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Preparing your teen for college -- and beyond

Published on: November 01, 2009

Preparing teens for life after high schoolFrom 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

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 college 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
college 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.

Preparing your teen for collegeDannenhold 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

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

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



  • 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

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