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9 Ways to Help Your Teen With the College Decision

Anayat Durranit

March 25, 2024

Applying for colleges can be a stressful time and it is important to know how to communicate with someone going through the process. While parents may be tempted to sway their teen’s college choice, experts say it’s best to leave the main decision-making to students.“Your child has likely made a number of excellent decisions to get to this point. Let them take the lead here as well,” says Chris Lanser, IvyWise college admissions counselor, former associate dean of admission at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the parent of two recent college graduates.

Choosing a college affects the rest of your child's life. Here are some ways to help your teen with their decision.

Don't Pressure Your Student to Pick a Particular School

Remember, it’s your teen who will be attending college, not you. Avoid steering them to the schools that impress you, or pressuring them to go to your alma mater.

“Value the experience your child will have, not the sweatshirt they'll be wearing,” Lanser says. “If a school has the academic programs your child wants, and a campus culture they are excited about, don't push a more name-brand college simply because more people have heard of it.”

Don't Compare Your Child to Others

Choosing a college can be a stressful time. Parents should not add to the pressure by comparing their teen's college acceptances or rejections with those of their friends' or relatives’ kids. Experts say each student has their own interests, passions and pursuits that will inform their decision.

What your student does at college and how they “utilize resources and maximize opportunity is more important,” Lanser says.

Compare Financial Aid Offers

Paying for college is a challenge for many families, so understanding financial aid packages is an important part of the decision. Here, parental guidance can be valuable.

This means comparing things like how much of the award is grant aid or scholarship and how much debt will be owed by graduation. Families should also compare work-study opportunities at each school as a way of reducing potential student loan debt.

For example, some campuses offer only dining hall and athletic center jobs while others include work-study doing research for faculty as a way for students to gain experience in their chosen field.

“Understand that you can negotiate with universities over financial aid packages,” says Allen Koh, CEO and founder of Cardinal Education, an education consultancy firm. “Showing tight family budgets – or even better, showing better financial aid offers from other universities – could extract a better financial aid package from a university.”

Lanser says parents and students can see if another school “can match or make an adjustment in their award.”

Discuss Affordability in Detail

Having an open and honest discussion early on about paying for college is important, experts say.

“It's crucial to establish clear expectations and explore all available payment options, including sholarships, grants, loans and work-study programs,” says Caron Jackson, corporate communications manager at Sallie Mae, a private student loan provider.

She says by involving students early in the college planning process, “everyone can stay informed and prepared for this major decision.” Experts say creating a spreadsheet showing the cost of each college and debt expectations can be helpful.

In recent years, the majority of U.S. college graduates have left school with student loan debt, typically tens of thousands of dollars per borrower.

Evaluate Academic Opportunities

While students generally research colleges before applying, it is worth evaluating each school’s majors and minors, courses, faculty accessibility, research and study abroad opportunities to find the best fit.


What a Minor Is and Why It May (or May Not) Matter

Koh says it’s important to understand what majors your student is eligible to study at each university.

“Many universities restrict students' ability to freely major in certain subjects because of limited availability. If your child is dreaming of engineering, an offer to the arts and sciences college at University A, which is more prestigious, might be inferior to an offer to the engineering college at University B, especially if internally transferring colleges at University A is challenging,” Koh says.

He also suggests looking at special programs like honors colleges “that can provide an elite education at a much more affordable price.” Honors colleges – which differ from honors programs – typically provide high-achieving students with an enhanced academic learning experience within a large public school.

Research Career Outcomes

Students should compare the internships and other opportunities each school offers to help them reach their career goals. Koh also recommends researching the four-year graduation rates, debt load and average salaries for each major and university, to make sure your teen's college choice aligns with their future plans.

He says it’s important to think about where your student wants to live and work after graduation, since college location can have an impact on local job opportunities available to graduates.

"Most young university graduates depend on the local economy for their first job,” Koh says.

Students can research job attainment rates and starting salary data for recent graduates, as well as graduate school outcomes data, on a school's website.

Students can also access information on outcomes, such as alumni salary data by major, using the U.S. News College Compass online tool.

Talk About Location

Some students look for a school close to home, while others are ready to move out of state for college. Students may want to consider whether they prefer big city life or a quiet small town, look at nearby opportunities and think about whether the college location fits their interests and goals.

“And while it is a larger time investment, if the choice is down to a couple or three places, do an overnight visit if possible. Most admission offices have a hosting program – usually weeknights only – and an immersive visit offers both breadth and depth,” Lanser says.

He adds that parents may also want to look into campus safety statistics, which can be found on a school’s public safety website or in annual security reports that are available online.

Focus on Finding the Right Fit

Lanser suggests focusing on fit, which centers around academics, extracurriculars, location and campus culture, among other things. Build a list of factors that are important to your student's education experience. Which schools offer the things they can't live without?

“Trust your child's instincts. Colleges and universities have an energy that is unique to that campus, a vibe or a feeling that resonates or doesn't,” Lanser says. “If a college just feels right and other factors like academic programs and resources line up, it's probably a good fit.”

Students can find their ideal college by using U.S. News My Fit, a custom ranking tool that helps find colleges that fit their needs based on qualities they care about, along with high school GPA and test scores.

Visit the Campus Again

Colleges typically hold admitted students days in the spring, helping ease the college transition by allowing students to experience day-to-day campus life, take tours, attend financial aid sessions and ask questions.

If your student has been accepted to several schools, Lanser recommends visiting as many of them as possible, even if you've visited before. He suggests prioritizing the top choices and/or the schools your student hasn't seen in person yet.

“While on campus, divide and conquer, giving your student the opportunity to engage with the community on their own,” Lanser says.

Students can go to classes, visit departmental offices, see the residence halls, stop by the career and wellness centers and learn about support services. They can also eat in the dining hall, visit campus coffee shops and talk to current students.

"Most college kids are happy to share their experiences, good and bad," Lanser says.


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