Parents: What Do You Do When You Disagree With Your Teen’s College Choice
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The college decision-making process will almost certainly cause you and your student conflict at some point. But a fundamental and deep-rooted mismatch can be college choice. What happens when your teen is dead-set on a particular institution, and you don’t think it’s the right one?
Your approach will depend on the reason for your worry. Below we’ve listed some potential sources of disagreement and ways to tackle them. Before we do, though, it’s important to note that when students are passionate and determined about a particular course of action, it may be hard to change their minds. The work that you do to understand their point of view first before diving in with your perspective will help ease the sharpness of the conflict. A teen needs to feel heard first and foremost.
Remember, this is the first major life decision a student makes. Fear and anxiety are common. Picking a choice and then pursuing it with single-minded focus might be a coping mechanism masking that fear. Get to the root of the issue first and address that before making big pronouncements about your disapproval of their choice. Read more for details.
When the Issue Is Location
Maybe you were hoping your student would stick to a local college, with in-state tuition and easy access to a family support network. Maybe you were hoping they’d stick to the East Coast, or head to the area that best matches their career path. Whatever your hopes, they’re choosing differently. You hoped for Massachusetts, and they chose California.
The most common concern here is proximity to the teen should something bad happen—a very valid worry. Before you say anything to the student, try to identify exactly what your feelings are and how legitimate the worry is. Take the University of Southern California, for example. The surrounding South Los Angeles has historically been known for crime and gang activities. But based on first-person experience, the nearby streets are safe, the campus has controlled access, and students tend to stick close to campus because it has everything they need. A student can go to USC and still be completely safe. Doing some research on this may help you.
There’s also a lot you can do to make yourself feel better about a teen who’s far away. Figure out how much flights cost. Identify resources that will make your student’s life easier: the nearest hospitals, places to eat, and the health and wellness services on campus, for example. Invest in a cheap phone plan and set up a regular check-in structure. Have your student share location with you in case of an emergency. Students may not always abide by these rules, but it’ll help you feel more in control should something happen.
Students have lots of reasons to “fly the coop.” They want a completely new experience compared to their life thus far. They want to pursue their creative dreams (and the opportunities are concentrated in New York or Los Angeles). It’s the school they’ve had their heart set on, regardless of distance. Or they might want a sense of escape.
In the case of that last one, or if they’re not totally open about why they’re picking that location, you might want to work with them to identify their underlying feelings. If you do choose to make your worries known, be gentle and speak from your perspective. “I worry about the challenges of distance because…” will come off a lot more effectively than “You’re wrong to choose this college because…” The latter will make a student defensive, but the former will simply share with the student how you feel. They can’t disagree with your feelings.
When the Issue Is Fit
Let’s say a student who’s focused on LGBTQ issues chooses a conservative college. In this case, this example’s based on my own experiences: I was interested in issues of social justice and connecting with a diverse group of people, but guilt about family expectations steered me towards a more conservative, homogenous institution. I chose the University of Notre Dame in the hope that I might find others like me to champion important causes on campus, but those opportunities were few and far between. It was a mismatch.
Fit can also be a more general problem. Students who get into Harvard feel like they should go, but that particular university is highly competitive and cutthroat. Based on the student’s personality, a more nurturing environment might be a better fit. Parents know their students, potentially even better than the students know themselves. If you have a nagging feeling that your teen won’t flourish in a particular environment (especially after you do research), listen to that instinct.
As with a worry about location, try to determine the underlying motivation here. Do they want to change the world or at least their institution of choice? Are they hoping to change the trajectory of their lives? (LGBTQ students sometimes go to schools that don’t advocate for them if they’re afraid of coming out, for example.) Do they hope that an institution will make them different or better? Or do they just not know how important fit is for their college experience?
Again, before you rush in with facts and figures, consider the cause carefully and express your reservations through the lens of your concern, not their failings. If a student’s not inclined to hear it from you, can you enlist the help of a near peer to explain the importance of fit and give real-world anecdotes of their college experience? What about a college or high school counselor, or even a teacher? Could you introduce a student to college campuses in a low-stakes, low-pressure environment before the big decisions even come up?
When the Issue Is Expectations
Going back to that Harvard example for a moment, the inverse is true too: parents sometimed expect students who get into Harvard to go there, regardless of the fit. If a student chooses to go to an easier state school or picks a less prestigious school, the difference in expectations can cause problems.
This one’s the thorniest issue to resolve, likely because it incorporates your assumptions about what a student will do with a college education. The chances are high, also, that you’re footing some or all of the bill. Doesn’t that mean you get a say in where your student goes?
Yes and no. If you come at this discussion from the perspective of love and understanding, your student will be more inclined to hear you. If you use the money as a tool to get them to comply, there’s a strong chance they’ll resent you for it. Conditional parenting in all its forms can really backfire later on, because it either causes animosity or a sense of compulsion. Your goal is to develop autonomy in this young person, who will very soon be an adult.
In many ways, a student’s firm commitment to a course of action does in fact show independence and critical thinking. It’s likely your student already knows how hard it’ll be to survive college without a support network in a new and unfamiliar place, and is still moving forward with this choice anyways. Understand why they’re making this decision, celebrate their bravery, and phrase any issues through the lens of support. Anything else may make them dig their heels in harder.
What If My Student Won’t Budge?
Let’s say you’ve had multiple, compassionate conversations with your student, and there’s no way around it. Your student is going to a college you don’t think is a good match. Now what?
There’s still emotional work that you can do here. Separate what’s yours, what belongs to your student, and ways you both can come together so you can feel good about this decision. (A therapist, counselor, or other expert can help here.) Be ready to support your student, no matter what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised, or the student might need to transfer. Suspend judgment and expectations until you know for sure.
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