What Is a Parent’s Role in the College Planning Process?

Throughout your child’s life, it will be your job as a parent to teach him right from wrong, lead by example, and help him to make the choices that will be most beneficial to him in both an immediate sense as well as for his future. And while sifting through colleges and selecting which ones to apply for, and ultimately which one to attend, may be his first act as an adult taking responsibility for his own life, still you likely have some say in his decision. After all, you may be helping to pay for his continuing education, and you should almost certainly lend him the wisdom of your own experience rather than letting him stumble blindly onto a path that will affect the rest of his life. It’s a fine line that parents must walk at this crucial stage in their child’s development. How can you tell if you’re giving him too much free rein, or alternately, if you’re stifling his independent spirit? Here are just a few guidelines concerning the role you should play when it comes to helping your child plan for college.


First and foremost, you should have an honest discussion with your teen about the career path he has in mind. You might not be too keen to send him off to art school, but neither should you crush his dreams. Instead, talk about what type of career options might be available to him upon graduation (and try not to let that edge of condescension creep into your voice). Look online for possible occupations that call for a background in art. Perhaps he could go into graphic or web design, both of which have a strong basis in fine art. Or maybe he would be willing to take business classes in tandem, majoring in one and minoring in the other, enhancing his opportunities for job placement later on. If you flat out tell him no or push him into a major he’s not interested in, he’ll rebel or resent you for your interference. So make every effort to work with his wishes while tempering his dreams with a healthy dose of reality and some productive suggestions.

Next you’ll want to consider money. Most parents are happy to help their kids pay for college, but there’s no need to mortgage your own future (drawing on retirement funds for example) if your kid isn’t going to toe the line. Be very clear up front about what you can afford to contribute to his education and for goodness sake make him work for it. If he earns his right to attend college, either by obtaining scholarships or holding a part-time job (or both), the experience will be of far more value. As a result he’s more likely to make the most of his sacrifices and get something out of it. Plus, holding a crappy job in college will only help to convince him that earning a degree and getting a better job after college is essential.

A mental health counseling degree can certainly come in handy when dealing with teenagers, but it isn’t necessary when you realize that their decisions stem from a desire to create a life that is truly their own, separate from the will of a parent. While this doesn’t mean that you should condone every action or let him run wild, it does require you to let go a little at a time, trusting that you have given your child the skills and knowledge he needs to succeed in life. And when it comes to a college plan, a willingness to validate his opinions and desires while gently steering him in a positive direction is probably the most productive choice you can make as a parent.