Back to School: How to help high schoolers choose the right college

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Choosing a college or university is the first big decision of many teenagers’ lives. A youngster’s choice of college can impact the rest of his or her life, and it’s important that kids recognize the gravity of this decision.

Many kids, in particular those who realize the impact that their choice of college can have on the rest of their lives, are overwhelmed when colleges begin sending information about their programs and campus life. Such information, especially when it is unsolicited, may begin to arrive at the dawn of high school student’s sophomore year, long before many teenagers have begun to think about where to pursue their educations after high school. But as daunting a task as choosing a college may seem, teenagers should enjoy the process, as the choice of where to go to college is unlike any other decision many students will make for the rest of their lives.

Parents also can ensure the process goes more smoothly by helping their kids find the right school. That’s especially true for parents who have already been through the process with an older child. But even parents going through the process for the first time can take the following steps to help youngsters find the right college.

• Discuss finances with kids at the outset of the selection process. While the choice of where a student goes to college should ultimately rest with that student, it’s important that parents explain their financial situations to their kids at the outset of the selection process. Explain how much you can contribute toward tuition and fees, and explain the differences between loans and grants. Some kids may expect their parents to foot the entire bill for their education, but such situations are increasingly rare thanks to the rising cost of a college education. Make sure kids know the financial obligations they will be taking on should they take out loans to pay for their education.

• Ask kids to list fields of study they may want to pursue. While incoming college freshman do not necessarily need to choose a major upon enrolling, kids who know their interests and what they may want to one day do for a living may be more likely to find the right college or university for them. Parents can ask kids to write down a list of their interests, including potential career interests. This can help kids narrow down the list of colleges and universities they are considering. For example, if a student is interested in engineering but a university on their list does not offer an engineering program, then that school can be eliminated. Kids who list multiple potential fields of study may benefit by choosing a larger school with more available programs. This can allow them to pursue more than one major or even switch majors without transferring to another school.

• Visit campuses. Student-athletes who hope to continue their athletic careers at the collegiate level may be limited to a certain number of official campus visits, but nonathletes face no such restrictions. While college is first and foremost about getting an education, it’s also an opportunity to grow as a person. Campus visits can give kids a feel for campus life, which varies considerably between colleges, and that feel can help them determine if a given college or university is somewhere they’re liable to feel comfortable over the next several years. Parents can accompany kids on campus visits and ask questions their kids may not know to ask but will certainly be glad to know the answers to. Traveling to various campuses can be expensive, so parents might want to delay campus visits until kids have narrowed down their lists of potential colleges.

• Stay involved. Some kids may succumb to the pressure of choosing a college and detach themselves from the process as a result. While taking periodic breaks from talking about college can benefit both kids and their folks, parents should not allow such breaks to go on for too long. Stay involved in the process so kids continue to approach it with the right attitude. If kids appear to be struggling with their decision, act as a sounding board for them so they can let off some steam and clear their heads.

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