As a parent of two recent college graduates and an academic advisor at a public university, I have seen many struggles between parents and high school students about choosing a college. Sometimes the student is set on a particular college or the parents are set on a particular college in a way that is not helpful. Sometimes the differing costs of various colleges or the distances from home are points of contention. Even more common is the situation in which the parents are fixated on the topic of choosing a college and the student just does not want to focus on it.
How does a conscientious parent get the high school student seriously involved in researching options and choosing a college? Here are specific suggestions, based on my experience.
Start talking about college, in general terms of course, when the child is in middle school. If you take your older child to visit a college campus, take the younger child along for the ride. My younger child soaked up the atmosphere at a number of colleges and started to understand what college was all about by going along on such trips. Waiting until late in the junior year or early in the senior year to start a family conversation about choosing a college is way too late. A rushed decision creates needless family tension and is often a bad decision.
If you start early, a slow, gradual, intermittent decision process will allow you and your child to comfortably converge on a specific decision when the time comes.
Establish the principle right away that the student will choose an appropriate college within parameters established by the parents.
The student does not have unfettered choice and the parents do not dictate the outcome. It is a shared decision, but must be “owned” psychologically by the student.
I have met many students who said they were attending college x “because my parents made me.” This is a recipe for academic failure and a family rift. Parents should not insist that a child attend the same college as the parent did, an older sibling did, or that is the most selective school available (i.e., the “best” college). On the other hand, the student should not select a college just because he or she likes its sports teams, because his or her best friend chose it, or because it is a renowned party school.
Agree on the criteria for selecting a college before comparing specific options.
Location, size, cost, availability of majors, and other factors should be discussed in the abstract before specific colleges are placed on a short list. Parents and child need to put their primary goals and assumptions on the table. For example, the student may have a goal of attending college out of state, but the parent may have a budget parameter that limits the ability of the family to pay out of state tuition. The student may want to major in a field that is not even offered at the college the parents “assume” he will attend.
Try not to communicate your anxiety about college choice to your son or daughter.
Let’s face it: parents are often a bundle of nerves about choosing a college. As adults, we know that there are large sums of money involved, that a lot of time needs to be invested in collecting and weighing information, and that going to college is a huge developmental step. We have a lot of fears about our child leaving home, choosing a career, and turning into an adult. If we had a difficult adjustment to college (as I did) we may want to protect our child from that experience. If we never attended college, we may feel inadequate to help our children make this decision. Further, we may have had an unspoken (or spoken) assumption that our child would attend a certain college or a certain type of college. Adults are often overly attuned to the “prestige” factors associated with various colleges.
The high school student needs you to be the steady, sensible one and to communicate to them parameters for choice, but also confidence in their ability to make a good decision. It’s a tall order, but you can do it!
Understand that the high school student is caught up in junior/senior year events, while college seems like a distant, abstract phenomenon.
An adult, especially one who has attended college, can read directories, guidebooks, and websites and readily conjure up mental pictures of campuses, classrooms, professors, courses, extracurricular organizations, and more. For most high school students, it is very difficult to get their minds around college except as something adults are fixated on. What is very real and absorbing to them is all the hoopla of wrapping up high school-prom, sports teams, getting good grades, the impending separation from long-time friends, including girlfriends or boyfriends, etc.
Lecturing your child about how vitally important it is that they focus on selecting a college is not helpful. Forcing them to read college guides cover to cover is very negative. They need mental breaks from the college selection topic and ample opportunity to be the high school students they still are. Let them enjoy their senior year-it only comes once.
Visit colleges, early and often.
There is no substitute for visiting a college campus as a way of getting information and gauging a student’s reaction to the school. Every college has a different “feel,” different norms and emphases, and different strengths. By asking questions, reading bulletin boards, going on tours, attending events on campus, and collecting paper documents, you and the student can gain a wealth of information. Visiting actual classes may even be possible.
Re-visiting schools on a short list, particularly after acceptance letters are mailed, can be extremely helpful. If a school under serious consideration offers an “accepted student weekend,” the student definitely should attend. Usually such weekends involve having the prospective student sleep overnight in a dorm hosted by a current student. This is very good thing to do to get the inside story about the university and student life there. More information is available about accepted student weekends here.
Be open to the possibility that your high school student may not be ready to go away to college or may not be ready to attend college at all.
If a student does not enter college with a certain amount of enthusiasm and confidence, his or her chances of success are small. Students who appear at freshmen orientation and say they have “no idea” what classes they might want to take often have “no idea” why they are in college-except that it was expected by their parents. It is unlikely that such a student will be attending class regularly, completing assignments on time to a high standard, or resisting the temptation to play video games and surf facebook excessively.
While it is not necessary for a freshman to have a declared major and/or a very specific career aspiration, a freshman does need an active interest in seeking answers to those questions. Therefore, if a high school senior expresses interest in “taking time off” before college (to work, travel, live on a ranch, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, etc.), parents should listen with an open mind. For some students, this can make sense. An opportunity to experience the “real world” before entering college can give the student added maturity and perspective, leading to a more successful college career.
In typical middle class families, the parents are obsessed with their child’s choice of college while the high school student is not able to grasp the issues fully and dreads talking to their parents about it. To prevent this dynamic, I suggest that parents start talking about college (gently, in general terms) as early as middle school, make college visits an important part of the exploration process, reach agreement on criteria and parameters before honing in on a “short list” of colleges, and recognize that the student needs to be the primary decision maker. Also, parents need to give the student “breathing space” away from the topic and avoid communicating their own anxieties to the extent possible.
A student who seriously and persistently avoids discussing college or choosing a college may be unready to attend college. Entering a college because “my parents told me to” or “I couldn’t disappoint my parents” is a very unwise course of action. These students probably needed to take time off to gain maturity and perspective before embarking on a college education.
Personal and professional experience in higher education