Choosing a College Checklist for Parents
By Joanna Nesbit
Deciding whether to go to college is a big decision. Many students head to college right out of high school. In 2021, about 62% went straight on to either a two-year (19%) or a four-year (43%) institution, according to the Department of Education. But that doesn’t mean it’s the next step, or at least the next step right now, for your student.
Here are five key questions to ask as you and your student plan for life after high school:
1. What Are Your Teen’s Goals?
Many people think of four-year residential schools (where students live on campus) when they think of “college,” but institutions of higher education include technical colleges, community colleges, and four-year universities. Not all careers require the same type of education, and a university degree might not be the best path if your student is interested in a certain type of health care career, a trade, or a specialty like culinary arts.
For example, if your student is interested in becoming an ultrasound technician, they might find a good program at a two-year college offering health careers. Or if they want to go into carpentry, they might be better served by apprenticing on the job.
If your student really has no idea what they’re interested in pursuing, consider an online career aptitude tool like YouScience or suggest that they explore what their high school offers for career planning. They can also talk to adults in their life about what they do for a career and what they like or don’t like about it.
You can also read and share these articles with your student for them to read and consider:
2. Is College Right for Your Teen Now?
Some young people benefit from working, joining the military, or taking some time to mature or prioritize their physical or mental health before attending college. They may get more out of the college experience when they’re a bit older. Taking a year off might be a good idea if your child:
- Is less independent
- Has had academic challenges
- Needs time to address a physical or mental health condition
- Is unsure about life goals
If your teen does decide to take some time off, it’s a good idea to have a solid plan about how that time will be spent. Help them explore ideas. It could be working locally, volunteering for an organization like AmeriCorps, learning a new skill, or traveling.
3. How Can You Support Your Teen's Search?
If you’re in a position to support your student’s college search, talk to them about their preferences for your help. They might want to handle things on their own, or they might welcome some organizational help, like a list of application deadlines created for them. Discuss the best ways for you to provide support and then follow their lead.
Not all parents are familiar with the process or have time to help, but even just being a sounding board helps your student. Don’t underestimate the value of listening.
For some parents, it’s tempting to micromanage because kids are busy with high school, but it’s important that your student takes charge of the process. Try listening more and speaking less. Let your student talk through their ideas about in-state versus out-of-state schools, how big of a college they want to go to, how selective they want the school to be, or whether they want to stay nearby or go far away. It’s fine to sit down with them and research online—you just want to be careful not to take over.
If they struggle with how to manage the details, help them create a spreadsheet in a program like Excel or Google Sheets to log the details, like attributes of the college and possible cost (check out these tips on how to organize your college search). It’s OK to help them track deadlines, but they should be handling their own applications and writing their own essays.
4. How Does Money Factor In?
Your student has no idea how much you’re able to contribute to college, if at all, until you tell them. If you don’t talk to them about the budget, they might think all colleges are on the table regardless of cost. Or if money is very tight, they might think that college is not an option for them at all.
If you can’t contribute, they need to know early in high school so they can keep up their grades and search for scholarships when the time comes. If you are able to contribute funds, discuss your budget with them so they can search for the right kind of college (some colleges give great financial aid to families who qualify, while others give generous merit scholarships to certain kinds of students).
5. Is the School a Good Fit?
Competitiveness, reputation, and ranking are not nearly as important as most people believe. Research suggests it’s more important to find a school that’s a good fit personally, financially, emotionally, and socially, where your student will thrive. Explore factors like distance from home, the size of the school, access and responsiveness of support services, academic culture, and the social-emotional climate on campus.
The search takes time. Many families start by exploring the schools in their region. One book that could be helpful is Peterson’s How to Get Money for College, which profiles thousands of colleges and the financial awards they’re known for. You can also talk with other families in your high school, your student’s high school counselor, and families with students already in college.
If your student is aiming for selective colleges, suggest that they also research a few colleges with generous acceptance rates that they could be happy attending. Students who strive only for selective schools can be left in the lurch if they’re not accepted anywhere.
The good news is that the United States has a tremendous variety of higher education options, and students can find places likely to be a good fit where they can get in. Help your teen approach this process as an adventure of discovery and let them take the lead. Looking for colleges can become an exciting part of a young person’s process of exploring what their life could be like after high school.