10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Kids Went Off to College

This is a guest post by author, Perry Mykleby

I remember it like it was last night. I sat by myself at my parents-in-law’s house during my eldest son’s high-school graduation party, staring catatonically at a custom cake, iced with a picture of four-year-old him, happily standing beside a swimming pool. Four years old, and just like that—boom—he was off to college. Then two years later, his little brother was off to college as well. The regrets arrived as soon as they left:  all the things I wish I’d known before they left. The experience with kid #1 prepped me to get ready to say ‘bye’ to kid #2, but the lessons were a little harder than I’d planned.

There’s a long list of things I wish I’d known before my kids went off to college, that I would have prepared for if I had.  I’ve narrowed down the list.  So, let me share the top 10 things I wish I’d known before my kids went off to college.

Here goes. Counting down to #1, I wish I’d known…

#10. How much I missed out on in college myself.

Talk about hindsight FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). I think I enjoyed the boys’ campus and college sports more than they did. It made me reflect on my own time in college, thinking I’d maybe spent too much time on schoolwork and not enough time in the whole experience.

#  9. How much additional free time I’d have once they were out of the house.

The kids left for college, and along with them went homework help, high school events, Friday night football games, and extracurricular activities involving moms and dads. The house got really quiet, and I found I needed a hobby but didn’t have one. So I started writing for fun because there are only just so many home improvement projects you can do.

# 8. How little their youth sports careers would actually matter.

Let me share the hindsight of [an occasional] maniacal sports dad. I never got in any fights or anything…well, actual fistfights. But I confess being a little too wrapped up in my boys’ athletics. A psychotherapist might conclude that I might have been living through them a little too much. We were blessed with healthy boys with better-than-average athleticism. Both made best-of-preps and first team All-State rosters in their respective sports. It mattered a lot until their last high school game and the subsequent awards ceremony a few days later. And then it didn’t. They’re both still active and fit, but I wish I’d known how little it actually mattered before they went to college, and I probably would have enjoyed watching their games more if I had.

 # 7. How much hassle move in and move out would be.

We arrived at the dorm on move-in day along with the rest of the University of Tennessee freshman class, a university that requires dormitory living during Year One. The day was as hot as a meat smoker, there was one elevator and it fit two. I seem to recall my son’s room was on the 72nd floor. OK, I’m exaggerating….it was the 62nd. I also recall that I didn’t have all the right tools to assemble the bunk beds, which were dispensed in pieces with a small baggie of hardware reminiscent of the toys I’d built for years on December 24th. Fortunately, a roommate’s dad did bring his well-stocked tool kit. Strong, free-of-charge advice: arrive first, following a trip to Home Depot, Lowes, or Ace.

# 6. How much my wife would cry.

Saying that my wife cried after we dropped off our eldest is like saying a tidal wave is damp. When you drop off the kid, take the tissues. Pack a box, not one of those little purse-sized packets like you find at weddings and funerals.

# 5. Just how much there is to learn about financial aid.

As big a deal as the financial side of college is, it’s not higher than #5 on my list because I actually did know quite a bit about it before my kids went off to college. Just not enough. And what I definitely didn’t know enough about were the hacks for making it less expensive, the hundreds of scholarships you’ve never heard of, and the intricacies of financial aid process. Following are three financial “aids” that helped us.

FAFSA. Even if your kid earns state, HOPE-type scholarship money, there’s a little more work involved to get it. Both my sons qualified for HOPE scholarships and got a little extra on the side for scholastic achievement. State scholarships provide “free” money, where “free” means you can access it if you first navigate a process called FAFSA, Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The process is also free, although it requires having lots of facts and figures ready.  Think of it like doing your taxes all over again.  Oh, and there’s a deadline. Don’t miss it, or you and junior might also miss out on the cash.

Fastweb (fastweb.com). Fastweb is a legit website that’s been around for over 20 years. It provides access to more than a million scholarships and it’s almost never too early to start. A student can create a profile and start applying as young as 13, and the more you apply, the greater your chances of awards. Awards range in size from relatively small (three figures) up to pretty darn large. You can create a parent profile, but not for more than one student.

529 plans. Officially known as “qualified tuition plans”, 529s are so-named because they’re described in Section 529 of the US tax code. They’re designed to offset education costs, and 529s have tons more pros than cons. Every state in the Union—and DC—offers them. Earnings and withdrawals are tax-free and they’re portable across states and schools. My folks started a 529 for my sons when the boys were in elementary school. If I’d known how incredibly helpful a 529 would be, I would’ve started a 529 the moment the pregnancy test turned colors.

# 4. When to restart the career.

Prior to kids, my wife had been an over-achieving salesperson, and an HR professional. She made the decision to hit the pause button on her career and be a stay-at-home mom. The result was two happy, healthy young professional men: one engineer/product designer and the other a CPA, both married to successful young ladies. So her sacrifice paid off but came with residual regrets that the pause was a little too long. Looking back, she probably should’ve gone back to work when the boys were in middle school. Too many years out of the work force made it tough to get employers’ attention. More FOC advice: if the stay at home mom, or stay at home dad thing is your jam, have a plan for when to get back to work.

# 3. How much our lives had revolved around them.

Once our second of two boys went off to college, I noticed a woman hanging around our now-quiet house who I thought was pretty cute. Turns out I’d been married to her for 25 years. There’s a reason the marriage books all talk about the importance of date night.

# 2. How fearful I became that I’d not taught them enough.

Both my boys did well in school, so we had little concern that they’d also do well in college. I’d given them a little dad advice about selecting their majors that proved to be solid. I’ll share: Whatever your major, make sure it has something to do with numbers. Numbers-oriented professions give you options. One son became an engineer, the other an accounting consultant. What caught me by surprise was the last-minute regret that I’d not taught them enough of life’s lessons…the little hacks, dad wisdom, moral and spiritual advice that would help them navigate situations they’d find themselves in once they left home. A friend helped by sharing the three basic rules he’d given his kids: 1) no flunking, 2) no pregnancies, 3) no DUIs, and everything worked out fine.

# 1. How much I would miss them.

Academically speaking, I knew I would miss my kids when they went off to college. I wasn’t prepared for how much. More than once, my wife called me a helicopter parent, a pejorative term we learned from a freshman orientation session intended to describe parents who are virtual hoverers, who want to be constantly involved and in-the-know about their kids’ collegiate goings-on, monitoring from a distance comfortable to them but not to their kids. Eventually, I adjusted, and let them do them, but it took some doing…and a learned dislike for being reminded that I needed to get a life.

That’s my Top 10 list of things I wish I’d known before my kids went off to college. Both boys survived. So did my wife and I. Here’s hoping the list has helped you, or at least made you smile, or even laugh. College is a big deal for the kids and the parents. You can never be completely prepared, but the more prepared you are, the more enjoyable the whole experience can be.