Where will my child go to college?
Many parents stress over this decision just as much, if not more, than their children do. And for good reason; college starts to shape what your child will be and what they will do for the rest of their lives. According to Pew Research, those who earn a bachelor’s degree or a two-year degree out-earn people without degrees, providing a more stable financial life.
We talked to Richard Weissbourd, Parent Toolkit expert and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about how parents can best support their children in deciding what college is the best fit for them.
The pressure to pick the best school for your child can feel like a giant weight. Where will be the best school for him academically? Is it too far from home? Where will she thrive? How will he be best prepared for the workforce? How will she get in to the highest ranked school?
While these are important questions to ask, Weissbourd says don’t get caught up in the race to get in to highly selective colleges. The first step is having a conversation. Not just one chat, but a series of important discussions about your child’s life. “Parents have to do some soul searching,” Weissbourd says. “Engage in conversation with your kid. The time before college is a great opportunity to have really meaningful conversations about what makes them tick, thrive, what their values are. Share your wisdom in a way that’s helpful for them.”
And then, really listen to what they have to say. These conversations should come before you even think about the application process, Weissbourd says. Starting these conversations early helps your child to be thoughtful about what is important to him. If you are unsure where to start with the entire college process, these conversations can be essential to get the ball rolling and figuring out the next steps for your child’s education.
The bigger the better? Ivy league?
The status surrounding certain universities can become the priority parents and kids focus on. “I worry that parents are driven too much by rankings, reputation, and status concerns,” Weissbourd says. “What is not happening is the really deep conversations with kids about what is meaningful to them, which colleges will be the best place for them to explore and develop.”
Instead of stressing about getting your child in to a top-ranked school, Weissbourd says parents should focus on the value of the school in relation to the needs of the student. “The quality of education at smaller schools is very high,” Weissbourd says. “There are smaller classes and more engaged professors. Some of the more ‘prestigious’ schools don’t have that.” For some students, that can make a huge difference in their experience and success at school.
Your child can get a wonderful education at a wide array of colleges. “Ranking has very little to do with the value of education,” Weissbourd says. “Some of the high status schools are ranked in part by the average SAT scores of the students they admit, which doesn’t actually reflect the quality of education.”
Take the time to expose your child to a range of post-high school opportunities. Weissbourd says helping your child research options allows you to gauge what your child might need and want from a school. It will also help them take the initiative in making their own decisions and reflect thoughtfully on their future.
“There’s a lot more to colleges than academics,” Weissbourd says. “When researching, your child should look for social atmospheres, exciting community service opportunities, location, class size, student organizations, etc.” You can best help your child by ensuring that she doesn’t narrow down her options too soon and providing your own experiences as a resource.
Weissbourd says there are so many factors that go in to choosing a college; some are more practical and necessary and some are based on social and emotional factors. Allow your child the time to sort through all of these options. And remember, while paying for college is certainly a big factor for many students in deciding what college they will go to, there are many ways to help finance your child’s education.
In the process of selecting a college, support your child wholeheartedly, but know when to step back. Weissbourd recommends parents avoid saying “we’re applying” to schools, because it is ultimately your child’s life and future. This helps give your child agency and ultimately feel empowered by his decision. When you go on college tours, let your child ask questions. Be there to advise and support, not take the reins. Ultimately, your child will get out of the college experience what he puts in to it. And that starts in the application and decision-making process.
When it comes time to actually start sending in applications, help your child express authenticity. “Students should be mindful of what colleges want, but too many kids are over gaming this,” Weissbourd warns. “And it becomes obvious in the essays when students are not allowing their own unique voice to shine through.” Weissbourd says students should think about what each college offers, and how students’ unique traits and experiences fit that, not how to make themselves the perfect candidate for the college.
Many students and parents think there is a formula for college applications, but what colleges are really looking for are unique students who will add something to the campus. Weissbourd suggests avoiding the mindset of what “looks good” on college applications and instead focusing on what the student enjoys and has experienced in his or her life thus far. “For example, a lot of low income students take on substantial family responsibilities, and they don’t think of that as a service to report on an application,” Weissbourd says. “It’s very important that they do report that because taking care of a family member or working are very important contributions and speak to that students’ character.” Weissbourd explains that all students do not have the same opportunities before college so making their own work and experiences stand out is key to expressing themselves in an application.
“Don’t try to be the best,” Weissbourd says. “Be your best.”
It is important to keep in perspective that college choice is a privilege, Weissbourd says. Many students do not have every school in the country as an option. Many will attend state schools or community colleges because of convenience and money. And that’s okay! “We live in a country with hundreds of colleges,” Weissbourd says. “The quality of education you get at most of these schools is very high.”
Parents who may not know where to start in the college process can rest assured that there are many resources out there to help. The First Lady’s Reach Higher Initiative aims to inspire all students in America to complete their education past high school. The website offers a range of resources in an attempt to expand opportunity for all students in choosing the college that is best for them. Resources like the College Navigator can help you sort through programs and majors offered at different schools. The College Scorecard will help you find the best value in your college. The Net Price Calculator Center, Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, and StudentAid.gov can all help you to plan for the finances that go along with higher education.
If you need help navigating the process, don’t be afraid to reach out to your child’s school counselor or teachers. They can be the best resources for you and your family, since they know your child also.
There is no clear cut path from the moment you bring your child in to the world to the moment where your child leaves your home and heads off to start their higher education. How you get there is determined by your unique experiences as a family and how you help your child make their own path in this world. No step is wrong, no direction perfect. Taking the time to guide your child in finding their way makes all of the difference in choosing the best higher education.
And when the time comes to let your children go, hug them tightly, tell them you love them, and watch them fly into the world.
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