It’s finally happening. Your kid isn’t a youngling anymore, and they’re beginning to look into colleges for the first time. If you’re a parent dealing with a first-time college search, this process can be daunting. You want to know you’re sending your teen off to the best possible school for their specific needs, but with so many choices, it seems borderline impossible to narrow down all the options! But you don’t need to fret. In this article, I outline the most basic things all parents and teens need to consider when deciding what colleges to apply to.
Talk about Cost
Colleges are expensive. That’s the bottom line. For a private institution, it isn’t uncommon to see tuition range in cost from 30-50 thousand dollars each academic year, and even some state schools push the ten grand mark. If money is a factor in your teen’s college choices, it’s better to be honest about it early on. Don’t let them think longingly about an out-of-state program only to tell them it isn’t a realistic option; this will harm the trust you and your teen have worked so hard to build and make them feel discouraged for the rest of their college search.
Alternatively, you could always talk to your teen about applying for different scholarships, financial aid packages, and student loans. These are all possible ways for your teen to diminish the cost of attending their university of choice, but it’s crucial for them to understand exactly how things like financial aid and student loans work, and how they’ll come into play after graduation. Teenagers aren’t known for thinking long-term, so explaining the lasting effects of student loans is a serious topic for parents and teens to discuss.
Location, Location, Location
Many college graduates end up settling near the area they went to college. It makes sense; it’s easier for your teen to make connections and find a job near the place almost all their networking from the past four years has taken place. So, ask your teen where they see themselves living. They may be anxious to be grown and flown, telling you they want to settle on the opposite side of the country. On the other hand, they could be anxious to return to their hometown or surrounding cities after college. Regardless of their answer, you need to remind them of how their college’s location could possibly affect where they end up.
Cost of living, cultural changes, and weather are also crucial points to consider. If you’re from New Mexico, do you think your teen will be able to handle harsh Chicago winters? Will they feel safe and at-home in a big city like New York or Los Angeles? And are there parts of their personality that might not be accepted in certain areas of the country? Talk these things through with your teen to help them decide if a school’s location is a limiting factor.
What Are the Best Programs?
Is your teen set on being a veterinarian? A doctor? A teacher? A field geologist? The beautiful thing about having so many college choices is that there’s bound to be a program that’s perfect for your teen’s interests. Websites like Cappex and the College Board are great places to search for specific majors and programs. Whether your teen is set on pre-med, the humanities, engineering, education, or scientific research, certain schools are known for having specifically strong areas of focus. Of course, this means those programs will be more competitive, but it’s a good idea to research what kinds of schools typically offer what your teen is looking for.
Talk to your teen about what they want to get a degree in. If they don’t know, that’s fine! Most sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds don’t know what they’re having for lunch the next day, much less what their career will be. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to look for large schools with lots of different resources and areas of study or at liberal arts schools that mandate students study multiple subjects as part of a common core.
Consider the Size
This is a massive thing to think about when helping your teenager decide on a college. Some schools register up to 60 thousand students each year and hold classes in hundred-person lecture halls. Others might be smaller than your teen’s high school and have classes with 15 or 20 people max. Talk to your teenager about which of these options sounds more appealing. If they’re the kid of person who fits in well with a crowd and has no problem stepping out of their comfort zone to find new opportunities, a big school might not be very daunting. But if they need to have a small group of friends and feel part of a niche community, a 50-thousand-person university might not be the right choice.
The college search can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! The questions I’ve just brought up are the best way to narrow down college choices and find the school that fits your teen most. It’s also a great idea to reach out to their teachers and mentors to see if they have any advice on schools that could be a good fit!
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.