Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Writer & Blogger

My name is Melissa and I’m a longtime admission professional, personal finance writer, editor  and parent of two (very!) busy kiddos. I couldn’t make it all happen without my husband, Steve.

I hatched my site because I’ve heard so many head-scratching questions from parents. I’ve journeyed in the footsteps of hundreds of families, trekked to dozens of college fairs and even weighed the (billions?) of college savings options for my own two kiddos.

How to Be Happy About Your Teen’s College Choices

by | Jun 18, 2020 | Build relationships | 0 comments

The last time I went to the dentist, my dentist told me all about how the college search was going with her senior. (Naturally, I wanted to ask her a billion questions as her dental instruments clinked against my teeth.)

Anyway, she told me that her senior, Will, was happily considering a local liberal arts college and a state school an hour down the road. She said to him, “Do you have a reach school? Somewhere you really, really want to go? Far away?”

He thought for a second. “Nah,” he replied. He went back to playing his video game. 

She was kind of disappointed. Later, she asked him why he didn’t want to “see what else is out there.” Will told her he thought it might be weird to do something other than what everyone else seemed to be doing.

Another mom I know has a student who’s completely focused on saving money, not taking out any loans and making it easy on his parents. He’s looking at state schools and private colleges to humor his parents, but his mom said, “He’s seriously looking at community colleges and I’m actually disappointed. Imagine that! Disappointed that he wants to go to college and save us money. But… I just don’t think community college is the best fit for him.”

You want your kids to make their own college decisions, yet you want college to be the right choice the first time around. So what do you do when you feel slightly disappointed (or a lot disappointed) by your student’s shortlist? 

Never fear — here are some helpful pointers!

Not thrilled about your child's college decisions so far? Unhappy with college choice options on the shortlist? Here's what to know.
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1. Know that it’s Okay to Feel This Way

When you‘re unhappy with college choice or your child’s college search isn’t going the way you envisioned, you might feel sad, confused, guilty and also harbor a range of other emotions. First of all, know that your feelings are normal. 

It might bring up reminders of other times in your life you were slightly disappointed. Remember when your daughter decided to give up piano lessons? Or your son decided to choose soccer over baseball?  

It’s natural — you’ve invested some major time and energy (and money!) into piano lessons or soccer. Let’s take piano lessons, for example. You invested your time by hovering over your daughter as she practiced and drove her to piano lessons every Thursday. You invested your assumptions (“Wow, she played that song really well!”), hopes and dreams (“Maybe she’ll get into Juilliard someday!”). 

The more invested you feel, the more you expect an incredible outcome. Same with college. You feel mounting expectations for your child with every A+ math test and every note from an English teacher that says, “You’re a Shakespeare whiz!” 

But here’s an interesting question: Is your child supposed to fit your expectations or are your expectations supposed to fit your child? You don’t want to drive a wedge between the two of you.

2. Make Sure Your Student is Ready for the Next Step

E. St. John said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut-wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented — or disoriented — than the choice of a major.”

I’d like to add “choice of college” to that list, too. This is particularly true because you might have to ask yourself if what your child’s ready for. Some kids have a lot of growing up to do before they choose a college. 

I recruited Jesse, a bright (really bright!) student. He had the worst time getting through his first year of college because, suddenly, there was this gigantic responsibility on his shoulders — how well he did in school depended completely on him. He faced enormous distractions because his friends (seriously) never went to sleep — they just hung out all the time. To make matters worse, he’d let his grades slip during his senior year in high school so he could have fun with his high school friends. In one fell swoop, he weakened his study habits before he’d even gotten to college.

The increased degree of freedom and independence was too much for him. His relationship with his parents suffered and so did his grades. 

How well do you think your child will do in college? Is your child a major procrastinator? Is she smart but easily overwhelmed by what’s set in front of her? Know your child’s capabilities and think carefully about whether he or she can handle the type of college you’ve always dreamed of. 

By the way, Jesse’s story ended well! He did graduate and is now a teacher in California. 

3. Ask Yourself Whether Your Dreams Are Overshadowing Your Child’s

This is definitely a family decision, particularly if you’re paying for college. But ultimately, it’s hopefully your child’s decision. You know your student will be successful if he knows he’s blazing his own trail. 

My former boss’ son went to a state university despite the fact that she really wanted him to go to a private liberal arts college. She’s the proud alumna of a liberal arts college herself and works at a liberal arts college and knows the benefits. He had nothing to do with any of it and shipped himself off to a state university. Of course, she’s happy he chose a great state university but had to give up on her long-standing dream of him attending her alma mater. (She’d always pictured his flaming red hair bobbing up and down her alma mater’s soccer field.) It was a little bit of a letdown to know that he’d never play soccer there like she had. 

Nobody warns you that you might have to mourn this a little bit. There’s research out there that says most moms have a bout of real grief after they drop off their kids at college. (Note: There’s good news. Nine out of 10 moved on from this feeling within a month or two, and some do sooner.)

But nobody tells you that you might be deeply disappointed for a while about The College Choice that Never Materialized. Lots of kids refuse to go to their parents’ alma maters or where their parents really want them to go. (I’ve seen it happen firsthand after so much effort to attract these kids.) 

