Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Surviving the college search with family intact

[This is my Local Living section column for May 27, 2010.]

I once interviewed Alyson Barker, a former student at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, about her attempt to use the college admission process to drive her relationship with her parents into a ditch.

Barker’s parents wanted her to attend the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, a fine state school with lower tuition for Virginia residents. Barker told them, with a 17-year-old’s irritating certitude, that instead she would attend a small, expensive private school in Ohio.

Because so many area families are starting their college searches, I am going to write a few columns on the hidden pitfalls of the process. I started last week warning against overlooking the quality of campus extracurricular activities. That was important but, I realize now, not the right place to begin.

Picking a college is like juggling plastic explosives. The generation gap between parent and child is large. Other family issues intrude. Popular culture insists it is the most important decision parents and children will make together. But students often do not share the parental sense of urgency. Much can go wrong.

When my wife and I began this perilous enterprise with our first child, we wondered why so many parents at his fine high school were spending thousands of dollars on private consultants. “We want our family to come out of this intact, and this way I know I can count on someone else yelling at my son when he hasn’t finished his applications,” one mother explained to my wife.

That is a sensible goal, but not many of us can afford her method. After a couple of decades reporting on and living this subject, I have found that creative thinking and careful phrasing by us tuition payers can win the day for sanity and peace at the dinner table.

Take Barker, for instance. Her parents pretended to accept her decision to spend their retirement fund in the Buckeye State. But after she announced her choice, they mentioned that if she wanted to study abroad, as they knew she did, perhaps an in-state school might work a little better. They would have more money to finance her dreams of an overseas adventure.

It was an offhand, unthreatening remark. Barker thought about it and eventually agreed to go to William and Mary, with five months in Australia her junior year.
“I just wanted to be rebellious and not do what my parents wanted,” she said. “So perhaps they were manipulative, but whatever works, right?”

Right. There are ways to move even the most stubborn teenagers to where they see no alternative but cooperation on this college stuff.

One parent said she broke the tension-filled application-writing process into manageable chunks. She negotiated a schedule: Work on the easy parts one night, do an essay another night and discuss whom to get for recommendations a third night.
Another parent, whose daughter refused to trim her list of 18 schools, wrote each college’s name on an index card, shuffled the deck and put them in front of her, two at a time.

“If there was a gun to your head right now and you had to decide,” she asked her daughter, “which of these two schools ..... would you rather go to?” That helped narrow the list.

In the end, the smartest parents know their child’s choice might not be their favorite, but a change is possible if the first one doesn’t work out. Lots of people start at one college and finish at another, including John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and me.

Mathews is the author of "Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College that is Best for You."

Read Jay's blog every day at

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page,

By Jay Mathews  | May 26, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  avoiding paying private counselor, clever ways to force students to choose, keeping college search calm, parents use subtle bribe to change her mind, setting a schedule, student rejects William & Mary  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: How should we measure teacher effectiveness?
Next: Technology may help poor schools by starting with rich ones


Darned good advice, every word of it. And it's good to see some really creative thinking on the part of parents. People in Virginia are fortunate indeed to have public colleges ranked as highly as William & Mary :)

Posted by: yetanotherpassword | May 27, 2010 4:16 AM | Report abuse

"creative thinking and careful phrasing ... can win the day for sanity and peace". These are words to live by! Great article.

Posted by: jralger | May 27, 2010 6:50 AM | Report abuse

Nice. My mom did this very subtly. My head was full of Massachusetts (Williams, Wellesley, etc). So when Carleton contacted me after my first 10th-grade PSATs, I told my mom that I was going to check the "not interested" box; there was just no way I was going to Minnesota, and I didn't want to lead them on. All my mom said was, "oh, no, check yes -- colleges LOVE to be led on by students like you." And, of course, guess which place won out over all of those Massachusetts schools?? :-)

For my own kids, we're still a long way away (thankfully!). But the schedule thing is definitely going to be a big deal -- I'm already finding this kind of breaking things down is a big help to her for major projects, which can intimidate her and send her into "deer in headlights" mode.

