This week, we’re launching our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining some of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list.
For some parents and their teenagers, there is one decisive factor in choosing colleges to apply to and eventually to attend. Once that decision is in place, they are willing to consider a variety of options that preserve that fundamental decision. For other parents and their teenagers, there are two—or more—decisive factors. And, because some factors are more important to some families than to other families, there is no way to rank the factors in one universal order to importance.
Nonetheless, you need to understand which factors are the decisive ones for you—the deal breakers, if you will. It is a useful first step in narrowing down your choices among the more than 4,500 two-year and four-year degree-granting institutions in the U.S. (plus all of those outside the U.S.).
Let us also say that this is the time for you to be honest with your teenager about what, if anything, is a deal breaker for you. For example, if you really cannot imagine letting your teenager go away to college, then that becomes one of your decisive factors. With that decision made, you can narrow your teenager’s choices down to colleges close to home. Or if you really cannot imagine how you could pay for a private college (because no one can count on a big scholarship and you do not want to borrow tens of thousands of dollars from the federal government through a Direct PLUS loan for parents), then that becomes one of your decisive factors. With that decision made, you can narrow your teenager’s choices down to public colleges. Ignoring your deal breakers now is likely to cause some disappointment later on. So have the conversation first.
Similarly, this is the time for your teenager to be honest with you about his or her own deal breakers. For example, if your teenager is going to refuse to study hard in a science major (your idea) because her heart is set on studying music (her idea), then that becomes one of her decisive factors. So, as we said, have the conversation.
Of course, there might not be any decisive factors—no deal breakers—for either you or your teenager, leaving your family the full range of colleges to consider. That would make life easier. But, just in case, here are four deal breakers to consider.
1. Colleges Away from Home or at Home?
For many students in the U.S. over a couple of centuries now, going away to college has been a rite of passage. Trunks are packed, car trips are taken, and teary good-byes are said in a dorm room on a campus of ivy-covered buildings. Hundreds of movies and televisions shows picture college kids doing crazy things on those campuses in those dorms or in fraternity and sorority houses. In some ways, the idea of kids going away to college has been part of the American dream.
That is not just a notion from the past. Today, there are still a lot of reasons why many students want to go away to college and why many students should go away to college. Let’s look at four of them:
- It is a chance to grow up. Clearly, many 17- and 18-year-olds like the idea of living away from the daily oversight of their families. Who can blame them? This is their first step in making their own unsupervised decisions about academic issues and about social interactions—about what courses to take, when to schedule their classes, what to do on weekends and with whom, how to manage their time and their money, and more. Going away to college is their first step at separating from their families and becoming the adults they are soon to be. Everyone has to do it. Is there a better way to learn how to live on your own or a better time to learn it?
- It is a chance to live in a different geographical location. If a student grew up in the city, it is a chance to live in the country or in the suburbs. If a student grew up in the Northeast, it is a chance to see the South or the West or the Midwest. If a student grew up in the U.S., it is a chance to experience life in Europe or in Asia or in South America. You get the idea. There is a lot to be said for going to college outside of your hometown or home state or home region or home country. Is there a better way to learn what other places are like or a better time to learn it?
- It is a chance to live in a different social setting with people who are not like you. If a student did not grow up and attend school in a multiethnic, multicultural, and racially diverse setting, going away to college is a way to broaden that student’s personal experience with people of different backgrounds. Learning how to work with people of all backgrounds is a life skill most students will need in their futures. Is there a better way to learn what other people are like or a better time to learn it?
- It is a chance to attend a college with a special focus or to major in a particular field a student cannot get close to home. If a student wants to attend a single-sex college or a faith-based college or an HBCU, for example, that student might have to leave home to find it. If a student has an interest in a college that focuses on one academic field (for example, the fine arts or business), that student might have to leave home to find it. If a student has a strong interest in a certain academic field (for example, computer science or journalism or linguistics or theater or mathematics), that student might have to leave home to find a college that has a well-regarded major in that field. Of course, students might change their minds once they get there, but these are still reasons to look at colleges away from home.
There are at least as many reasons for students to stay at home to attend college—sometimes living at home and sometimes living on campus or in a nearby apartment. Let’s look at a few reasons to stay at home:
- It is a way to save money. This is a complicated reason, because it is possible that a student will get an amazing scholarship, which also covers living costs, at a college far from home. In that case, it is possible that going away actually saves the family more money. However, it is fair to say that most students do not get full scholarships, including living expenses; so, for most students, going to college in their hometown saves money. Staying at home for college saves even more money if the college is a public college, where tuition will be far lower for residents than tuition would be at a private college anywhere. And staying at home for college saves still more money if the student actually lives at home and attends a public college. But, remember that it is complicated. For example, going away to a public college in your state, but not in your hometown, might be cheaper than staying at home and attending a private college.
- It is a way to keep a student involved in the family culture. For some families, cultural traditions in the family or in the community are very important, like attending the family’s church and participating in church activities or being part of social groups that represent the family’s ethnic or cultural background. For these families, sending a child away to college breaks the social and family bonds that are very much a part of that family’s lifestyle. Whether the family can adjust to that sort of break would need to be the topic of a serious discussion.