4. Consider the Big Picture

The goal is college. The goal is to get into college — and make it, and graduate and get a job. (And be happy.) If your child feels he must do X, then X and X to get there (whatever those Xs are) then it’s important to remember one thing: Your child’s still going to college. If you have to tell yourself that a million times, do it. But keep the big picture in mind. Your goal was to save for college — and your child is going.

Now, it’s still important to make him aware of certain oppositions you have. Maybe the school he’s going to isn’t accredited or is in a known gang neighborhood — or whatever. Obviously, if he will endanger himself or his future, it’s not a good idea and you must have that important discussion. 

5. Talk to Your Teen

Yeah! Have you had the deep-down, heart-to-heart discussions with your child about college that last late into the night? (This is what I’m picturing in 10 years when my oldest starts her journey. Please tell me this will happen!) Obviously, how much you talk about college depends a lot on both of your personalities and how open your child is to talking about the college search.

Evaluate the Academic Fit Together

The academic fit is obviously one of the most important parts of the college experience. Ask your teen what he’d like to get out of the academic experience and what his priorities are. 

Talk about the academic differences between a community college, a state university and a liberal arts college. Talk about academic rigor between like institutions. A small rural college might pack an academic punch but an Ivy League institution is obviously going to kick it up a notch. 

It might be interesting to hear about his biases and perceptions. Make sure your teen is getting his information from a reputable source. His well-intentioned assistant baseball coach might not be as reliable a source as a college professor, admission counselor or financial aid representative.

There’s no shame if both of you aren’t sure what the exact facts are. That’s what the college search is all about — it’s a fact-finding mission. Do whatever you can to be sure you’re getting the right facts about academics. 

Also, remember that a lot of colleges pay to be on the “Best of” lists. Use your best judgment when you’re Googling yet another “Best Small Liberal Arts Colleges in the Northwest” list. Your best bet is to visit each college, ask lots of questions, sit in on classes and make those determinations for yourself.

Talk About the Importance of Social Growth

I’m going to flat-out say it: There’s a big difference between a commuter college versus a residential campus. If your child’s a social butterfly, she may already be thinking she wants to live in a sorority or on a residential campus. She may naturally gravitate that direction. 

A more introverted student may want to go the community college route because he’s hoping to live at home and keep life how he knows it.

But what’s best for both of these types of students in terms of social growth? An introverted student might thrive at a university, a bubbling social butterfly might be able to focus better in a smaller environment. 

Have a Discussion About Retention

Retention rate is certainly something that doesn’t come to mind immediately during the college search. I believe it deserves careful investigation. 

What is retention, anyway? A college or university’s retention rate is measured by its percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. Let’s use my recruit, Jesse, as an example. He studied full-time in the fall semester of 2016 and kept studying at the college during the next fall semester. He was included in that cohort of students who retained during their first year.

Here’s an easy way to learn about a school’s retention rate. Check out College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics. I really love that tool! Just type in the name of the school, find it in the drop-down, then click on “retention.” You’ll be able to see first-year retention and overall graduation rates and a lot of other great information.

You want this retention rate to be as high as possible. Steer clear of a college if its retention rate is really low — like in the 30th percentile. This means a large number of students transfer out after freshman year. If your student is really excited about a college with a low retention rate, you’d better quiz the admission counselors at that school about why its retention rate is so low.

Talk About How a Visit is Really Important

Has your teen already decided where he’s going to go without checking it out? 

Just because your child’s got his mind made up, try to strike a deal. Teach your child how to schedule a college visit at one large, one medium and one small school to give him an array of options. 

Talk About Money

Is your fear about money manifesting itself in disappointment? In other words, are you disappointed because your child has chosen a really expensive school and you’re not sure you can make it happen?

Conversely, have you set aside a pile of money and your child isn’t going to use it? Maybe he’s opted for a community college but you planned for an Ivy League. Is the amount you’ve invested equally proportionate to your giant expectations? 

The money part of college can bring out all sorts of emotions and fear is a big one. Just make sure your child understands that your disappointment is placed on money — not his or her decision to go to college.

6. Know that Your Child Can Go into Any Industry with a Degree from Any College

This is huge. In fact, there’s some major evidence that pinpoints exactly what matters most in lifetime success. Want to know the secret? 

It’s grit. Grit is the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals. It’s a stick-to-itiveness that simply having a degree won’t magically do to instigate success. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has said, “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit is living life as a marathon, not a sprint.”

If your child decides that College X (which you’re not a big fan of) is the best place for him, rest easy if you’ve noticed your child’s excellent work ethic. Your kiddo will be just fine.

Disappointment Happens — But Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Again, you know the prize is that calligraphy-clad diploma at the end of the road. Your child’s going to get there. Often, good decision making for success in college includes making excellent decisions about college from the get-go. 

Make sure you tell your child you’re proud of so many things, including his choice to go to college (even if you’re not excited about the path he’s taking to get there).

Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and in this case, “Know thy child” is so applicable.

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