Helping High School Graduates Navigate a New World

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By Kristie Garrett, CFP®, CRPC®

In an alternative universe, my son graduated from high school, donning the traditional cap and gown as he celebrated with his classmates. Of course, life amid a global pandemic dictated a much different reality. I found myself grieving over missed milestones of his senior year more than he did. He put the year behind him and reminded me that this was his senior year lost, not mine. I accepted the sincerity of his request to embrace our new normal.

We took the obligatory picture (in the backyard instead of the graduation stage), put up a 2020 graduate sign, and Zoomed remotely with grandparents. The best we could do was acknowledge high school was over, accept limitations, celebrate with social distancing, and plan for the future.

What have we gained?

Put simply, perspective. Being home together has had its challenges: online school, an abundance of unstructured time, compromise, and sharing of resources (the battle for WiFi bandwidth is ongoing).

We hope that our graduates will look back on this experience as a happy time as well as an opportunity to embrace new interests that would not have been possible in the frenzy of our “normal” pre-COVID world.

“Control the controllables” is a common theme at our dinner tables. Our students are pleasantly surprising us by expressing gratitude for what they have, rather than focusing on what has been lost.

What comes next?

High school graduates are asking, “Will I be able to go to college in the fall?” Many colleges are planning to have students on campus, albeit at a different time than originally scheduled or in a different way. Some schools are starting on a delayed schedule, while others are starting early to reduce travel over the holidays in anticipation of a second wave of the virus.

Plan B

As parents, we often want to solve our kids’ problems to insulate them from hurt or harm. During this time of transition, this is a particularly poignant time not to solve for them but to actively listen. How are they feeling and what are they thinking about? What options have they considered? What might a backup plan look like?

Here’s the best advice from my fellow parents at Brighton Jones: be an active listener instead of a solver. Resist the urge to jump online to explore options. Problem-solving is a life skill, and you are both learning from the experience.

My husband and I had a candid conversation with our son. “If campus is closed, do you still want to go via online learning?” It was a hard conversation to navigate, and I learned a lot about listening without reacting. What surprised me most was that he had an answer. We were not the first to ask.

Graduates are having these discussions together over social media. Would they take a gap year or pivot to community college for a year? Would they consider a different school closer to home for the first year with the intent to transfer to their school of choice in year two? What hurdles exist around transferring credits?

Most parents I spoke with indicated that they had not discussed a one-year deferment, but they know it may be a possibility. Families with students pursuing athletics seem to be most in-tune with the cost of holding off a year and the related eligibility requirements. Everyone recognizes the need to be nimble. These graduates have worked hard to navigate an unprecedented time. They earned their spot in college, and it would be difficult emotionally to pivot. There is one area that they all seem to agree. This will be a different college experience for fall term than the one they first anticipated.

What if we see a second surge of the virus?

We all need to be mentally prepared to have things change quickly again if COVID-19 forces another closing. You know your graduate better than anyone. Prepare your student for additional spikes and let them know they will always be welcome home if they need to study remotely. Sometimes reassurance is what is needed most.

Cover the financial essentials

This is a time to remind our budding adults of financial essentials:

  • Never buy anything on a credit card that you cannot immediately pay off.
  • Have a plan of when it makes sense to take out student loans and when other options should be considered.
  • If a gap year is needed, have a thought process around getting a job or a part-time job with classes online or at a local college.
  • Be prudent with savings. Have an emergency fund (for an unexpected trip home), a fun bucket (spring break or weekend pizza), and a savings fund (for the eventual day that you want to move out on your own or buy a car). That time will come too.

While their senior year may not have been what we expected, our graduates have shown a great deal of maturity and resilience in navigating this time. Let’s all look forward to the future that is bright for these young graduates.

Kristie Garrett, CFP®, CRPC® serves as a retirement plan advisor at Brighton Jones.

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