As for the money, well, sorry, but "speding my retirement" is not an option. I hope to avoid (most of) the angst by being very straightforward about what we can afford to pay, starting around 10th grade, when they first start thinking of college as a reality. I will also help them understand the true cost of various options and investigate possible ways to fill any gaps -- and the associated consequences (ie, don't take out $100K in loans if your dream career is social worker or preschool teacher). But they get to make the final choice.

Posted by: laura33 | May 27, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

to laura33 - I respectfully disagree about the student loan issue. No kid should take a six-figure commitment to study anything, not just "as long as it is not social work or teaching."
Plans change and medical school can say no - or be unwanted after all. The student's work ethic, connections, change of plans and even military service can impact post-secondary education.
No to loans, stop the insanity. No 18 YO is promised a job in investment banking (see current events!) or a slot at a good law school. But the loans live on, even thru a BK.
Parents who allow their kids to be saddled with mortgage-size financial commitments are negligent. Use the state school system, or go into the service. Both my cousins are M.D.s thanks to the Air Force, and both have loved their military careers.
Just one example.
Too many parents think the (apparent) smaller class sizes of private schools will be "better" than state u. No, this is left-over hover-mothering and wishful thinking. You kid can study and learn and grow and be challenged anywhere - or coast, sleep late and party anywhere. There are too many TAs teaching at all universities, and paying $50k a year is no guarantee of quality, ask around.
Send them where the dollars make sense. That's a lesson not in any syllabus....

Posted by: FloridaChick | May 27, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Great comments. I welcome further examples of clever moves by parents, like the sly words of laura33's mom.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 27, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

FloridaChick -- Peace. I'm not saying $100K loans is "good"; heck, I chose the $3K state law school intead of the $16K private school specifically for the freedom that provided. But some loans are worse than others. I was thinking of my former roomate and her fiance, who went to Harvard for Ph.Ds in things like divinity and social work. $120K in loans + guaranteed low salary = right out.

But "negligent" to ever allow big loans? Really? I just can't agree. The world is WAY different now. Professional schools charge as much as they can get away with, because high potential salaries make big loans "affordable." My $3K law school -- still one of the cheapest good schools out there -- is now $25K in-state, $40K out-of-state. Med schools, business schools, all the same.

Yes, there are options -- but they have their own costs and risks, too. Example: you could get a job and go to night school on tuition assistance. Cost: 5+ years at a lower salary until you finish school, + 2-3 more so you don't have to pay back the tuition assistance. Result: at least 5 years of basically doing two jobs; lower salary at least until you get the degree; maybe not the field/position you are going to school for. Risk: you could get laid off or transferred in the middle of everything.

The military is another option. Cost: 4-year military commitment after school, + National Guard after. Result: at least 4 years at a lower salary, maybe not in the field/job you went to school for. Risk: you could get relocated in the middle; you could get called up long after you've gotten your "real" job (which could cause other problems with career progress); you might even get injured or killed.

Compare to: you know you want to be a lawyer; you know you want to start off for 2-5 years in a big firm for the experience; you've got great grades and therefore have a reasonable prospect of a $100K job. Is it really "negligent" to take out, say, $50K-75K in loans, which you can then work hard to pay off in 3-5 years -- while working the very job you went to school for and getting the experience you need for your career?

I'm not disparaging the non-loan paths. I've had friends who did each of the above; some worked out great, some crashed and burned (though not literally, thank God). My point is only that it's short-sighted to focus just on the initial out-of-pocket costs and ignore the longer-term picture. Everything has costs, risks, and benefits. The "right" choice is the one that is most likely to get you where you want to be in the most cost-effective manner. And as long as my kids weigh all of these things reasonably, I will live with whatever choice they make.

Posted by: laura33 | May 27, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if some of these struggles come from the fact that kids today don't seem to work at the types of menial summer and after school jobs that previous generations did. Someone who has mowed lawns or flipped burgers or made photocopies in a boring office all summer is more likely to see that college is a way out of spending their life doing these things, and wouldn't need to be pushed and prodded and consulted into filling out their applications. Sounds like the parents are dealing with spoiled brats (of their own making) who don't really know why they should want to go to college.

If you've raised a kid who can't see the point of college and won't fill out his applications, why not let him work at a gas station for a year, with no support from his parents, and see if he figures it out. On the other hand, the parents won't be able to boast about what college their kid got into, which, it seems, is really the whole point of parenting.

