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How to Resolve Conflict With Your Student in the College Search

The college admission process can be contentious between parents and students. Here's how to find a balance and resolve any conflict with your teen.

When parents and students begin the college search and admission process, issues tend to arise. It’s the inevitable clash of what parents think is best for their teen and what the teen really wants. Over the teenage years, the usual clashes are over things such as homework, friends, and entertainment choices. As college approaches, the parent-student conflict intensifies. Ask a high school student (without a parent present) and most would tell you that they want to go to college for the social scene, to get away from home and their parents, and to get a degree for a high-paying job after graduation. Ask a parent about the reasons they want their kids to go to college and they’ll tell you unequivocally it’s for an education that will lead to a bright future. These differing goals often cause conflicts about colleges, majors, and locations. Why are parents and teens so far apart, and how can they find a balance?

Paying for school

Let’s get the most contentious part out of the way first. Most parents feel they’re at least partially responsible for contributing to their student’s college education. While not everyone agrees on how much, we can all agree this should be addressed before students start looking at colleges. Talking about family finances is just as important as any other aspect of college prep. Studies show that students who contribute financially to their education usually do better in college because they are monetarily invested. Teaching your kids to work for something they want should continue throughout college.

Once you’ve explained to your student what is expected of them, carry the conversation further by offering suggestions on how they can pay their portion. They might work during the summers and school breaks to contribute. They can apply for scholarships to help pay for tuition. They should complete the FAFSA to see what federal student loans and work-study they qualify for, but caution them on the dangers of taking on too much debt and encourage them to focus on other ways to help with the costs first.

Related: Parents, It's Time to Communicate About College Costs

Finding a balance between your desires and theirs

Now that the most stressful part of the college process has been discussed, let’s look at some reasons students and parents have for pursuing or encouraging a school and how to find balance between the two.

Academics vs. social life

Parents send their young adults to college to study and excel academically. They see the money they spend as an investment in the future and would prefer that their students not sacrifice academics for a social life. The reality is that they need both. A socially active student is a happy student. College is more than studying, tests, and grades; it’s about life experiences that help them mature as adults. Most college graduates say they learned much more in college than just academics. The key is to help them find a school that offers a good balance. Before college, encourage them to make a plan for managing their academics and extracurriculars. If your student stays locked up in their dorm room all semester studying, the stress will inevitably have an impact on their health and emotional well-being. If they understand that bad grades mean they might not be able to complete college, it may help them focus on their studies and have fun when it’s appropriate.

College prestige vs. a good fit

Your student may want to attend an Ivy League college or any school with top rankings, but is it really a good choice for them and will they be happy and excel? Choosing a college should be based on three main criteria: academic, social, and emotional fit. Prestige should not be a factor, but peer pressure among students often makes this a top priority. A big-name college might look good on paper and give them bragging rights, but when the dust settles, will they be happy at this school? Will it provide an education that will lead to future success? If a school makes an offer of admission along with copious amounts of financial aid, they value your student and their contribution to their student body. If a college accepts them but doesn’t offer aid, chances are they’re just filling an admission quota. Looking at it from this perspective can make the decision easier and helps students see the value in choosing a college that matches their goals over a well-known brand.

Related: 4 Important Factors to Help Your Teen Choose a College

Location vs. opportunities

Students often want to move away from home to get out from under your “control,” which means their college decisions can cloud by this priority. While location is certainly an important consideration in the college search, the main reason behind it should not be the distance from parents. They may not see it now, but just a few weeks into their first semester, they may discover how much they miss you and their home. If they don’t believe you, have them ask current students. Often talking to their peers helps them see it from a different perspective. Opportunity should guide your student as they choose a college instead. Also remind them to factor in additional expenses when choosing a school far from home. Attending college across the country can rack up airfare, gas, and other travel-related expenses on trips back and forth from campus.

Resolving conflict with your student

Conflict is inevitable—it’s the nature of the relationship between parents and children. Factor in the stress of college preparation and it can intensify. Parents should follow these general guidelines throughout the process:

  • Remember that this is their life choice, not yours, so don’t force your choices on your student—your alma mater may not be where they want to attend.
  • Help them gather all the information necessary for an informed decision.
  • Don’t discount their feelings that play into their decision—listen to them and guide them when they ask for help.
  • Let your student know about your financial commitment and give them financial advice; this is your most important contribution to the decision process.

Your student would do well to follow their own list of conflict resolution guidelines too:

  • Listen to your parents—they do have insight and can help you with your decision.
  • Don’t choose a college based on the schools your friends or significant other are choosing.
  • Pay attention to costs, as graduating with little or no debt should be your #1 priority.
  • Do your research and make a decision that best fits you and your future.
  • Don’t assume your parents understand why you are choosing a college; take the time to explain your reasons.
  • Don’t let your feelings be the sole deciding factor; this is a decision best made with all the facts.
  • Ask for help when you need it!

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

Parents and teens take on new roles during the college prep process. Parents are attempting to let go and trust the decisions their students make, while teens are attempting to exert their independence and make their own choices. As senior year progresses, try to relinquish control and trust your student to act as they have been raised to. It’s not easy, but the ideal situation is for parents to guide their teens as they become independent, self-advocating adults.

Find more great advice on navigating the college search with your student in our Parents section.

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