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"When I went to college..." Parental Influence in the College Choice Process

My work as an Independent Educational Consultant affords me the time to visit a variety of colleges and universities all across the country. Recently, I visited Cornell University in Ithaca, New York with a student and client-family, with the hopes of gleaning some insight on Cornell’s academic and social culture. Would Cornell, rich in history and prestige, be the perfect fit for my student and her family?

Cornell seemed like a perfect fit to me. I loved the splendor of the campus and its history, the environmental splendor of campus overlooking Beebe Lake; the waterfalls, the outdoor activities, social time on the Fingerlakes in addition to the academic heft of an Ivy League school. The surroundings and the buildings reminded me of my academic and social upbringing. The opportunities following graduation seem attractive by any standard. Honestly, what’s not to love?

There’s a lot not to love; my student, and just as importantly, her Mom, hated Cornell. Hated it. From the start. Not enough this, too much of that. The buildings are too old. Where’s the Starbucks? The town is too small (but you wanted a smaller school environment, didn’t you?). I began to wonder why we even went in the first place. The saving aspect of the trip: we eliminated any ambivalence about whether Cornell is THE place.

The story of my visit to Cornell is not about the school, or the student. An often unspoken yet powerful force in the college choice process is the experience of the adults. Parents, family friends and relatives, teachers, counselors, and consultants all have a personal experience about what college should or shouldn’t be. And we all are quick to pass it along to our child/student. Well-meaning conversations around the dinner table about colleges often navigate toward anecdotes relating to past experiences that the child ABSOLUTELY HAS TO enjoy or avoid. The adults want to tell the child how college is meant to be experienced.

Adult intervention and influence shouldn’t surprise anyone; a child’s experience at any level of school, whether it be elementary school, middle or high school, and most certainly college, begins not when the child enters that grade or school, but when the parent entered that grade or school. Let me be clear—the child’s experience at any level of school is directly influenced negatively or positively by the experience of the parent or loved one. As a consultant I see this repeatedly in my conversations with families.

And there are a few reasons why this family dynamic is becoming more and more acute when it comes to college choice:

--The experience of college is as much about social engineering as it is about the education. For many families, college should be a stepping stone to a career and family life that closely resembles what the child has grown up with—same neighborhoods, schools, churches and demographics. In fact, families will go as far as to insist that school NOT BE THAT HARD, “don’t make it too hard—I just want my kid to have the network to make a life back home.” The quotation is layered with social, economic and political ramifications, thus making a family’s investment on college choice so critical.

--Speaking of investment, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, and the demand for schools that produce familiar experiences is deemed essential by tuition-payers. Because the price tag is approaching six figures at many schools, parents want to orchestrate and guarantee that their child will receive basically the same education that they received, with all the fun to go with it. Although so much has changed across campuses over the last 30 years, what hasn’t changed, generally speaking, is the manner in which the education is delivered. I sat in a microbiology lecture at a major state university in February, and I observed that the same classroom and same teaching style were being utilized as they were back in the 1980s. The professor giving the lecture is being paid $60K more than in 1985, but her productivity hasn’t improved. She still grades papers at the same speed, and lectures at the same pace as would have occurred back in the 80s. Families are not getting more education for their $$$, therefore, the cost increase has to produce some value somewhere other than the classroom. This is why the parental expectation of the experience of college is becoming more important to families. If the education is the same, something has to be different. And better.

--By in large, the ‘better’ parts of the college experience have already been updated at campuses across the country: access to improved amenities, better and more food choices, proximity to activities, high quality athletic teams, vibrant social/Greek environments are just a sampling of what colleges are doing to augment the education. Parents and tuition payers want all of these pieces, yet they also want their child to be safe. Parents, given environmental and social pressure associated with adolescents, are far more concerned with social, emotional and mental well-being than ever before, and rightfully so. Sending their child to a familiar or similar college environment makes sense for many parents who are concerned about their child’s health and safety. “Snow plow” parents—always wanting to clear a path for their child—are keenly interested in school familiarity for the sake of safety.

All of these factors point to the need for finding the right fit for both the child and the family. Aligning family realities with the preferences and needs of both the parent and the child have the best opportunity for a fulfilling college and life experience.


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