Posted by: TashaMike | May 27, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

well, not sure how a kid would qualify for $50k+ in law school loans (and many need much more than that!) when already burdened with heavy undergrad loans.
I had to wait to age 28 to pay off Terp loans, and then tackle grad school. they will only lend a 20-something so much money, we found. (I ate peanut butter for every lunch and lentil soup or pasta for most dinners for two long years. Can not stand them now.)
you got a deal for $3k tuition. glad to hear it. I think the math has changed - as with health care costs, the runaway inflation in this arena is really a hard slog. I believe things were different, back in the day. Garrison Keillor has a good essay (New Yorker?) about how his min. wage parking lot job pretty much covered U Minn. tuition for him; now would barely dent the books and fees, he had penciled it out.
Off the wall fun fact - I saw a 300-level physical science class textbook and packet for sale the other day in campus bookstore for - wait for it - close to $325. And you needed a software add-on as well. New edition, no used books available. Profs. used to put a reserve copy of the text on hold @ library - not any more. The ante is way up, all over.
No 18 YO really gets what all this means, multiplied out. The parent needs to see around that corner. If they can afford it, OK. But "we'll borrow, it is worth it" is not a great default IMHO.
BTW - there are a lot of big law jobs at six figures to go around? I had heard that was no longer true...

Posted by: FloridaChick | May 27, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

FloridaChick -- Agree completely on the different math; that was kind of what I was trying to say -- you really can't go get a professional degree nowadays without forking over some big $$ (or signing away a big chunk of your life).

On the legal jobs, well, as they say, the reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated. The past two years have been completely wretched for folks coming out of school. I was lucky enough to graduate in the middle of the last big legal recession (happy happy joy joy). When that's you, it sure seems like the $100K job doesn't exist any more. But in reality, it's just a delay until firms start hiring again.

Look at some of the folks in NYC who have been "deferred" a year: many people are still getting paid half to 2/3 salary to do public interest work for a year -- we're talking $60-100+K! Not as good as the $160K they may have been "expecting," but still beats most of what you can get with a BA in English, with a bigger salary around the corner. And that's big firms. Smaller firms and firms that don't rely so heavily on deals and Wall Street, have done better (bankruptcy firms are booming).

You also have to take "not hiring" in perspective. That generally means: firms did not hire second-year law students last fall for internships during the summer of 2010 that will lead to a permanent job after they graduate and take the bar in the fall of 2011. But that doesn't mean that the folks who didn't get a summer job in the fall of 2009 won't actually find a job by the fall of 2011.

In short, if you're at the top of your class at a good school, there's still a decent chance that some big firm is going to find a way to pay you a lot of money; you just have to be higher in your class, and at a better school. The folks one notch down may end up making $140K vs. $160K they "expected"; and that's going to trickle down, so that the guys who thought they were going to get the $140K jobs are now competing for the $120K jobs, etc. But good grades + good school = reasonable chance to make a lot more money than your liberal arts degree gave you.

Posted by: laura33 | May 27, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

My daughter has been accepted to 2 private expensive Art colleges. When she first suggested this idea to me I gave her 2 requirements : 1. It must have a liberal arts based program. 2. be a 4 year degree program. This narrowed her choices down considerably. I also made her research the school completely - including crime rate, degrees, employment rate after graduation. She then had to present the information to me. I figured if she really wanted the school she should know all about it and be able to explain it to me. This worked. She was able to take the list of 15 schools down to ten and then down to 4. Out of the 4, 3 are private schools and only 1 is a state college. She was able to present a logical agruement for them all and make her choices with a clear head.
She is now on the money trail for funding.

Posted by: Lovely2 | May 27, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Best advice I received during son's senior year was to pick one day of the week, in our case it was Sunday, during application season where kid must devote 2 hours to the search/application process prefereably at dining room table no distractions...Parent agrees to not even mention college apps during the rest of the week; kid agrees to move forward on essays/apps/transcript requests etc. during the two hours. Pretty much kept to this and learned to keep mouth shut during week...less stress for all. Try may save your family.

Posted by: samclare | May 27, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

The only way your daughter will be able to borrow $100k for undergrad is if YOU co-sign them. Willing to do that? I'm not! Those loans aren't dischargeable in bankruptcy! If we have to borrow to meet part of our parental contribution, we will, but no-cosigning at our house.

