Preparing for college -- and beyond
From the time a baby enters the world, parents have high hopes for their new arrival. Planning for college often begins early, with the first dollars deposited into a college savings account, and accelerates with every decision -- from preschool French lessons to high school AP classes.
As children get older, however, it becomes clear -- based on their interests and abilities -- that their future may or may not include a four-year college education. And once they enter high school, the question of what's next hangs like a ripening fruit. As it slowly ages, that ripening aroma makes it impossible to ignore.
Part of the hard work for parents in helping plan their children's future is reflecting on their own experiences after high school and then tucking those triumphs or regrets on a shelf to make room for the student's own perspectives. Couples also have to discuss and agree on how much the family can commit to the cost of any post-high school plan, and what limits they wish to place on their child's choices.
Roughly half of the students who begin a four-year college adventure don't complete it -- at least not in four years. Being prepared for college, both academically and socially, contributes to the success of the students who do complete a degree, according to researchers. An estimated one out of four college freshmen drops out before sophomore year, according to a survey by the testing service ACT. By talking about college, visiting campuses and imagining the future, students will be making themselves a little more ready for the reality.
Some students may want a year off to travel. Abby McCoy of north Seattle told her parents in her junior year at Garfield High School that she planned to work hard in college, but wanted a break before plunging in. Abby's mother, Mary Miller, says she and her husband were fine with that -- but they also made some rules. They asked Abby to apply to college anyway, along with her peers, so that she could defer admission -- a common practice for students who want to take a year off between high school and college. They also insisted that Abby develop a plan for the year gap. For the next year, Abby will be working for a non-profit organization in Guatemala and has deferred admission to Whitman College.
Other possible options to a four-year college include apprenticeships with trade unions, or vocational programs at community colleges. There is no single right answer, but imagining many different futures is the best way to allow your own student to find a comfortable choice. Even the division between college and high school is more flexible than one might think.
Take one Edmonds family, which has participated in a state program called Running Start that pays for students to attend community college while they are still juniors and seniors in high school. JoAnne Moore, who is both a public school teacher and a homeschooling parent, says her family has been pleased with this program. Her eldest son, Collin, received his associate of arts degree from Edmonds Community College at the same time as a high school diploma, and then obtained a scholarship at Seattle Pacific University, where he graduated cum laude this year. His younger brother received the same degree and then joined the military. Their sister, Natalie, is in her second year of Running Start this fall.
"My kids were very ready" for community college, Moore says. Moore's family was also happy to save money by getting two years of a four-year degree almost for free.
Shoreline Community College administrator Jeff Omalanz-Hood says that time spent in community college classes helps students prepare for eventual work in a university setting, if that is their goal. But community college students can obtain training for solid careers without a four-year degree. For example, one standout program at Shoreline is the automotive technician track, which has received national attention. Top graduates can earn $70,000 annual salaries right out of school.
For those who want to attend a four-year college, recent headlines about competition and overcrowding may be dismaying. But don't buy into that panic, says Seattle-based college advisor Bob Dannenhold, who has worked with more than a thousand families through his private consulting business.
Dannenhold reminds parents and students that there are plenty of good colleges to go around. Early planning for college is helpful, as it leaves time for families to take their student to visit some nearby colleges and to carefully structure their high school coursework. However, he doesn't think it is ever too late. By visiting any campus, even a college that might not be a choice, a student gets what Dannenhold calls a "film to play in her head" that shows what college might look like. This film is very important in motivating a student through the application process, he says.
Another favorite strategy in preparing for college is encouraging your child to attend one of hundreds of summer camps for high school students on a college campus. These are usually one- to four-week camps, with themes ranging from music performance to catapult building.
Each family must decide whether the parents will coach the college planning themselves, hire someone to help or leave most of the responsibility with school counselors and the student. The average public school counselor has a caseload of about 315 students, according to a national survey. Motivated families can find many resources through the Internet, libraries and non-profit organizations.
Private advisors come in many flavors. Some work only on a comprehensive package basis and others will sell you an hour or two of their time. Their expertise ranges from those who specialize in academic decisions to those who concentrate on the financial impacts of college.
Dannenhold, for example, sees himself as a sounding board for the student in discussions about his or her passions, strengths and weaknesses. In addition, he also can serve as an intermediary who can nicely tell an overbearing parent to lay off for a while and let a student have some space to sort out the college decisions. After one student declared, "My mom is just wigging out," Dannenhold called the mother and asked that she give her son a little breathing room.
Allowing students that space can be daunting for parents, recalls Cynthia Ervin, a Seattle psychologist. Ervin has launched two sons successfully through small liberal-arts colleges. But she recalls being a little nervous when one of them dawdled until well into the fall of his senior year, without really applying himself to the question of a college choice.
"These are the same people who make social plans 10 minutes in advance," she jokes.
Putting it all in context, she feels now that a parent has to trust a student's instincts. One son attended Carleton and the other Swarthmore.
No matter how your family begins this process of preparing for college, by the end parents and students will know each other better. The student has to spend a lot of time in self-discovery, which is hard work. As their child makes plans for the future and changes them, most parents will find themselves lurching emotionally. But experts and experienced parents agree it's important to keep it all in perspective. The first choice does not have to be the last.
As U.S. author and scholar John Schaar wrote: "The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination."
Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three, including two college students.
Resources to prepare for college - and beyond
- Internships, service learning and other alternatives to college
- Site of Seattle consultant Bob Dannenhold includes a great list of links
- Comprehensive resources compiled by the editors of The Seattle Times
- Early College Programs by Robert Hydrisko, a guide to summer programs on campuses for high-school students
- The Launching Years: Strategies for parenting from senior year to college life by Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt
- Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for You by Jay Mathews
Originally published in the November, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.