“College should be like a good pair of shoes — it fits, but there's a little room in the toe to grow into them." This is a metaphor you should keep in mind if your son or daughter is making the overwhelming decision about where to go to college, says Joann Elliot, MEd, LPC, author of When to do What: A Step-by-Step Guide to the College Process ($19.95, Amazon).
Elliot, who has 25 years of experience working in the college admission field, says the best school will allow your child to be comfortable, while supporting and fostering personal, emotional, and academic growth. But recently, in light of the college admissions scandal that has rocked the U.S., it seems some parents are trying to get their children into school for all the wrong reasons — and in all the wrong ways!
Operation Varsity Blues uncovered a world of privilege stained with immorality, lying, and cheating. Parents have been trying to get their kids into top colleges not based on merit, but with altered test scores, phony sports rosters, and a whole lot of bribe money. “The parents sent a very strong message to their child that screamed, ‘I don't think you're good enough on your own to get into college, therefore I need to do this for you,’ says Elliot, whose first reaction to the scandal was empathy for the children.
While newsfeeds and social media are still addressing the details — Will Lori Laughlin get prison time? Will William Macy be charged? Will their kids be dismissed from their respective schools? — Elliot thinks the real focus should be on the college admission process.
The search for the perfect college can be a daunting experience for teens, and parents can feel lost when it comes to determining their role in the process. "College is all about fit," she reminds the families she works with. "Don't follow the crowd or worry about what others are doing. It's not a competition. It's about what's the next best educational step to get your teen moving toward their future.”
Focusing on the following categories can help parents and their college-bound children find a school that fits his or her unique set of needs:
To ensure you find a great academic fit, you should test honestly, interview authentically, and trust the process. It is certainly okay (even the norm) to enlist the help of tutors and college counselors to aid in the college admission process, but be sure to present a realistic academic profile. Attending a school that is not an academic fit could end in burnout or boredom. Elliot shares that “college should help students reach and grow, but not overwhelm.”
Does your college-bound child want a big school or a small one? A school with a huge football stadium and Greek life or one that is adorned with quaint coffee shops and fire pits? If they just isn’t sure, visit some of each and observe. Suggest he or she has an overnight visit and journals about the experience to capture feelings and reactions.
Be sure not to forget (or ignore) mental health issues during the college search. “If your child struggled with any mental health issues in high school, they won’t magically be better in college,” says Elliot. Don’t shy away from the tough questions. Ask about on-campus counseling centers, support groups, and learning support services, and be sure to visit any health facilities on campus while you are there.
Higher education is expensive and the options for funding are not always favorable. But Elliot advises not breaking the bank, taking on debt or withdrawing from your retirement fund to cover it. “Student loans are the death of most students' financial future," she warns. "And, don't think you're doing them a favor by busting out your retirement account or adding a second mortgage to pay for it. Debt is never the way to go." Try not to beat yourself up about what you can't afford. "You work too hard to feel badly about this!" she says. And remember, colleges come in all shapes, sizes and tuition ranges. So set realistic financial guidelines and stick to them — and always have a back up plan just in case Option #1 falls through.
You child will likely have an idea of where he or she would like to go to college. Some will want to stay close to home and others will consciously choose to be a plane ride away. Be sure to discuss the geographical restrictions and freedoms that come with the different options. For example, If your child is unexpectedly home sick and 3,000 miles away, a plane-ride visit from mom and dad may not be an option.
Finally, Elliot stresses the importance of giving your child the freedom to navigate the world of college admissions independently. “Run your own race and let your child run theirs," she says. "With enough people encouraging them, they can do it — and on their own!” Going to college is a rite of passage that will prepare your child to enter the real world. A good first lesson seems to be: even if it's a great pair of shoes, if they don't fit, you should never buy them.