Posted by: DerwoodMom | May 27, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Well, DerwoodMom, I was actually not talking about borrowing $100K for undergrad; honestly, I just don't see the value there. For me, the only time a big loan is even an option is where it is basically the price of entry into a specific career path with the prospect of a high enough salary difference to justify the up-front investment (and where historically lenders have been much freer). But I'll worry about that if and when we get there.

This all started when I said I hoped to avoid having my kid expect me to "spend my retirement fund" to cover a ridiculously expensive college, and that taking out huge loans that you can't ever hope to repay struck me as a bad idea. Then we went down the rabbit trail of whether big loans are ever justified; I think they might be in some cases, but other people differ, so be it.

Right now, I'm not concerned about loan availablity or terms; my kids are still 10 years away from college, and I hope to be able to cover (almost) everything when they get there. All I am trying to say is that, when we get closer to that time, my "expectations" for my kids are that they fully evaluate and think critically about what they want, what their options are, and the pros and cons of each choice -- both in terms of college choice and how to pay for it.

Posted by: laura33 | May 27, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

for Lovely2 and samclare---terrific stories of parental wisdom. thank you.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 27, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

yeah, DerwoodMom - the cosign is the red flag. If they thought the kid had a good chance to repay, they'd take their John Hancock.
Laura33, I will cheer your critical, analysis-prone teens when they get there. Maybe I have failed, but no such lightning bolts have hit my teens.
The 15 & 19-year-olds I have are "book smart" but think a $235 cell phone bill over-run is no big deal. It is monopoly money to them.
And in a world where kids @ a well-rated, middle-class suburban high school get teased for having older iPods ("ghetto pods") it is hard to teach restraint, deferred gratification and forward-looking planning.
FWIW, I think kindness, good study skills and familiarity with delayed gratification are the most important life skills I teach. What's on your 'must emphasize' list?

Posted by: FloridaChick | May 27, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

"FWIW, I think kindness, good study skills and familiarity with delayed gratification are the most important life skills I teach. What's on your 'must emphasize' list?"

Yeah, I'm gonna go with that. :-)

Also considering the effects of your actions on other people (think that falls within "kindness," but is a little more broad). Work ethic -- you get out what you put in (again, similar to "study skills"). And basic financial literacy -- is it a want or a need, live within your means, save first/spend what's left, don't judge yourself (or others) by stuff, get value for your money, etc.

And I'm sure not suggesting that my kids are going to have this magical revelation on their own -- more like I'll be dragging them kicking and screaming (says the mom of the 9-yr-old who has been begging for a cellphone for over a year -- SO not gonna happen). I sure don't expect them to see around corners -- but it is my job to help them learn. Ultimately, it's my money; if they don't want to put in the effort to really evaluate their choices, and instead just want me to pay for what they want when they want it, well, I'm not going to fund a stupidity quest. But, yeah, we'll see what happens when reality meets theory. . . . :-)

Posted by: laura33 | May 27, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

There was a pertinent discussion on this subject in Carolyn Hax's column about a week ago.

Posted by: PLozar | May 27, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

It is important to remember what Jay says also about being able to make a change. Decisions aren't set in stone. I "ran away" from Northern Virginia and spent my freshman year at Rutgers College. I took amazing classes, met interesting people I would never have met in Virginia, visited NYC and went to a bunch of shows, and at the end of the year transferred to William and Mary. I love W&M, but I don't regret the year in New Jersey.

As well, many people aren't ready for college after High School and the best thing they can do for their future education is take a year to work. Of course, having said that, would I be happy if my rising 9th grader wanted to take a year off? Probably not. I am hoping to alleviate some of the angst of junior year decision making by visiting campuses now so he starts thinking about where he'd like to go. I don't quite get the arguing about private vs. public school with the student. It has been made quite clear to my kids that the only way private schools are in play is through scholarships. No one, not the parents, and not the kid, will accept major debt for education. Not even in the discussion. Some things aren't worth arguing about. I think we parents actually get to decide that sometimes. And I say this from Florida, where we don't have nearly as many public college options as are available in VA.

