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How To Handle Family Conflict When You Disagree About College

College is when parents start to let go...in theory. Some parents will hold on tighter and make the process more stressful. Here's how to get through it.

Differences in opinions between teens and parents are not uncommon, but when it comes to college applications and decisions, disagreements can get pretty stressful. Here are some tips for both high school students and their parents navigating the college search process together. (Student advice by Meryum Baig, CollegeXpress Student Writer; parent advice by Stuart Nachbar, President, EducatedQuest.com)

For students

College is—in theory—that magical point where parents start to let go, accepting that you are making your way into the real world. Of course, some parents will just hold on a little tighter. That said, parental guidance isn’t necessarily a bad thing; even as you get older, it can be helpful and even necessary, from time to time. But making your college and/or career decisions solely based on what your parents want or expect you to do can also be a recipe for disaster.

It’s your future

College is the time to explore your interests, develop your personality, and, for most, get your first taste of true independence. Deciding which college you want to go to is a major part of that independence. In fact, choosing a college is the biggest decision you’re going to make as a teenager, and letting someone else make that choice for you is akin to handing them your future. Advice about choosing a college (from a parent or any other source, for that matter) should be just that—advice, not an edict. Listen to the opinions offered to you, but remember that, at the end of the day, you’re the one who should be making the final decision.

Related: Our Best Advice on Making Your Final College Decision

Be respectful

Keep in mind that your parents may have concerns about the cost of college. It may be uncomfortable to discuss finances with them, especially if it hasn't been a conversation you've had before. But if they're helping you to pay for college apps and will be taking out loans to pay for your tuition, they absolutely have a say in what schools are not affordable for you. 

Communication is key

While it may be easier to simply follow your parents’ wishes, it means nothing if you’re not true to yourself. You know yourself best, and no matter how badly your parents want you to become a doctor or a lawyer, only you know if you’re destined to slip on that white coat or pass the bar exam—or if you even want to. Of course, sticking to your guns is only the first step. Breaking this news to your parents may prove slightly more difficult. Remember, communication is key. Prepare what you want to say in advance; let your parents know exactly what it is you want (or don’t want) to do and why. Don’t just refute their arguments; try to understand where they’re coming from. College is the first step towards—dare I say it—adulthood. Prove that you’re capable of handling the responsibility of your independence while staying true to yourself.

Related: The Importance of Independence in Your College Search

For parents

Whenever I visit college campuses, I try to take the same tour as parents and prospective students. I am as interested in what they think of the school as what the tour guide has to say. I meet parents who have allowed their child to take the lead in their college search as well as those who wanted their child to favor one school over all others, whether it be for cost, closeness to home, choice of a major, or perceived prestige. It’s best to find a happy medium.

Be a good college search partner

Ask your teen what they want from a school: big vs. small student body and/or classes, close to home (in state) vs. farther away (out of state), city vs. college town, sports culture, academic program, and so on. Ask what they believe the ideal to be. Then work together and try to find it. And don’t force one particular school or another on your student, unless they truly want to look into that school.

Be honest about financial concerns

If you don’t have the money to pay the total costs from the get-go, then say so and explain why. Explain the risks of taking on tremendous debt, to your student—and make sure you fully understand those risks yourself. Don’t wait until your student is ready to visit colleges or start filling out applications. You will likely find private as well as public schools that meet your student’s interests. If money is an issue, and you have a long list of schools, narrow them down by checking out the middle 50% of the standardized test scores and accepted/admitted GPA for each school. If your student’s scores are above the top of this range, then congratulations, they may qualify for merit-based aid, scholarships that do not need to be repaid. If they fall within the middle-to-high end of the range, then your student may gain admission, though not necessarily merit-based aid. Try to eliminate schools that you cannot afford to find those that are most likely to help you reduce your costs and potential debts.

Help keep them organized

Your partnership does not end once you have chosen schools. You have deadlines to meet to complete financial aid forms, just as your student has deadlines to apply and take tests. Hold each other to them. Make sure that your student’s applications are neat and complete; a mess is most likely to be ignored. Sift through offers of admission and aid together to make such a school can work out financially. Then let your student visit the more affordable schools on their own.

Campus visits are crucial

Students should also visit and stay on campus, preferably on a Friday night so they see what happens on weekends. If you can, come back to pick up your student at the end of the visit. Take a walk around campus, if you have time, then settle into a restaurant or coffee shop to recap together, before any details of your student’s visit are forgotten. Listen and ask thoughtful questions, as a good partner should. And in the end, remember, your student should make the final decision.

Related: How to Team Up With Your Teen on the College Search

Inevitably, there will come a time when teens and parents disagree on major life decisions—it's almost a right of passage for coming of age. Give each other some grace during this stressful time, and try to understand the other person's perspective. Parents are only ever looking out for their teen's best interest and students are typically trying to figure out what they want in life and follow their passions. Working together will serve you all more than working against each other.

We hope this helps you achieve some compromise! Check out all our content on the College Search Process to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

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