Family of four with mom, dad, sister, brother in dark cloths on blue backdrop

What if You and Your Parents Disagree About Colleges?

College is, in theory, that magical point where parents start to let go. Of course, some parents will just hold on a little tighter...

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,

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: Top Advice for 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 mom and dad 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 own independence while staying true to yourself.

Related: Why Independence Matters 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

For one thing, 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.

It's likely you will 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 sees 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

We hope this helps you achieve some compromise! For more advice, check out all our content on the College Search Process.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

choosing a college college admission college decisions college search parents

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo


Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

Ana Sophia Garcia-Cubas Assemat

Ana Sophia Garcia-Cubas Assemat

$10,000 Scholarship Winner, 2020

CollegeXpress has been an instrumental resource for my scholarship search and has given me the opportunity to try my best so I can graduate from college debt-free.

Ruth Aguilar

Ruth Aguilar

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress helped me by providing me with many scholarship opportunities and information about universities I want to attend. What I love about CollgeXpress is how it provides a variety of information, and as the first child attending a university next year, it has been very essential and helpful. I’m so grateful for this because the information provided by CollegeXpress has also helped me see that there are so many college opportunities, and it always informs me by email. In other words, CollegeXpress has been like a guide for me as a future college student.

Josiah Kegg

Josiah Kegg

High School Class of 2021

I want to sincerely thank you all for this amazing website that's legitimately helped me find so many different scholarship opportunities. I've been stressing out for the longest time about paying for college since I would rather stay out of debt and have been working days trying to find any scholarship opportunity. When I found CollegeXpress, I discovered many easy scholarships that have given me hope for the future. Thank you and God bless!

Mataya Mann

Mataya Mann

High School Class of 2022

To say that CollegeXpress is a helpful tool would be an understatement as it is much more than that. Before finding CollegeXpress, all I knew was that I wanted to go to college, it was going to be insanely expensive, and I felt lost. CollegeXpress has given me access to resources such as helpful tips for applications and scholarship [opportunities], and helped guide me in a direction where I feel confident moving forward and pursuing a career. CollegeXpress has helped instill a spark in me that makes me want to continue and supports me in doing so.

Courtney Smith

Courtney Smith

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has been a huge help! The website is very organized with finding the right scholarship for anyone and anything. With CollegeXpress, I've been able to find many scholarship opportunities to apply for. Not only that, I'm also able to search for the colleges I have interest in and see what’s required and what scholarships they offer. I've learned a lot from CollegeXpress. They've helped me in many ways to achieve my goals!

College Matches