be Present and Open-Minded. College is a great time to learn more about yourself and the world around you. Take classes that interest you and expose you to new perspectives. Join clubs, attend games, concerts, and campus events. Explore new activities, food, music, and books. Talk to people who have a different perspective. Share your views, passions, and beliefs with others but also listen to them. As Ted Lasso might say, be curious, not judgmental.
  4. Avoid Credit Cards. Most of us have little experience with credit cards before college, and too many leave college with thousands of dollars in credit card debt (along with high-interest rates). It is easy to think that using a credit card for a midnight pizza isn’t a problem, but it all adds up. Live within your means so you don’t spend years after graduation paying off credit card debt.

Suggestions for Parents

  1. Using a 529 College Savings Plan? If you have used a 529 plan to save for your student’s education, being organized now helps avoid headaches later. 
  2. Don’t include other expenses with qualified education expenses. Keeping transactions separate will help with your record-keeping.
  3. Take 529 withdrawals during the same tax year you incur the expense.
  4. Retain receipts for all qualified education expenses, organize these receipts by year and maintain these receipts in case you are audited. 
  5. Communicate these rules to your student for qualified education expenses they incur directly.
  6. Hold On Loosely But Don’t Let Go. As uncomfortable as it may be, giving our children space to develop when they go off to college is often the best approach. They will make their mistakes but will also learn from the consequences. 
  7. Work out a communication schedule that works and stick to it. They will increase contact when they need to.
  8. Instead of grilling, ask the questions that really matter. And be curious, not judgmental.
  9. But don’t let go. If you get the “brush off,” step back, then re-engage. As much as our scholars want independence, most will admit later in life that knowing we would always be there for them was reassuring. 

About the author:

Kerry Alexander has worked with state 529 plans since 1998 and is a Senior Director and 529 Relationship Manager for TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc. (TFI), a wholly-owned subsidiary of TIAA. TFI operates as the 529 Plan Program Manager for the States of California, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Colorado’s Scholars Choice Education Savings Plan. Kerry married his college sweetheart, Carol, and they make their home in Oklahoma City. They have four sons, including a college graduate, college student, and two high school students.