The eldest of our five grand-kids, Kasey (yes, named after Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” ) is now 11 years old and has for years proclaimed her intention to go to college—not just any college, but Stanford University. Admission requirements and affordability are not usually front-of-mind for 11 year-olds. If you are anything like me, you never know exactly how to respond when the subject of college comes up. That’s why the conversation never gets much beyond, “You go girl,”—easily among the lamest support statements a grandparent has ever uttered.

Always sensing a need to do better, I also feel confined by the necessity to steer the treacherous course between being an involved and caring grandparent and that of a meddling old fool. If you have walked in those shoes you know precisely what I mean. For example,it would be an unforgivable sin to push the idea of attending Stanford University when the parents have decided to nudge her in the direction of more affordable alternatives.

Getting in the way and becoming an unwelcomed intruder is easy. When grandparents agree to pay some or all of the cost of college, they are likely granted additional leeway —but not much.

So what are grandparents to do? I got some insight to the question when I was asked by the Michigan State University’s Department of Athletics to address the parents of their incoming freshmen athletes. Afterward, one of the parents, who was also on the faculty at Wayne State University, asked me to repeat my advice on meaningful conversations parents need to have with their kids. Several others had gathered to hear as well. That’s when I knew it was also perfect advice for grandparents as well.

I characterized the advice as “non-intrusive;” helpful to all involved; and, something that would be appreciated for years to come. Furthermore, failure to give it was a common omission of parents and grandparents alike. It can be summarized under the headings why, what and when.

Why—Getting the career counseling process started

The next time the subject comes up, have some quiet time just between the two of you and ask why they want to go to college. Most 11 year-olds will stumble over the question, and you run the risk of embarrassing them about a subject that until now they have asserted with certainty.

Kids tend to parrot what they are told is “good” behavior;  and parents take pride in instilling a desire for higher education in their children. Recent surveys show that 97% of parents with kids 17 and younger say they intend to send them to college because it is the only way to get ahead in life.

It’s hardly a surprise that young children say they intend to attend college as well but have not thought about it beyond that.

How they answer the question initially has little significance. Your objective is to get them to start thinking  without causing unnecessary embarrassment. You will then be able to send him or her on a research assignment to find out why others think college is a good idea and which of those make sense for them. The conversation is the beginning of a substantive discussion that goes beyond others you have had.

There is no reason to correct what they say because there are no right or wrong answers. The whole purpose of the exercise is to encourage a thought process that eventually adds content and direction to a future college experience.

What—Making the connection between college and a career

Eventually, kids come to understand that a college education can serve as a gateway to well-paying professional careers. Though you may take such a connection for granted, research shows that an alarming number of college students have little or no idea why they are there; what they should be learning; and what if any connection exist between their education and a career. Their in-school performance and post school incomes suffer accordingly.

Once the connection between college and career opportunity is made (i.e. once they begin to verbalize that one reason for attending college is to get a good job), you are in a position to ask: “What do you have to do to make a good job happen?”

This discussion is like the first one. There is no reason to force an answer. The closer a child gets to the college experience the more she will understand the details of what college is about and how it works.

Also, know the conversations will not always go smoothly. Give them a chance. Over time the discussions will mature into an in-depth understanding of how college connects to career and the vital role the student plays in making it all happen.

When—How young is too young?

“How young is too young,” is what most parents/grandparents want to know. We should approach the answer from the other direction. These kinds of conversation should have started in their freshman year in high school, at the latest. Know, however, kids are ready at different ages. But if they plan on attending college, it will be known to all involved by the end of the sophomore year.

It is possible to have the conversation earlier. But if you do, it is even more important to let the answers develop naturally and over time.