When parents should butt out of college decision making

With so many colleges options for students these days, teens need all the guidance they can get when applying for colleges. Oftentimes, however, well meaning parents go beyond what’s needed of them and end up doing more harm than good for their children. Here’s a list of three decisions in which a parent should advise and then butt out and allow the student to make the final decision.

1. College major. You may want your teen to be an accountant but he may want to be a graphic designer. A caring parent will sit down with their teen and discuss the reasons why he wants to pursue his stated college major. That same caring parent should then highlight the reasons they want him to study their stated major. Both sides may present very strong cases for their respective majors but at the end of the day, it’s the teen’s life that is going to be affected the most by this decision and so he should get final say on the matter.

When I was an admissions officer, a potential student came in to the office one day and was interviewed by one of my colleagues. The young man was in the last few months of his residency before he would become a full fledged medical doctor. In tears, he told his interviewer that all his life all he’d wanted to do was be a fashion designer but his parents would not hear of it. They wanted him to be a doctor and so he obliged them. He was there that day to literally start college all over again.

Parents, your child will pursue whatever major he ultimately wants to pursue whether you agree with him or not. Save yourself some money and your kid some time and support them in their decision. Most students change their majors several times anyways. Chances are they may go in pursuing one major and actually graduate as the accountant you wanted them to be.

To be an extra cool parent: When you have the college major talk with them, suggest they pursue a double major or at least a major and a minor.

2. College location. You want your kid close to home, they want to attend college on the coast, thousands of miles away. Many teens choose faraway colleges not so much for the academics as for an opportunity to get away from home (and the rules that come with it).

Talk to your teen and ask them why they want to be so far away. In these difficult economic times, most parents simply can’t afford to send their kids to far off colleges. Explain the financial situation to the teens. If they are still hard set on going away, let them know that they will have to bear the majority of the expenses that come as a result of going away for college (e.g. transportation, housing, food).

If costs are not an issue, the teen may feel that you don’t trust them to make good decisions on their own. Be prepared to offer them alternate options for colleges that may be closer.

3. Housing. You want your child to live on campus but they want to live in an off campus apartment with six room mates, none of which you’ve ever met. Again, in this situation, the teen may be seeking a place of their own (where they don’t have to abide by rules made by parents or school administrators). They want their independence and if you don’t support their decision, they will likely not attend thanksgiving dinner this fall.

Fortunately, unless the student has a nice bank account, this decision has already been made for them. If they must live away from home, many colleges will require they live on campus if they are obtaining financial aid funds to pay for housing. If the student still wants to live off campus, go with them to meet the room mates and the landlord. Explain to the landlord that your child is a teen and that you re concerned for their safety and security. The landlord may not want to be liable for your teen and might not let her rent there.

If all else fails and your teen insists on getting the off campus apartment, set specific rules and require they give you a key to the place. Tell them that you will stop by often and then do so.

Teens will seek to stretch boundaries in their attempt to be independent. They will move thousands of miles away just to prove to you (and themselves) that they can handle it all. Know though, deep inside they are just as scared as you are. Talk to them and let them know you are there for them. Knowing that they have a safety net and that they can trust you will ensure that they seek you out for guidance with future, more difficult decisions


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  • Frank,

    Great post! I love my parents, but I was never going to be the petroleum engineer my dad was pushing for.

    I stayed fairly close to home and my parents respected my independence for the most part. I think going away for college is somewhat a shock for both parents and students and its great that you are providing a few tips and tricks for both!

    Thanks again!

  • In reply to Goody:

    Hi Vanessa, Thanks for the comments. How did you and your parents resolve the difference of opinion on what you should study? Also, what college major did you choose over Petroleum Engineering?


  • Well my dad is a very logical guy so I really just broke it down to him regarding what I wanted to do, why, and what I planned on doing with it. We then laid out a plan so he felt confident that I would find a job in my chosen field, which is marketing. I now work with many companies (colleges too!) with their marketing departments and specialize in digital media.


  • Your #1 should be required reading for every parent. I used to work at a college where among other things I did academic advising for students who were on academic probation. More than once I dealt with students whose GPAs were in the toilet but wouldn't change their major because their parents told them they either had to major in X or they wouldn't offer any assistance in paying the tuition. Parents, if there were only one college degree in the universe that led to a secure and lucrative career, EVERYBODY would be majoring in that degree program. Yes, you can strongly suggest that your student major in something a little more practical than 18th-century Bulgarian basket-weaving, but don't ever make the mistake of dictating a major to your student. Your student will more than likely be miserable, and it will be your hard-earned tuition dollars down the drain.

  • Thanks for your comments Cheryl. What do you have against 18th century Bulgarian basket weavers?

  • I find this piece fascinating, especially the part about dictating majors, as I'm currently 2/3 into a series of posts on what parent responsibility is to fund college--and post-college--for students whose paths diverge from what their parents might have hoped. Starting with "When College is A Means To No End: Financial Responsibility For a Murky Future" at http://wp.me/p22afJ-Kg, I address the issue of the child who, in your example, wants to be a fashion designer against parent desires. Does parental obligation to pay change? And, more so, what is parental obligation to support the child in his chosen, perhaps fairly useless, major, post-college? The discussion just continues. . .and I'd love your or readers' insights into the post-college support after a non-practical major issue. Thanks again for opening up a topic we all are still navigating through.

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