Families around the country are (hopefully) beginning to wade through college acceptance letters. The conversations are getting a bit strained, and perhaps a few bedroom doors have been slammed. For the teen, deciding on a college feels excruciatingly personal, and one that her/his parents should really not influence. For the parent (who may be footing the bill) the decision feels as important (if not more) than any 17/18 year old is equipped to tackle. If we open our windows and listen very carefully we can probably hear strains of; “Fine! Then I won’t go to college at all.” “Don’t think you’re going to live here (we’ve promised your room to your 30 year old brother.)” Okay, you probably didn’t hear that last part, but it was implied.
A million years ago, the school selection ritual was a bit easier. High school students applied to less than a handful of schools. What they could afford dictated where they applied. Schools differed in their disciplines and robustness of research, but not on their housing and dining and extra-curricular activities. Support services (of any kind) were few and far between. Parents often never even saw the school of choice until graduation. It was a different time. Today there are so many choices and so many people involved in the decision.
Complicated aid packages, unlimited special interest programs (i.e., public service, study abroad, merit scholars, etc.) luxurious living accommodations, and multiple support services are just some of the changes that parents may not recognize. These same parents are expected to visit the school (before enrollment) and sit through Q&A designed just for them. They are expected to deliver their child to school and stay for days for an orientation designed just for them. No sooner do they get home and gas up the minivan, than they are expected back on campus for “Family Weekend” (previously known as “Parents Day.”) And that’s just the first two months of freshman year. For better or worse (and who are we kidding?) parents are also attending the college their child chooses. Just walk through any campus bookstore (or online store.) There is as much apparel and paraphernalia for parents as there is for students.
Adding to this dramatic change in the landscape is that many students are attending college who might not have fifty years ago. As a group, freshman are not as self sufficient or mature as they once were, but there are also many freshman with specific qualities that need to be addressed and supported. Students with; learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional disabilities, chronic diseases, and eating and substance abuse issues, may have stayed closer to home in the past. Many colleges have invested in a multitude of support services, but there will always still be reason for concern. Sending a child away to an institution with new academic and social demands and little behavioral oversight, can be a treacherous formula. Parents of these students have every reason to be very involved in every step of the college process.
So once the tempers subside, and everyone comes out of their respective rooms, it’s time for rational decision making (caution: charts might be involved.) Might I suggest a framework for the discussion:
- What are the student’s interests/goals
- Rate the school as to its ability to successfully deliver the student to the next step (i.e., medical school, engineering job, stage and screen)
- What are the financial needs (include traveling to and from home and any and all fees for supplemental programs)
- Rate the school separately as to their contribution and the student/parent contribution (e.g., “A” for grants “A” for loans, but “F” for no work-study program)
- What are the support/living needs the student has
- Rate the schools accordingly
An attractive, and perhaps color-coded chart should result. Of course this analysis is only relevant if plenty of homework is done. Hhmmm, who amongst those sitting around the dining room table, is well versed in homework? The student should have done as much (if not hopefully much more) legwork before this discussion can occur. Yes, it is all quite confusing and complicated, and even the most well executed chart is no guarantee. And yes, this is all very expensive and important, but there is no race. Leaves of absence, transfers, community colleges and the like exist for a reason. We learn from experience and from our mistakes, but making informed decisions, makes the learning much more profitable.