- It is a way to give a student a little more time to get ready to be on his or her own. Some 17- and 18-year-olds are not quite ready to live on their own too far from home. That is especially true of young people who have not traveled much with their families, who have not attended camps or summer study programs away from home, who have not participated in many outside-of-school activities, or who are younger than the typical high school graduate (including bright students who graduate early).
- It is a way for a student to attend a great college that happens to be in that student’s hometown. As a matter of fact, sometimes a great college—or even the perfect college—for a student happens to be located in the student’s hometown. For example, it has the right academic program or the right special focus. When that is the case, going away to college just to go away does not really make sense.
By the way, sometimes it is the parent who thinks the teenager should go away and the teenager who wants to stay home, though you might think it would usually be the reverse. Either way, is it a decisive factor in putting colleges on your list—that is, will you put only colleges near home on your list or only colleges away from home on your list? In other words, is going away or staying at home a deal breaker for you?
2. Two-Year or Four-Year Colleges?
In our last series, Understanding the World of College, in Episode 2, we talked a lot about two-year colleges vs. four-year colleges and universities and the pros and cons of each. The question now is whether your family wants to consider both two-year colleges and four-year colleges or universities for your teenager’s first step into higher education.
As we said, two-year colleges, which are largely public community colleges, offer students core liberal arts courses (which can often be transferred to four-year colleges later) and/or technical training in many different fields at a very reasonable price. They also offer two-year associate’s degrees, which can be enough for some careers or can be transferred to four-year colleges and applied toward credits needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Two-year colleges also offer students who have struggled in high school a chance to improve their academic record and gain the fundamental skills they will need in higher-level college study.
Public community colleges can be a good choice—and possibly decisive factor—if your teenager is undecided about an academic field of study in college and/or about a future career, has a spotty high school academic record, does not yet have good enough study skills for advanced college work, and/or believes that a two-year associate’s degree is sufficient college study for the immediate future. Putting only two-year colleges on your list is also a reasonable decision if paying for college is a critical concern for your family.
Turning to four-year colleges, which come in all shapes and sizes, we know that there is probably one that would be a good fit for almost any student. If you and your teenager believe that a bachelor’s degree is eventually what your teenager will want to earn and if he or she is ready to tackle the academic work at a four-year college, then that might be a decisive factor for you. The range of four-year colleges is so broad in what they offer, where they are located, how much they cost, and how selective they are that choosing to put only four-year colleges on your list still leaves a lot of options open to you.
3. Public or Private Colleges?
In our last series, Understanding the World of College, in Episode 1, we talked a lot about public colleges vs. private colleges vs. proprietary institutions and the pros and cons of each. The question now is whether your family wants to consider both public colleges and private colleges (by the way, all proprietary schools are private) for your teenager’s first step into higher education.
The main factor here is cost. Public colleges are less expensive than private colleges when it comes to tuition. But considering the cost of college can be complicated, as we said. A private college that offers your teenager a substantial scholarship could turn out to cost your family less than a public university that does not offer you any scholarship money. Of course, you cannot count on a scholarship. So, where does that leave you?
If money is a critical factor in where to send your child to college, then think hard about looking only at public colleges. And have that serious discussion with your teenager. Talk about whether applying to private colleges is a good idea, knowing that a scholarship would be required. Or does that simply set your teenager up for a disappointment down the road if no scholarship is forthcoming? Talk about whether summer and part-time jobs could make up the difference in what you can provide financially and what would be needed. But help your teenager understand that working while in college—though many, many students do it—is actually very demanding.
With all that being said, if the best choice for your teenager could be a public college or could be a private college—because of majors being offered or location or size or special focus or even family sentiment—then public vs. private college is not a deal breaker for you.
4. Large or Small Colleges?
You might believe that a small college provides the best academic and social environment for your teenager. If so, you probably believe that a small college is more nurturing; that your teenager is less likely to “get lost” in it; that classes are smaller, affording students more attention from professors (and not from teaching assistants); that it is easier to join extracurricular clubs and sports teams; and that it is better to be a big fish in a little pond. Many people would agree with that.
On the other hand, you might believe that a large college provides the best academic and social environment for your teenager. If so, you probably believe that a large college offers more courses and a greater variety of majors to choose from; that a large college has more laboratories and libraries and theaters and other academic facilities; that there are more and better social activities available, including fraternities and sororities; that sports teams are of a higher caliber; and that there are more alumni to help connect your teenager to the outside world after graduation. Many people would agree with that.
Of course, you could split the difference and prefer medium-sized colleges. Remember, the question now is whether the size of the college is a decisive factor either for you or for your teenager. For example, do you want to put only small colleges, or only small and medium-sized colleges (but no large colleges), or only large colleges on your list? If you can accept the advantages and disadvantages of each, then size is not a deal breaker for you.
Listen to the podcast to find out about…
- Why up-front honesty with your teenager is the best policy
- Why starting college close to home and then going away can be a good compromise
- Why your teenager’s personality might dictate large vs. small colleges
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