If The U Fits
To find the right college, your child may need your guidance more than you think.

Good Neighbor Magazine
Fall-Winter 2011

When Andrew Ferguson's son was asked what kind of school he wanted to go to, "he told his admissions counselor that he wanted to go to a school where he could go to a football game, take off his shirt and paint his chest, and major in beer," recalls Ferguson, who wrote a book called Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

So much for parents' goals for their children of studying hard, getting good grades and graduating with honors from a good college. But reality - for both parents and college-bound kids - often falls far short of the dream: More than 20 percent of college students drop out of school after their first year, and only slightly more than half of all full-time college students graduate within six years.

The problem? Students who drop out say they have trouble juggling school and work, can't afford tuition and generally feel burned out on school. And many would-be students focus on "name brand" universities, or go the opposite direction and select a school simply because it's nearby.

Fortunately you can help your children avoid these mistakes: When they find schools that fit your family's and children's budgets, time constraints and interests, they're more likely to remain engaged and involved - and you're more likely to fulfill your dream of watching them walk across the stage to accept their diplomas.

As a parent, you can consider the college admissions process an opportunity to help your children find their way in life. There's no need to worry that your children won't appreciate your help: A 2007 College Board and Art & Science Group survey found that almost 30 percent of college-bound seniors wished their parents had given them greater assistance in choosing a college. Now's the time to guide them on their paths.

Ferguson's son's counselor was taken aback by his teen's off-the-wall requests, but Ferguson could see what his son was getting at. "He wanted something big, with a big sports program and Greek life," he says. Ferguson's son ultimately ended up - happily - at a big state school.

There's no time too early to begin talking about what your child wants out of college - think the ninth grade. Then "there are no surprises when your child wants to go somewhere different from where you expected," says Steve Goodman, an educational consultant and the author of College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.

It may help to think about your child's personality type. For instance if they get overwhelmed by crowds, you may want to steer them toward smaller liberal arts colleges rather than large public universities. "Find an environment that's going to inspire your child," says Goodman. "Some people like to wake up in the middle of New York City, while others like to wake up in the middle of the countryside."

Ideally, visits to several schools - at least 10 - should happen during your child's sophomore and junior years. Allot some time to wander around the campus, sit in on classes and eat at the dining hall. Ferguson recommends visiting the student union bathroom to see what kinds of event flyers are posted on the bulletin boards: If most flyers are for fraternity parties, you can tell that Greek life is a big deal on campus. If poetry readings and concerts are more common, the school may have a more creative streak.

Many students take the easy way out by writing formulaic essays based on what they've hear admissions officers like to see. Instead, encourage your children to use the essay-writing process as an opportunity to demonstrate - and learn more about - the kind of people they truly are.

For instance rather than having your child detail a soccer team's no-loss season, suggest an essay about facing a difficult challenge. A more introspective essay will give admissions officers a better understanding of your child - and the writing process will give your child a better sense of what he wants from a school in the first place.

In many cases students will be expected to take on a significant amount of debt to cover the costs of their education. But when visiting and applying to schools, remember that many schools have extensive scholarship and aid programs - and it's worthwhile to ask about them, says Goodman. "Not everyone pays the full price, and there are many financial aid options," he points out.

However, when your child sorts through acceptance letters and finds that selecting a particular school means taking on a large student loan, it's time to talk money. "You may want to sit down with a financial planner to see what $30,000 in debt would mean for your child," adds Goodman. "Every family has to figure out its own dividing line."

You and your spouse may be paying the lion's share of your child's college expenses, but it's important to have your student contribute a portion financially and to let your teen make the ultimate decision about which school to attend - difficult as that may be. "The whole college admissions process is parenthood in concentrated form," says Ferguson. "We're trying to balance the desire to have the best for our child with the need to let them make their own mistakes."

That means being supportive and helpful, but allowing the student to direct the choice, according to Goodman, who adds, "If you and your child don't agree, then you need to have an honest discussion."

Above all, let your child lead the way - but don't be afraid to provide the support and guidance he needs to find the perfect fit.

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