I started talking to my kids about the importance of a college education when they were about, oh, ten days old. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not a huge one. Pretty much around the time my kids started preschool, my husband and I began sharing with them our own college experience as well as the reasons that people go to college, how college is where people build a foundation for the jobs they want to have later on, and how some people attend college for a really long time (like doctors and professors). Now at five and six, they talk about going to college as if it is a given (music to my ears).

There is no doubt that parents have a tremendous influence on their children.

Just look at things like smoking. Study after study shows that children of parents who smoke are far more likely to start themselves. Education is the same way. If you show your children that you believe school is important by making it a priority, holding high expectations, encouraging them to work hard, and caring about their school work, you will have a positive impact. And similarly, if you talk with your children about college, set the expectation that they will go to college, and share your belief that college is an important part of the life journey, it will rub off.

So, when do we really start talking about college?

It’s one thing to be a good example and tell your children how important college is—and even show them by going to school yourself—but it’s another thing entirely to start talking about college as a reality. When is the right time to really start talking about it?

Organizations such as the College Board and the U.S. Department of Education suggest middle school as a good time for students to begin thinking about college. This is also a good time for parents to begin talking with their children about their interests and strengths as potential college majors and career possibilities. You certainly don’t need to go overboard, but having conversations at this age isn’t a bad idea.

Ideas for starting the conversation.

What if you didn’t go to college, but you’re really hoping that your child will? What if you are worried about how you’ll pay for your child’s college education? My feeling: communicate, communicate, communicate. Tell your child why you think education is important. Talk about how much it costs and why good grades and saving money now are so important. Tell him what your college aspirations were at a young age and why they did or didn’t work out. Share stories about the people who really influenced you as a young student and what they told you about college. Talk about the way colleges work and how important it is to try hard in school today in order to be ready for school years from now.

Other things you can do to help your child plan ahead.

Once a student is in high school, there is a lot to do to get prepared for college—college research, SATs and ACTs, and much more. However, there are a number of things you can do throughout middle school, too. Here are some ideas from the U.S. Department of Education’s “Getting Ready for College Early” publication and the College Board’s BigFuture website:

  • Encourage your child to stay motivated and focused by setting goals each year.
  • Check in regularly with your child about school, tests, homework, and other school issues.
  • Encourage your child to take the most challenging courses he or she can handle.
  • Read often, and make reading a daily habit—for the whole family.
  • Make a visit to a college. Walk around, get a feel for campus life, and show your child areas at the school that might be of interest.
  • Start getting a feel for the cost of college and the federal financial aid available. Visit www.finaid.org and the websites of the schools in your state. Here in Colorado, don’t forget to check out the College Opportunity Fund, through which the state of Colorado pays a portion of resident students’ tuition at public institutions.
  • Talk about the importance of college in getting and keeping a good job, and as your child becomes more knowledgeable about money, show him or her information about the average earnings of people with associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great resource of information to help your child get familiar with different careers and what those jobs pay.
  • Talk about how much fun college can be. In middle school, your child probably doesn’t know much about college, so the more you can make it sound like a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavor, hopefully, the more likely he or she will be to want to go later on. Share your own experiences. Have family members share their experiences with your child. Look into mentorship programs that pair area college students with younger students so that your child can get as familiar as possible now, while he or she is still impressionable.

If you’re a parent of a college student—or a soon-to-be college student—when did you start talking about college?

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