Posted by: jennypalmer1 | May 27, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

but @jennypalmer1, in Florida we have Bright Futures, free tuition and fees for good students to any state school. It rocks. UF, Gainesville has had either the second or third highest # of national merit scholars for years, since so many kids stay home. Including the brightest, like my older one.
I hope my 9th grader gets into a state school honors college, like her sister, and then takes a gap. You can defer enrollment. I think it's a great idea and she can save money, take a deep breath and maybe a trip or two.
Jay is right. "Harvard, Schmarvard."
Go Gators.

Posted by: FloridaChick | May 27, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse


I usually love your articles, but this is one where your upper-middle and middle-class bias really comes out. You assume that every family consists of 1) parents who not only want their child to go to college but who also know a great deal about the process, and 2) students who are headstrong, unmotivated, or otherwise determined to subvert the wisdom of their parents in the college app process.

This was not my experience, nor is it the experience of a great many students. My parents did not particularly want for me to attend a 4-year college. (My mother suggested hairdressing school.) They did not know that a college education involved taking liberal arts courses, or that living in a dorm with other students was considered an integral part of the "college experience." They did not appreciate the fuzzy relationship between a college degree and a job. And they certainly had no idea how much it would cost, nor how much it would be wise for them to pay given their financial circumstances.

And this is not even touching the notion of living away from home, which is forbidden in many families.

So, what about writing about the experiences of the many students who are "self-parenting" when it comes to their education? The students to take THEMSELVES to financial aid education sessions, who fill out their own FAFSA forms, who must struggle with the decisions of where and how much with NO parental wisdom?

And how about the school systems who don't realize or care that these students exist (because they have enough of the other kind to keep their stats respectable)?

Your blog is titled Class Struggle...(and yes, I realize it's a pun, but nonetheless) how about the struggles of those who aren't members of the middle and upper classes?

Posted by: hainish | May 28, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

For hainish---what a terrific idea. Thanks very much for the suggestion. It is hard to address more than one category of parent in a 680 word column, but you are quite right that many students are in the situation you describe. (I am wondering if yr signon is an Ursula K. LeGuin reference. I am a fan.)

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 28, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

@Floridachick, I love Bright Futures, but no longer trust it will be there in 4 years when we need it. Most people I know who have used it still have many bills not covered by the supposed 100% tuition coverage. I have heard that it also may change and require the student that uses it to stay in Florida to work for 4 years, which I hate. I don't want to limit my son's future employment.
@hainish, the AVID program is supposed to fill in some of those holes for bright students who will be the first in their families to attend college. AVID is big here in Florida. We also have dual enrollment, where community college classes taken in high school are paid for by the state. Some students even graduate high school with their AA degree. I have middle school students who are planning on taking advantage of this because of the cost savings. It hasn't been cut, yet, in this era of economic woe. (The county did just cut 9th grade athletics, but saved elementary art teachers.)

Posted by: jennypalmer1 | May 28, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

@jennypalmer1 - Bright Futures with a four-year work commitment obligation in the wings? Nope. That's a rumor, pure and simple. How would it be enforced? Harris Corp. of Melbourne has tech employees all over the country and world; so do do Darden restaurants and Burger King, all based in Florida. How would this be sorted out? Would workers in those examples "count" and if not, who would? It's a non-starter, a scare technique. Ignore.
Your son will be well-educated for a tiny fraction of the tuition elsewhere, no strings attached. Grad school will be an option whenever he likes, without his being freighted with years of undergrad loan payments. (The kids with "many bills" post-Bright Futures loaded up on student loans for cars, computers, overseas semester, etc.) It's easy credit for them, many even register for a heavy credit load, get the loans and then drop a lot of credits. That is abusing the system and I see it a lot. Easy to avoid this, of course.....
Bright Futures has been around for 20 years and is not going anywhere. I am in this line of work, trust me. The lotto is statute-mandated funding for it. Ka-ching.
Charlie Crist will don tights and samba with Jeb Bush on DWTS before Bright Futures is heavily cut or eliminated.

Posted by: FloridaChick | May 29, 2010 3:05 AM | Report abuse


I look forward to reading what you have to say about this, and yes the username is from LeGuin - I am a big fan.

JannyPalmer1, thank you. That sounds like a great program.

Posted by: hainish | June 1, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company