Teens constantly hear that a college education is necessary for a successful future. In 2008 nearly 69 percent of high school graduates went straight to college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But what if your teen isn’t making any effort to join them?
Experts say there’s no need to panic. Although numerous college-preparation checklists say teens should start plotting their paths to college once they start high school (sometimes even sooner!), the real work – taking entrance exams and studying potential colleges – starts junior year.
“My experience is that most kids get serious about thinking about college the second half of their junior year,” says Jim Jump, Academic Dean and Director of Guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. Before then, he says, parents shouldn’t push it.
But parents don’t need to wait that long to get their kids thinking about life after high school. Counselor Sally Rubenstone, co-director of College Karma and co-founder of College Confidential, two organizations that offer a range of services for college-bound students, says parents can plant the idea of college in their kids’ heads when they’re younger by taking some trips to visit different college campuses. If you live near a campus or are traveling near one, take the kids there for some fun outings. Maybe your child would enjoy a college basketball game, a concert on campus or a visit to an interesting statue near the library. “They’ll start to be comfortable with the idea of going to college and might even get excited about it,” Rubenstone says.
But not every child is going to jump for joy at the thought of college. Here are some tips to help jump-start your potential procrastinator’s planning:
“Parents should be askers of questions rather than providers of answers,” says Jump, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Instead of nagging your teen to take the SATs, ask open-ended questions in conversation with your teen. How does your teen picture her ideal college campus? What are her hopes for the future? These questions will get your child thinking about college and how she sees her future unfolding.
Rubenstone suggests sitting down with your child and listing some college majors, including the usual suspects like English and Biology, along with majors like Video Game Design and Sports Communication. Rubenstone says to then have your teen to place a check next to all of the majors she thinks she could study and circle the majors that sound cool interesting to her. The next step is finding colleges offering those majors. For that, Rubenstone recommends the College Board’s online College MatchMaker. Thinking about majors before she needs to check a box on her application will help your child not to feel overwhelmed by the idea of higher education and get her on track heading toward her future goals.
Seek Outside Help
College counseling doesn’t have to be expensive. Some packages cost as little as $150. Jump says parents can also enlist a school guidance counselor, teacher or family friend to guide a teen’s future planning. Talking to another adult is usually less daunting than talking to a parent.
Plan Overnight Visits
Most college admissions offices will be happy to arrange for your child to spend a night on campus with a current student. Alternatively, you can find a high school classmate or family friend willing to host your teen in the dorms. “The child typically goes off with a friend, has a good time, feels like a college student, and decides college is pretty cool – maybe even decides this particular college is pretty cool,” says Rubenstone.
Teens who aren’t motivated to think about college aren’t necessarily lazy, says consultant Todd Johnson of College Admissions Partners. Some kids are scared of leaving their comfort zone. If you suspect this is the case, talk to you teen about her worries and reassure her that everything will be ok. It’s important for your child to know that even though she may be entering into uncharted territory, that her family, her home and her network of support will still be there for her.
Graduation Approaching? Don’t Panic
Is your senior starting to consider college only weeks before graduation? The longer students wait to apply, the less likely they are to find schools that fit their needs and offer enough financial aid. But there will be some choices. “Even a procrastinator who lallygags all through senior year, and who isn’t that strong of a student, will still have options at four-year residential schools,” Rubenstone says. The Counselors’ Association maintains a list of colleges that have space for freshmen, even after the national May 1 decision date.
Still, some teens don’t want to go to college right away. If your child is adamant, don’t force the issue. “There’s nothing worse than sending someone to college who’s not ready to go,” Jump says. But every teen needs a plan for after high school, which could mean joining the military or attending a trade school, which might end up as a better match in the long run.
A growing number of colleges encourage students to take a year off after high school. A year earning money or volunteering overseas often makes for a more focused college student.
Starting out at a community college can save thousands of dollars in tuition and help a teen adjust to the college life. Jump points out another advantage: Community colleges are full of older adults more focused on education, who can serve as great role models for kids needing direction.
Get a Job
If your high school graduate has no plans, encourage your teen to get a job and perhaps find her own place to live. This will give your teen a taste of what kind of a job she might get without a college education. Experiencing the real world without extra education can be a great motivator and can help your potential procrastinator focus on her future.
More Resources for College Planning: