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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 11/28/2010

If your child resists the college search

By Jay Mathews

A frustrated parent brought an unnerving problem to my Admissions 101 discussion group on washingtonpost.com. The student (many of us in the group immediately assumed it was a boy) had gotten into a well-respected public university in his state and, the parent said, “adamantly refused to go on college visits or apply to any schools other than” his one and only choice.

“This child will graduate with a total of 14 AP credits this spring, carries a respectable 3.5 weighted GPA, has done well on the SATs and does numerous competitive academic extracurriculars — science, math, debate, honor societies, etc.,” the parent said.

“As parents, of course, this is a great bargain for us: in-state tuition for a school with top-20 rankings in the science departments of that child’s interest. But should we be concerned or worried about admissions . . . or that this child is missing other opportunities by not seeking out any further information on other college opportunities?”

I call this the boy problem, although I suspect some girls have it, too. When I speak or write on admissions issues, I encounter parents who envy the college eagerness displayed by other students and are driven to despair by the fact that their kid can’t be bothered. These reluctant college applicants, at least in my experience, are usually male. We guys mature more slowly. I certainly did. As a parent, should you push?

I think not, at least not very hard. The Admissions 101 family of discussants — we have been hashing out such stuff online for several years — tended to agree with me on this issue. “Sometimes we as parents have to sit back and watch life unfold for our children,” said a New York parent whose son refused to visit colleges. “Otherwise, you risk being responsible for your child’s happiness, or misery. Part of the process is letting go of your own expectations.”

Ah, the E-word. A lot of us tend to let our dreams of parenting a future Silicon Valley billionaire or a president of the United States get the better of us. It poisons some parent-child relationships. Most fathers and mothers do not insist that their children take only AP courses and do not lose it when the kids come home with anything less than an A-minus. But there are enough parents like that to make the college admissions process torture for many students, as well as guidance counselors, admissions officers and family psychologists.

I have collected enough stories about children dragging their feet on college applications to know that losing your temper rarely works. Patience is usually the best strategy. The junior who refuses to talk about college will have a different attitude when he is a senior and some of his friends have realized high school is not forever. Applications can be put together quickly. Some colleges still have spaces long after application deadlines — indeed, long after they have sent out acceptance letters.

Lay out the realistic alternatives to going to college, and be assured the student will eventually see what is in his best interest. One experienced commenter said the parent we were discussing should “make it clear that while you understand that the choice to apply to one school is his decision, you will not be sponsoring his year at home at Hotel Mom and Dad if he doesn’t get in."

The prospect of having to get a job or go to community college “may encourage him to hedge his bets and apply to a safety school,” the discussant said. “Also, have faith. Kids tend to figure it out, just not necessarily on your timeline.”

Parents sometimes feel like the college admission process is a runaway train with their child steering the family toward a crackup — a college that would be bad for him. Keep in mind he can always transfer. That’s what Barack Obama did, and he eventually got a pretty good job.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 28, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Admissions 101 discussions group, be patient, child resists college search, he can always transfer. Barack Obama, student will apply to only one college  
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Comments

"The student ... had gotten into a well-respected public university ... and, the parent said, “adamantly refused to go on college visits or apply to any schools other than” his one and only choice.""

Provided that the family can pay for this university, what, pray tell, is the problem here? This young person has been admitted to his/her top choice. This is what is called "One and Done". Had he/she been admitted Early Decision at some selective private institution would the parent have felt differently?

If the truth is that the family needs the kid to apply more broadly to get a better financial aid package, then they should have made that message clearer from the get-go.

As for those HS kids who aren't interested in thinking about college yet, Jay you do have some good points. Maybe they truly aren't ready. The family needs to help them come up with viable options for the first year after HS graduation.

Posted by: cotopaxe | November 29, 2010 6:48 AM | Report abuse

“adamantly refused to go on college visits or apply to any schools other than” his one and only choice.""<<<

Fine. You are on your own.

Posted by: nanonano1 | November 29, 2010 6:54 AM | Report abuse

There is a big difference between won't apply to any college and applied/got in, doesn't want to go anywhere else.

My son was in the later category and went to the one school he'd consider. He did well. He's not in debt. He's in graduate school now so it's not like he's working, but at least he's there and doesn't owe.

Sometimes you have to listen to your kid.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 29, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse


Oh, the difference a ‘Gap Year’ makes.

If you see ambivalence toward college from your juniors and seniors, don’t automatically think laziness, depression or the ‘high school will go on forever’ syndrome. Some students, like the one featured in Jay’s blog, may just be burned out from all different activities and intensive study.

The worst thing to do is force them into a university right away. There, they will eventually dwindle. As a professor, I see it often. This semester I have a university honors student who has ‘hit the wall’ during senior year. Throughout school he never had any time for himself; always working hard and not sure why. Then, the prospect of job-hunting came along and he’s stumbling. Others discover their freedom in college and have no purpose to apply it. Let the partying begin.

Offer your 17 and 18-year-olds a gap year (or two) to do something significant with their lives before college. Working a job is not a bad idea—teaches work ethic, practical skills, people skills, etc. Volunteering with an organization is helpful—in your community, overseas (call it language immersion, if that makes you feel better), or help the needy here in the US. These character-building jobs lead to responsibility and purpose in their university performance and life.

Keep in mind; nobody posts his or her high school grade point average on a professional resume. Who cares if their age 22 or 24 when they hit the job market? The university name and their college GPA matter far more than whether they were 18 when they entered.

Parents, better to let young adults figure out what they want out of life while you are not blowing $50K-$70K a year on tuition, room and board.

Posted by: professor70 | November 29, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

"He" applied and got in. It's a good school and they can afford it. He's done. Let it go.

We went through something like this with middle daughter. Top student; varsity athlete; top singer. Wants to major in Comp Sci or Electrical Engineering. Weighted GPA well above 4.5; more AP credits than I could count. She wanted to go to UM-College Park. Period. She got in. College search ended. We were getting recruitment calls from many, many top schools - females who want to major in STEM and have the ability to back it up are in demand. Daughter refused to even apply anywhere else. Schools told her all she had to do was sign an application form and send it in; she said no. (She did apply to MIT because her grandfather is an alum and he wanted her to, so she did it as a favor to him, but she made it clear she wasn't going there.) College search successfully ended.

Daughter is now at College Park; she's happy and doing well. Life is good.

Let 'em live their own lives and don't treat 'em as your trophies, bragging about what a good school they're in.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | November 29, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Dont you and your poor frustrated student want to go down to the army or marine recruiter and have him join the " best and the brightest"and stand with the troops you all seem to love so much,,

Posted by: schmidt1 | November 29, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for writing this. As a mom of a military member, a college Soph. and a high school Jr., I have personally seen this, great to see an article on it.
I pushed and prodded our oldest into college, where she promptly flunked out. Now happy as can be in the military- but my error in pushing so much.
My college son only applied to our state college, wouldn't even look anywhere else. He is content there and his grades are good.
With my HS Junior, I'm leaving college up to her.
We all make mistakes with our kids, just try to learn from our errors.

Posted by: Carpooler | November 29, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Back in the dark ages, most of my friends decided between State U and U, sent in one application and that was that. Two of my children also submitted only one application. One knew she wanted Family U, the other knew that Family U's application was one page+transcript, so she waited on her early decision letter from her first choice school before bothering. Good grief, if State U is a top program in your child's prospective area of study and the kid wants to go there, thank your lucky stars and put the money you didn't spend on those other applications towards his or her books.

Posted by: abbyandmollycats | November 29, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

what in the world is the problem with a student who selects a good school and is admitted to it. my oldest child did the same thing after serving in desert storm 1. he also only applied to one law school, was admitted and edited the law review. he only seriously considered one firm and fast tracked to partner. the parents of the student in this article sound like uber helicopters in waiting whose feeling of success and satisfaction is not tied to their child's goals and aspirations, but their own which i suspect may involve somehow achieving a higher social cachet at a school their son does not care about.

Posted by: george32 | November 29, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

what in the world is the problem with a student who selects a good school and is admitted to it. my oldest child did the same thing after serving in desert storm 1. he also only applied to one law school, was admitted and edited the law review. he only seriously considered one firm and fast tracked to partner. the parents of the student in this article sound like uber helicopters in waiting whose feeling of success and satisfaction is not tied to their child's goals and aspirations, but their own which i suspect may involve somehow achieving a higher social cachet at a school their son does not care about.

Posted by: george32 | November 29, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

The student (many of us in the group immediately assumed it was a boy) had gotten into a well-respected public university in his state and, the parent said, “adamantly refused to go on college visits or apply to any schools other than” his one and only choice.

“This child will graduate with a total of 14 AP credits this spring, carries a respectable 3.5 weighted GPA, has done well on the SATs and does numerous competitive academic extracurriculars — science, math, debate, honor societies, etc.,” the parent said.

“As parents, of course, this is a great bargain for us: in-state tuition for a school with top-20 rankings in the science departments of that child’s interest. But should we be concerned or worried about admissions . . . or that this child is missing other opportunities by not seeking out any further information on other college opportunities?”
==========================================

THIS IS A PROBLEM???! What is wrong with parents today? Are they disappointed somehow? Were they hoping for the kid would fixate on an Ivy so they can pay 5-10x the amount??!

Alternatively, some students (and yes, they can be girls) are not ready for college upon graduating from high school. Use a gap year to explore possibilities. Take jobs or internships. Take classes at the community college. If the parents are willing and able to pay, travel a bit.

At this point in the student's life, things are still fixable. Wrong college? Transfer. Missed the admission deadline? Get a job and try for spring admissions or the following fall (and no, the child is NOT behind - geez).

Posted by: slackermom | November 29, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I let both of my sons pick their college. They each applied to two schools, but they each only had one that they truly wanted to go to. The oldest just graduated in May and is now self-supporting. The youngest is a junior. Both were on Dean's list the entire time. Both were happy. I can understand wanting your child to apply to more prestigious schools. However, if they want to go to the school of their choice, and it is a good school, let them without futher comment. A happy college student is a productive college student.

Posted by: momplaysbass | November 29, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, I'm not seeing a problem here. He applied to, and was accepted at, a very good school. Assuming it's one of the local public universities, the education available will match that available just about anywhere. And it's affordable. The parents should be happy and relieved.

Posted by: HerndonBiker | November 29, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

These are very wise comments, suggesting to me that the overwrought parent syndrome is not as widespread as some have feared.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 29, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I went to a selective private school and the higher up you were in the class, the fewer choices you had. You were expected to apply to multiple Ivy League schools and, if you were admitted to one, attend. Once there, you learned that you were surrounded by others, who like yourself, exceeded in meeting expectations. There wasn't a lot of passion but there was a lot of boredom. Most of my peers chose majors like history or English, went to law school because what else are those majors good for, and now in middle age, decry how few options they have. I applaud this student for knowing what he wants and ignoring the brand labels. Going to a big state school, finding your own way, majoring in something useful, and then entering industry is an experience that the Ivy League cannot deliver.

Posted by: chgobluesguy | November 29, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Your column unintentionally reveals a key deficiency (one of many) in our educational system: Everybody is expected to go to college directly from high school, and we offer no good alternatives to people who want to step off the conveyor belt. People graduating from high school have spent 12 years or more in an environment with a rigid structure that doesn't change much from year to year. Then they flake out as college freshmen because, at least in part, they don't have bells signaling every class and teachers demanding homework every day. (But when they use fake ids to get drunk they expect administrators to shield them from the consequences.) And at any particular college, despite everything we say about "diversity," a kid is surrounded by people who really aren't all that different from himself -- ages 18 to 22, with similar academic skills and economic backgrounds.

Maybe there ought to be a way for a student -- boy or girl -- with a little bit of curiosity about the world or a sense of adventure or just a need to grow up to do something other than go to another classroom. Punching a clock at a factory or working at the customer service desk in a big-box store could be a very maturing experience. So could working in a hospital or nursing home or soup kitchen, or just stuffing some clothes in a backpack and riding Greyhound. Maybe some smart kids would like to be carpenters or plumbers or electricians or bricklayers, but apprenticeships and trade schools are hard to find (WETA this minute is showing something about a Boston furniture-making training program with a years-long waiting list.) Then we sneer at the trades, until our car breaks down or our pipes leak.

One of the biggest problems on college campuses is that a lot of students don't really want to be there, they don't know why they are there, but don't have any other place to go. It should be possible for a college senior to say "I'm not ready for college now, I'd like to try something else."

Posted by: none12 | November 29, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

schmidt1 - re your 8:54 am comment - I'd have no problem with that. My nephew/godson left college after two years to enlist in the Army because had no clue what he wanted to do with his life. He just recently got back from Iraq. He's planning on making a career of the Army; they're going to send him to finish college and then become an officer. For those who are so inclined, it's a great life. If that's what one of my kids wanted, I'd support them as well. (As my handle indicates, I'm biased. While I never served in the military, my father spent 23 years in, retiring as a First Sergeant. I was born in an Army hospital, raised on posts and educated in dependent schools all over the world. My wife's brother is still in the Navy after 25 years. Her sister's husband just retired after 23 years. I'll never criticize the service; nor will I stop my kids from emulating their grandfather, cousin, or uncles.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | November 29, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

This doesn't sound like a real problem, as many have stated. What is a harder problem is the passive kid where you can't figure out exactly what he wants to do. I don't believe in pushing a kid to do what you want, but my son was always kind of passive and needed a bit of prodding to get from one stage to the next. Even getting his driver's license! I saw no urgency in that but finally when he was about 19 or 20 I said enough is enough, let's get out there and teach you to drive. Same with college - if I had waited to see when he wanted to go I don't know when or if he would get out there. Took him on a few college visits and he loved each school in turn better than the last one. Got into one of them and was very happy. Letting him have a gap year wasn't that good of an option because he didn't seem to want to do much of anything except play video games and hang out with sketchy loser kids. Although I would have certainly be OK with it if he would have just had motivation to do SOMETHING.

In any case the student in the article seemed just fine.

Posted by: catherine3 | November 29, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

I didn't realize the pressure parents' college degrees (and perhaps unspoken expectations based on our college experiences) can put on a teen, until my daughter complimented me on letting her decide which colleges she wanted to apply to.

Posted by: mgribben | November 29, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

catherine3: This may not apply to your son, but a lot of "passive" kids are those who have been criticized so much that it is easier just to sit back and do what others tell them. For example, they don't want to get a driver's license because if they fail the test their parents will make sure all the relatives find out immediately and if they pass the parents will criticize their driving constantly.

And as for the student who refused to apply to more than one college, his parents should find out why he wants to go there. I applied to only 2; both of them were within commuting distance. A solitary person with health problems, I knew I would be miserable in a dormitory and had no interest in the sports and parties my classmates talked about nonstop. Four years later, I went to graduate school in another state, lived on my own, went to gatherings with my by-now mature classmates, and was perfectly happy. (I got through college in the '60s without ever getting drunk, stoned, or arrested.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 30, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

These personal stories, like the tale of sideswiththekids, are powerful and very helpful. My thanks to all who have shared their experiences.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 30, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

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