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The Parent Role

Members of every generation like to boast about the unique hardships they faced during their youth, but I think today’s teens have earned bragging rights to the most trying adolescence. Our parents may have "walked five miles to school and back through typhoons and twisters" - but their challenges pale in comparison to those of today's teens. Even before Covid, students aspiring to competitive colleges were forced to juggle the demands of sports practices, service activities, standardized test prep and homework, and in more recent years the pandemic has robbed them of just about all the positive adolescent experiences that the rest of us look back on fondly. Expecting these beleaguered souls to single-handedly navigate the morass of college admissions and financial aid strikes me as both inhumane and unrealistic. Today’s teenagers need their parents' help.

What’s a Parent to Do?

In a nutshell, I believe that a parent’s role is to support a teenager, help him/her keep the process in perspective, and to remember that it is your son or daughter, not you, who will be applying, deciding, and ultimately attending college. This last injunction is a tall order, and if you make it through the entire process without once saying “we” signed up for the October SAT or applied to this or that college, I applaud you. You’re a better person than I am.

Given the amount of time, money, and psychic energy that you will be investing in your teen’s college application process, it’s only natural for some of your own hopes, dreams, and ego to crash the party. But resist.  Remind yourself regularly that your child’s college admissions process should not be about earning the right to wear a “Proud Parent of a Yalie” sweatshirt or rewriting an unsatisfactory chapter from your own life history. It’s about helping your child find a school where he or she will be happy and successful.

You’ll note that I’ve been careful to be gender neutral in the preceding paragraphs by using the terms “son or daughter” – and I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s tiresome. In the rest of the website I alternate using he or she when I refer to your child. I’ll try to be even-handed in the number of times I refer to a son or daughter, but please don’t count. I’ve raised two children of each gender, and my kids tell me I treated them equally, so trust me on this – I don’t have favorites.

The Big Picture

This website is intended for parents of all college bound students, whether they are scaling the top of the academic ladder or dangling from the bottom rung.  The information – and my take on it – is drawn from many sources; my Ph.D. in education, semester-long internship in the admissions office of the College of William and Mary, ongoing review of admission research and news, experiences with my own four children, and interactions with students who’ve attended my college planning program at a magnet high school.  Most of all, however, it’s drawn from the privilege of helping numerous individual students and their families plan and prepare for college.  Some of the students I’ve worked with set their sights on an elite institution, while others wanted to attend a college with a great football team, a strong business program, or simply a location several states removed from Mom and Dad. I’ve tried to identify the elements of the admissions process that were central to all these families, to simplify and organize them, and to present them with humor and heart. 

Challenges to Getting a College Degree

As families embark upon the college planning adventure, they are usually keenly aware of the first two challenges they will face; getting into college and paying for it. These are important issues, and they will be addressed in this guide. The third challenge, however – getting through college in a timely manner- is one that most students and families take for granted. Unfortunately, many shouldn’t.

The reality is that most students take longer than four years to graduate from college, and many never finish at all. According to National Student Clearinghouse research, only 68% of students who started a four year college in 2012 had earned a degree by 2018 - six years later. Significantly, this study tracked students through all colleges they attended and only included students who had enrolled at least half-time, so the surprisingly low graduation rate cannot be blamed on losing track of students who transferred or counting as non-completers those who only signed up for a course or two. 

This data might suggest that at most colleges, around two-thirds of students graduate within six years, but the actual situation is quite different. In reality, graduation rates differ markedly across schools, with more selective colleges having much higher rates than less selective ones.  Data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that 60% of students who began at a four year college in 2010 graduated from that school within six years. However, the graduation rate for those beginning at an open admission college (one that accepts any high school graduate) was a mere 32%, a marked contrast from the 88% graduation rate for students attending a highly selective institution (one that accepts less than 25% of applicants). For more information on graduation rates, read the article on Less Competitive Colleges.

How can you increase the odds that your child will be a four year graduate? Two key strategies are selecting a college that has a high graduation rate compared to its peers (covered in the article Academic Strategies to Cut College Costs) and making sure that your son or daughter gets a rigorous academic foundation in high school, covered in this section.

 Next article:  What Colleges Are Looking For.


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