There really are no rights or wrongs for parents who want to help their child choose a college, because every student is different in so many ways — their dreams, their goals, their skill set, their comfort level, and so many other things. Parents who want to do so can help make their student’s decision a little clearer or a little less stressful in a variety of ways.
May 1 is National College Signing Day, or Decision Day — a day when photos and hashtags and declarations about college decisions inundate social media, websites, and local newspapers. It can be a day of great joy and excitement, but also one of relief. It’s been months, maybe even years, of trying to figure things out, weighing all the options, considering the pros and cons, and then signing on the dotted line.
So, where do you start to get to that point?
“Parents are generally interested in knowing how their student will be safe and supported,” says Stacy Whiddon, chief academic officer for Schoolcraft College. “They ask about campus safety, and opportunities for transferring credits, and getting employment upon graduation.”
What’s a good answer to those concerns?
“Schoolcraft College has a very safe campus (including our own police department), partners with other colleges for transfers, participates in the Michigan Transfer Agreement (an agreement to transfer credits between community colleges and universities), and provides excellent career services for students,” says Stacey Stover, dean of new student experience at Schoolcraft. “Career Services includes support such as practice interviewing, internships, job placement support, and more.”
Another good place to start is “early” — and with relentless passion. Encourage your future college student to seize the moment.
“Start early, don’t sit back and wait,” says Lisa R. Kujawa, associate provost for enrollment and outreach at Lawrence Technological University. “Let people know who you are, what your future goals are, and why you’re someone who has a plan. Be relentless in your pursuit of the right fit, but most of all, be active in the process of finding the right college. This is your moment; take it and live it.”
While choosing a college can seem like a daunting task for both the student and the parent, it’s really not a difficult decision if time is invested up front and goals are established before making one phone call or clicking on one website. Every list of factors or criteria should include, but not be limited to: safety, costs, academic programs, support staff, school location and size, campus set-up, and, of course, how good the football team is.
“The beginning of your child’s sophomore year in high school is the prime time to begin putting together a list of possible college choices,” Kujawa says. “What tends to happen — whether you’re a great student, average student, or somewhere in between — is that many students wait until they’re at the end of their junior year or the beginning of their senior year (to start thinking about college). And then, yes, it becomes a daunting project.”
Another important thing parents should remember is that this isn’t their own college experience being figured out; it’s their son’s or daughter’s. And even though they may have had a great experience in college, life on campus has changed over the years.
“Colleges today focus on student success — and this means supporting the whole student,” Whiddon says. “We know it’s important to provide a variety of activities, resources, and facilities for our students, such as academic support services, access to fitness centers, a variety of clubs and athletics, and robust career centers, to name just a few. These have all become more predominant at colleges and universities as mechanisms for engaging students.
“Additionally, as careers, professions, and technologies have changed, so have the types of courses and programs offered, and the ways in which they’re offered (such as having online classes). It’s important for parents and their prospective student to determine what their ‘must haves’ are, to help with their decision-making.”
Another thing — perhaps the biggest of all — that’s changed since mom and dad went to college is the cost.
“Identifying opportunities for scholarships is key, so make an appointment with a financial aid counselor at every visit you make, so you can see how it works and what you’re eligible for, and how much will it cost,” Kujawa says. “Find out when to apply for scholarships and what the deadlines are for scholarships. Make sure you research private scholarships, as well, because that can help cover the cost of a meal plan, or gas if you’re a commuter student, or part of your residential costs.”
Dual enrollment is a great way for students to start college early and lower some college expenses. Dual enrollment allows students to experience higher education with support from home and earn college credits while in high school, and it can potentially be funded through the student’s current high school.
“Parents and students need to understand the costs of college,” Whiddon stresses. “The overall cost can be surprising to families when they begin to explore higher education options. There are avenues to (explore when it comes to) financial support, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), scholarships, the lower cost of community colleges, and more.”
One area parents are invaluable in is knowing and understanding their child’s strengths, weaknesses, and concerns better than anyone else. Parents know what their student likes and dislikes about high school — and that probably won’t change over the next four years.
Encourage your teen to do some soul-searching before making a list of colleges. Ask them what they like about high school and what they don’t like. Do they enjoy classes because of their relationships with their teachers? If so, look for smaller schools that tout faculty mentoring.
Did they dread group projects or having to speak up in class? Maybe a larger school that offers more anonymity would be a better fit.
Parents shouldn’t stress about finding the so-called perfect college because, in truth, there is no perfect college — but hopefully there are a few colleges that appear to be a good fit for your child. Be a guide for your child, but understand that the ultimate decision is theirs — and make sure they know that.