Parents can be the most important influence on a teen considering college. But how they talk to their children about the all of their choices — Ivy League, state university, community college, trade school, coding boot camp or even no postsecondary education at all (gap year or straight to work) — can determine whether these 18-year-olds ultimately succeed or fail.
And failure is costly. At least 40% of students don’t graduate from four-year schools within six years, and those who don’t graduate and took on debt are three times more likely than those who graduated to default on their loans.
After collecting and analyzing more than 200 personal stories and surveys of more than 1,000 students who have chosen different paths for higher education, we developed a set of guidelines for parents — and mistakes they sometimes make. Here are six common ones to avoid:
1. Paying too close attention to the college rankings lists
Students already feel enough pressure around the college-choosing process. Using the various rankings of best colleges to create a list of which colleges your child should visit or apply to only amps it up. What’s more, the rankings don’t correspond to what your child is trying to accomplish. Quality and value aren’t absolute, as they can only be measured in relation to why someone is choosing something, the outcome they desire and their circumstance that defines what is a good or bad choice.
Blindly following the rankings can cause your child to pursue a host of choices that might look good to society at large, but will be a bad fit for your child’s specific circumstance.
2. Using your criteria to select college options, not your child’s
A close cousin of using the rankings to form your child’s college list is using your own criteria. It is your child who will be going to school, not you. If you pick your child’s school or major and it doesn’t match her ability or interest, you’re setting her up for a bad experience. Instead, help your child define what is important and what is a nonstarter — for her.
3. Forcing your child to go to college
Not everyone is ready for college right away. In our research, we learned that when students attended school just to appease a parent, the outcomes were bad — 74% of the students we interviewed dropped out or transferred.
Here’s the bottom line: Do not force someone to go to college for its own sake without their having a sense of excitement, passion or purpose.
In a similar vein, some students are ready for college, but if they don’t get into their top choice or “dream” schools, parents often encourage (aka force) them to apply to a bunch of schools that don’t excite them and are not in line with their passions and abilities (see above).
Instead, parents can help them broaden their options for what they could do next, including options like a college alternative program or a discovery gap year filled with jobs, internships and apprenticeships, community service and short courses at a coding bootcamp, online program or community college.
4. Requiring that your child stay at (or close to) home
The flip side of forcing your child to go to college is forcing your child to stay at home.
Many students feel the need to get away from their hometown or family when they graduate high school. But their parents don’t allow them the option. They force them to apply only to local schools or sometimes don’t even allow them to go to college at all.
If you see that your child needs to “get away” but cost is a countervailing consideration, use sites like Edmit and TuitionFit to see what you might be able to afford — or get creative and offer your child the ability to attend locally with the promise that you won’t snoop, interfere or visit uninvited.
5. Encouraging your child to bite off more than she can chew
If your child does need to get away (in other words, that is her primary goal for going to college), make sure that, in so doing, she doesn’t bite off more than she can chew.
Whatever your child does next should probably be short and low-cost because right now she isn’t choosing college for the experience she will have there, or to necessarily pursue a career. If after she’s gotten away, she finds herself trapped at a school that doesn’t correspond with what she wants to do next — as often happens in this circumstance — trouble abounds.
Combining our advice in mistakes 3 and 4, allow her to get away, but don’t force her to go to college.
6. Making the decision for your child
As your child struggles to improve her life, don’t help her “avoid” that struggle until she has wrestled with the full dimension of it. Depriving your child of the opportunity to do things for herself, wrestle with her own problems and learn from her mistakes takes away an opportunity to grow, learn and innovate in her life. Instead, coach your child through the decisions and make the trade-offs that your child will face explicit—and let her choose.
Choosing whether and where to go to college is a challenging process. Encouraging your child to make her choice based on your own or society’s assumptions about the ideal college experience or career choice can set her up for failure. Make sure your child chooses the right college, at the right time, for her own unique circumstance.
Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta are the coauthors of “Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life” .