10 things I wish I'd known before I sent my child to college

Nicholas, Tony, Sean, Jean and Andrew Bufalo

(Editor's note: As school begins this week in some parts of the country, we begin a back-to-school version of our "Things I Wish I'd Known" series, where parents reflect on things that could have helped before every stage of schooling.)

When my oldest child followed the family footsteps to the University of Florida, we were thrilled. In the excitement, we never gave a thought to how much of a homebody Angie was. She didn’t either, until she was 2,325 miles away. The end result was many phone calls from a suffering child with suffering grades.

That was just one of those “things I wish I knew before my child started college.” From money matters to flaky friends to dining dilemmas, other parents point out plenty more to consider:

Location, location, location. Not only will your child want to come home, you will want to go there. When son Michael went off to Amherst in Massachusetts, Kentucky mom Lisa Sullivan remembers how hard it was for her and husband Tim to hear their son was alone in his dorm room for those three-day holiday weekends. Not only that, Sullivan says it also means that, if kids play sports or are in band, as daughter Megan was at Ohio State, watching them perform is another issue to consider. 

Debbie and Christopher Frost

Sticker shock. Parents unanimously agreed they wished they had known how much college would really cost. To that end, Florida mom Patt Caudell, who sent daughter Kelly off to school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and son Brad to junior college, wishes she had known how important it is to help your children make prudent choices about student loans and easy-to-get credit cards, decisions they can, and will, make without you.

There are no jobs? New Jersey mom Jean Bufalo says she wishes she’d known to check into schools’ job placement rates and how much help the alumni association offers. Oldest son Andrew, who studied industrial engineering at Rutgers, was told he’d have no trouble finding a job at $100,000 a year. Not. When youngest son Sean finished at Johnson & Wales with a degree from the School of Hospitality, he had several job offers thanks to the university’s determination to get grads going.

Home sweet home. That dorm room doesn’t have to be furnished well enough to make a magazine cover. Buy sheets and towels, says Sullivan, and wait till you see the room before you get other things on “the list.” And think about shopping once you get to the school rather than shipping it, packing it into the car or lugging it on a plane.

Hunger games. Jim and Alicia Trotter, who sent two daughters from San Diego to St. Mary’s College in the San Francisco Bay area, bought the full meal plan for Taylor, the first to leave. What they didn’t know was how much money would go down the drain because the plan doesn’t carry over from semester to semester. They asked Taylor about what and where she was eating and made necessary adjustments. They didn’t make the same mistake when Tara was a freshman.

Control issues. Colleges grant students privacy. It’s the law. That’s nice. Until you, the person paying for this education, wants to be sure your kid isn’t flunking out. Several parents said they didn’t know that. I didn’t either, until the third child enrolled. His university told me I would need his permission to see his grades. Oh yeah? I had the school send me the form and told my son to sign it. Or pay his own way.

Degrees of separation. Missouri mom Terry Pfaff recalls her only child, Maggie, coming home from University of Missouri saying she was so unhappy in her major and wanted to change to the Bachelor of Fine Arts program. Pfaff says she was speechless. How was Maggie going to make a living? There was no job security in the field, no stability, among other values Midwesterners hold dear. Pfaff says she wishes she’d known how important it is to listen to what our children want and not force them to study what we think they should. Maggie made the switch and excelled.

Sylvia Mendoza with her kids, from left, Kayla, Cassandra and Bryan McCulley

The drama of it all. Heartbreaks. Bad teachers. Peer pressure. No, they don’t leave all that behind in high school. And add roommate issues, says California mom Sylvia Mendoza, who says son Brian McCulley and daughters Kayla and Cassandra McCulley all had to deal with difficult situations. She remembers how toughit was to counsel from afar. She wishes she had known the importance of discussing how to handle relationship and other conflicts before they left home.

Letting go. Portland, Oregon, mom Debbie Frost was not alone in saying she wishes she had known how hard it would be to walk away from son Christopher on that first day of freshman year in Los Angeles. And to gently tell him no when he called two months later, asking to come home. She and others say they wish they’d known sooner how much care packages and cards and visiting as often as possible would help ease the separation anxiety on both sides.

As Pfaff says, in the end, “We think it’s all about them growing but really it’s about us growing along with them.”

Jane Clifford is a Florida-based writer and mother of four. She fervently believes her payback will be sitting back and watching as they all become parents.