At the college fair, college representatives tend a sea of tables, offering glossy brochures and struggling to explain their school's attractions above the din. Shepherding teens among the myriad choices, it's the parents who look dazed and confused.
That's no surprise, since the challenges of applying to college -- along with competition to get in and the cost of staying there -- have never been greater. A recent King County Library System search revealed 54 books on selecting colleges, 19 of them published since 2000. How can parents help teens find their way through the labyrinth to a good outcome?
Be a facilitator. Kids, not parents, should control the search. "Let them handle it as much as possible," says Anne Leder, a counselor at Shoreline's Shorecrest High School, "but balance this with encouragement and nudging."
Stay student-centered. Make teens and their needs, not the college, the center of attention. Start early -- junior year is ideal -- to establish search criteria. Encourage kids to ponder what they want in campus ambience (religious affiliation, a Greek system, easy access to the outdoors) and academic culture (structured curriculum, class size, study-abroad opportunities). Having clear career objectives helps, but even kids with none can set other criteria.
"Focus on the basic decisions you need to make," Leder says. "Where do you want to live? Far away or close to home? In a large or smaller community?"
Mercer Island music teacher Jeanne Ellis's son has drawn up a prioritized checklist of items he seeks in a college. "He wants to double major in international relations and theater," Ellis says, "so programs need to be strong in both."
Factor in finances. Financial aid is a top line item on most lists, increasingly determining where kids end up. In recent years, college tuition has risen more than twice the rate of inflation, whereas needs-based government aid has been reduced and needs-blind college merit scholarships have increased. Taken together, it's made paying for college a significant challenge.
"Be upfront with your child about whether they'll need financial aid to attend college," Leder says. "Kids deserve to know how parents can support them."
Private scholarships are available, but most are small and involve extensive paperwork. Usually, student time is better spent working to achieve high grades and qualify for college-based merit scholarships.
Research colleges. Talk to families with kids in college and attend college fairs. "Seek out information and develop a system of tracking and comparing the information," Leder says. Getting on college mailing lists guarantees you'll be swamped with brochures showing smiling students chatting on sunlit lawns. Save some trees and concentrate instead on obtaining information your student needs. Jeanne Ellis's son relies on college Web sites. "He starts with program, faculty, classes; then looks at the campus and community it's in. He doesn't want to fall in love with a place and then find it doesn't have what he needs." High school counselors can help match students to likely colleges.
Some families retain a private college counselor to locate colleges and help manage paperwork. Many of these services are available free elsewhere, but the personal attention that counselors provide can be reassuring. Abbie Hu, a nurse at Seattle's Swedish Hospital, and her physician husband sought such help for their daughter Amanda, a senior at Garfield. "Unless the parents are really in tune with what is going on, they need help preparing," she says. "The counselor monitors deadlines, keeps track of what needs to be done when."
Visit the campus. For many kids, this is the deciding factor in choosing their college. Given the personal and financial investment at stake, visiting schools is highly recommended. If this is impossible, consider a 'virtual tour.' (See resources, this page.)
Visit when school is in session, but not during exams. Take advantage of dorm stays for prospective students and student-led tours; visit classes and explore the campus independently. Read the school newspaper to get a feel for campus ambience.
Narrow the field. Counselors encourage students to apply to at least one "stretch" (admission is a long shot), a "likely" (better than even chance of admission) and a "safety" (certain to be admitted) school. Bottom line: Applicants should feel happy to attend any school on their list.
Consider community college, Leder suggests. "Some people have the attitude that they have to start at age 18 at a four-year college, and won't even consider two-year college. But two-year colleges give kids time to mature, learn what their interests are. A four-year college is a very expensive career exploration tool and it's not what it was designed for."
Some parents worry that stiff competition has put Washington's universities out of reach. "What we hear from public colleges is that there is a lot of talk about fear," Leder says. Alarmist buzz to the contrary, in 2004, 69 percent of University of Washington applicants were admitted.
For teens admitted into more than one school at the top of their list, choosing can be agonizing. Unexpected disappointments are also hard to swallow. Either way, by maintaining control of the application process, students can arrive at choices they can live and thrive with.
Nancy Thalia Reynolds, author of Adopting Your Child and Going Places: Alaska and the Yukon for Families, has a son in college and a daughter in high school.
- Funding a College Education, Alice Drum, Richard Kneedler. Comprehensive, practical guide with checklists.
- Visiting College Campuses, Janet Spencer and Sandra Maleson, 2004. How to make the most of college visits.
- www.collegeconfidential.com: forums colleges, essays and advice on college search, financial aid and application strategy.
- www.collegiatechoice.com: videotaped, student-led college tours introducing campus ambience and amenities; $15 each, plus shipping, with bulk purchase discounts available. Families can reduce costs by sharing.
- www.finaid.org: non-profit provider of information on financial aid.
- www.fafsa.ed.gov: forms to download or file online for needs-based financial aid.
- www.schoolguides.com: guide to undergraduate education, including national calendar of college fairs.