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As your child looks at colleges and contemplates their next step, our job as parents should be thought of as a fun ride in the back seat. The driver throughout the college planning and application process should be the student. Parents can sit in the back seat and make suggestions or compliment the driver on his or her navigation skills, but parents should not reach the point of “back-seat-driving,” much less of trying to grab the steering wheel.

Finishing high school and heading off to college marks a major transition toward independence, from childhood to young adulthood. As parents, we have always wanted what is best for our children, but at this juncture it is not always clear what exactly is best. Plenty of studies have demonstrated that getting a college education amounts to upwards of an additional $1,000,000 earned over a lifetime, as compared with just a high school education or less. So, going to college may be a smart investment. 

The next question is which college your child should attend. Remember this is your child’s journey, and we parents are just along for the ride. Fortunately, which college your child attends ultimately matters less than what your child does in college – the connections they make, the skills they master, and maturity and wisdom they gain. That is why helping your child figure out their “best fit” of a college is paramount. Some students prefer a smaller college, while some prefer large universities; some prefer a core curriculum, and others prefer more choice in their classes. Some prefer a campus in a big city, and other prefer a fun college town in a rural setting. Student culture and setting matter significantly for student happiness, and consequently graduation rates and student success. Our job as parents is NOT to make these choices for our students, but rather point them out in a way that kids may not have considered. For example, my personal requirement (strong suggestion from the back seat) for my kids when they wanted to go out of state to school: their colleges had to be destinations that Southwest flew to non-stop, and close enough to the airport for a reasonable Uber ride. This not only made moving them to college reasonable (2 bags fly free!) but also ensured that I could get them home for holidays or summer as desired.

One very useful way that parents can help their teens with college choice is by facilitating a visit to college campuses. Whether it is a stop during a family vacation, a visit to a nearby campus, or a dedicated trip to visit a particular school(s), nothing beats walking around a campus to get the “feel”. However, in recent months with the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting campuses is decidedly less feasible. Online virtual tours are helpful but just not the same. If you have not already visited several campuses, perhaps a useful combination would be to walk around a nearby campus (albeit mostly empty), combined with several virtual tours. This will help students get an idea of what a “big” campus is like vs. a smaller school. Sometimes the long walk between the dorm and the dining hall (i.e., breakfast) is enough to convince some students they want a very small school!  

Throughout this journey, it is important to remember that this is your child’s story. We parents should not relive our own college days – even though it sometimes feels like we were just in their shoes, as we reminisce over our own fun college times. Nor should we live vicariously through our child’s college experiences. We should strive to help our kids find their own best fit college – not just based on prestige, not just because it is our alma mater, not just because it is the school with the highest test scores, the biggest state school or the least expensive school. It is complex. And ultimately, it is up to your teen to choose their own journey through college and their own life path.