In our consulting, Lee and I have encountered two schools of thought about college planning. First is the “Laissez-faire” method – parents who take a hands-off approach to college planning. The teen is responsible for every aspect of the college application experience, from initial college search to the final result.
Such parents will often only weigh-in when it comes to the final selection. Not surprisingly, their “concern index” increases dramatically when the conversation gets around to college costs. “You have GOT to be kidding!” is a typical refrain.
While I’m a strong proponent of natural consequences and allowing teens to take increased responsibility for college plans as they mature, I have to say that “detached indifference” on the part of the parent typically does not result in a positive outcome. There are three reasons for this.
Along with deciding about marriage and career, teens are often ill-equipped to rationally consider all of the subtle implications associated with selecting a college. Short-term, emotion-based thinkers don’t naturally consider 20-year ramifications of decisions. Teenagers may not turn everything in before the due date, may not understand the consequences of delaying their application, and may not understand how much time and effort is required to recover from each misstep.
Unless parents completely divorce themselves from financial responsibility for college, they will have a vested interest in the outcome of their teen’s behavior. Four years of college is a huge investment with a potentially great reward. Most people do not have a hands-off attitude in other areas of financial planning. I’ve never met an adult who handed a brief-case full of money to a financial advisor and told them to “handle it.” Even if the financial advisor has a long and successful track record, grown-ups usually care enough to ask how the advisor will invest the money.
Teenagers, by definition, don’t have a long track record of wisely handling money. In fact, the time span between their foolish money choices can sometimes be measured in hours, rather than years. Most parents will retain some responsibility for the investment of college money, and they want to know that their investment will have a good return. Failure of “due diligence” can only lead to frustration.
College admission is a very involved, time-sensitive process. The process is open to a broad segment of the population and the competition can be fierce. The process requires diligence and close attention. Whereas the rewards for following the process can be great; the risks of failure can be devastating. Sometimes it is the disappointment a child feels when they don’t gain admission to the college of their dreams. Alternately, it is the terror a parent feels when they fully realize what tuition, books, room and board will cost without any financial aid. Cases in point: I have known average students who were meticulous about college admissions who received full scholarships to perfect-match colleges. I have also known extraordinarily gifted students who took a casual approach and received no scholarships whatsoever. This can be a huge stress and hardship on parents and students alike, but fortunately, it can be avoided.
Project Management 101
The second approach to parenting a teen on their way to college is much more successful. These are parents who take a “project management” role in college applications. Please note: a “project manager” is not the same as a “general contractor.” In other words, the teen still does all the work. The parent just organizes and provides structure and encouragement. Many parents fall into the trap of doing too much. Not only can that lead to resentment and strife, but colleges have become pretty intuitive about figuring out when the parent is filling out the application. They will reject students if they sense the parent has done all the work.
Most teens are not known for their depth of insightful self-knowledge. Parents can guide and shape their teens, helping them identify and articulate personal likes and dislikes. This will help greatly as they choose a college. Kids may need help deciding which colleges are truly a good fit. Without parental guidance, college decision criteria may not get much deeper than looking at the schools where their friends attend.
Deep personal reflection is also important during the college application essays. As they prepare their personal statement for the application, it can be helpful to brainstorm with the child. Help them recall all the different experiences that could help them answer the application essay questions. Teens may only remember the most recent experiences, and they may not recognize the significance of some experiences that seem mundane to them.
It is also important for parents to participate in the college visits. Again, teens may not dig deeply into the subtle points of choosing a college. Without your prompting, the world-views of likely professors may seem less significant then whether pizza is served in the cafeteria. Of course, not all teens are like this, but having a balance of perspectives is important when making any significant decision.
Perhaps the most important role as a parent of a college-bound student is helping them not miss important deadlines. I sometimes seemed as if Lee and I were operating on the Julian calendar whereas my teens were working in Gregorian time. They just didn’t seem to always fully appreciate the significance of the whole “one week until the deadline” concept.
There are other aspects of the process that are second nature to parents that may seem as foreign as a rotary phone to teens. For whatever reason, my boys never seemed to remember that “thank you” notes were an important aspect of civilized life. Even after religiously writing thank you notes to their grandparents after every gift-giving occasion on the universal grandparent calendar (approximately 184 days in a typical year), without reminding, it wouldn’t have occurred to my sons to thank a college admissions officer for a personal tour of their campus. Thoughtlessness isn’t a mortal sin, but can make a difference in the world of college admission cage fighting.
Even with all of this thoughtful guidance, the ugly truth is it may not matter much in the end. As parents, you have about as much direct influence over your older teens as you do over Oprah’s dress size. You can fret about it all you like, but ultimately, they (your teens and Oprah) will do what they will.
I guess that’s what it means to become an adult. College planning is a bit like teaching your kids how to ride a bike. You can run as fast as possible to prevent them from crashing, but eventually you will need to let go. When you do, they may sail successfully off into the future, or they might fall a time or two. As parents, you will be there to celebrate with them or help them dust off and try again.
And when it’s over, please remember that just because you don’t get a thank you note doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate your help.
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