Family Affair: Making a College Decision

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As college admission acceptance letters start arriving in mailboxes across the country, many high school seniors are narrowing down their choices to hit the common May 1 decision deadline.

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Students accepted to multiple schools may feel anxious about making the “right” decision. College is a big investment of time, money and commitment, and students can benefit from their family’s perspective and advice on how to find the right fit for them, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, college expert and author of The College Solution (

“Everyone should be candid and honest and assess the pros and cons of different schools,” she says. “I think the parents can help bring the kids down to earth.”

For most families, parents are usually involved from the start of the college process until the end. According a 2010 Kaplan Test Prep survey 77% of the top  colleges and universities reported that parental involvement in the college admissions process is increasing. As a result, 61% said that their school has been prompted to develop new initiatives for parents.

When it comes down to decision-making time, family input is important, but ultimately the student needs to should be satisfied with the choice. Here are some tips from college experts for families and students to figure out the best school.

Openly discuss the student’s considerations

While students may have a list of “dream” schools in mind, every high school senior should keep his or her parents informed on their rationale for selecting and applying to those schools, says Dave Berry, senior advisor at College Confidential.

“This not only saves what I call "acceptance letter agony"--in other words, getting into an Ivy that's impossible to afford--but also creates a more cooperative and considerate atmosphere between student and parents,” he says.

Parents shouldn’t push their alma mater

If students are applying to schools that their parents, siblings, or other relatives attended at one point in time, students shouldn’t feel pressured to attend that school solely to carry on the family’s alumni status, says Jeremy Hyman, co-author of The Secrets of College Success.

“They could have gone to college 20 or 30 years ago and colleges have changed tremendously in certain cases,” Hyman says.Let your child be an individual—keep in mind that you’re not the one going to college.”

Proximity to home

Whether it’s the parents who don’t want their child to be too far away, or the student wants to remain close to home, experts recommend students cross state lines in their search for the right school.

Weigh In: Want to know--how much influence should parents have in the college admissions process? Leave a comment

O’Shaughnessy explains that 55% of students attend college within 100 miles of their home.

“Schools like kids from other parts of the country and sometimes they give them better financial aid packages,” she says. “If you’re super close to home, you might not embrace the whole college experience as much as you should because if you live close enough and come home to get your laundry done and hang out on the weekends with your old high school friends, you’re not really taking advantage of college.”

Discuss the cost

Although the sticker price of a school does not always reflect what families will actually pay, cost is often a major factor in the decision-making process.Parents who are footing the bill may have the mindset that if they are shelling out big bucks, they should have heavy influence on the student’s decision, says Hyman.

While students should explore all available federal student loan options, Berry stresses how important it is that parents be upfront with their prospective college students about the family’s financial situation and how that will affect their choice of school.

“If parents can open up to their children about the consequences of going into debt for college costs, then the applicants might become more sensitive to the impact of enrollment decisions,” he says. “This is possible only when both parents and student can be open and honest about expectations and realities.”

Consider a last-minute visit

A family visit to a campus can help student narrow down and clarify a couple questions in the decision.

“My motto for seniors has always been, ‘you've got to trod the sod!’  That's the only true way to know if you can see yourself on campus,” says Berry.

Read: Nine Ways to Cut the Cost of College Visits

Stay level-headed

Despite familial clashes that are common between parents and their teenagers, Hyman explains that making a rational, well thought out college decision together requires both parties to put emotions aside.

“It’s important for the kids to try and take it easy on their parents too because the parent in most cases are trying to find out what’s best for the kid, not to force the kid into something he or she doesn’t like,” he says. “I think mutual restraint and trying as much as possible not to replicate the family dynamic is important.”

Read: Five Smart Banking Tips for College Students

Berry says that parents and students should come to a “negotiated settlement” between the two perspectives.

“In other words, it should be the best possible compromise between what the student wants (best match, best offerings for a major, location, etc.) and what the family (and student) can afford.”