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This time in your kid’s life, as they work to transition into adulthood can be a strange one. As a parent, you may find yourself almost constantly trying to redefine your role in your child’s life. You want to support, to give advice, but also to give your kid room to make their own decision and find their own voice. It’s hard to maintain that balance. It’s probably difficult for your kid too; and it’s at this time that your child will be making probably the most important decision so far in their lives. The decision on which college to attend. It’s where they will spend the next four years of their lives, and it will set the tone for their future career. Trust us, they want your help; even if they say “I got this,” or “it’s my decision!” So how do you help and still give them the space to make their own decisions? Here are some ideas.

Participate in their initial choice of prospective schools

One of the most difficult parts of searching for colleges is simply figuring out what you are really looking for. Some students know what degree program they are interested in, some don’t yet know what their major will be. The best thing a parent can do is ask questions. What kind of environment are you looking for? Do you want to stay in state or go out of state? Are you leaning toward a private or public school? What clubs, activities, or athletics are you interested in? These questions can help a student narrow down their choice to a handful of good prospective schools.

Be quick to listen and slower with your advice or response

When talking about school choices, or which schools your student would like to visit, allow your child some time to think things through. While it’s tempting to offer your advice right away – especially if you went to college and know what worked and didn’t work for you, hold off if you can. Often, what your child is doing when they talk with you about schools is bouncing ideas around. It’s much more useful to your kid if they have time to talk it through and come up with solutions or answers themselves. Reserve your input for when you think they’re really stuck or after they’ve told you everything they’ve been thinking. Remember you’ve raised them, so often they’ll come to the same conclusions as you would or give themselves the advice you would have. The best response in a conversation about college is one that gives your child something else to think about or some new factor to consider, rather than a “here is what I would do” statement.

Take full advantage of college visits

Prior to the visit, help your student come up with a list of questions to ask and things they want to see. Visiting a college is about more than learning about the academics and tuition information. Take some time to wander around the campus. It’s best to send your kid off to do their own investigation and walk around yourself. You’ll notice things that they didn’t and you can compare notes later. After you visit the campus, maybe walk around the surrounding area a little bit – see what the city itself has to offer.

The visit is possibly the most important part of the decision process. Many schools look very similar on paper, and it can be hard to make a choice. Often the real decision is made when you and your child understand the feel of the place. Each school has its own culture, and sometimes it’s that culture which calls your student to that particular school.

Frankly discuss finances

It’s a real downer when your son or daughter looks through a bunch of schools, finds a few that he or she really likes, only to find out that the school is out of your price range. This is particularly true when looking at the cost difference between and in-state and out-of-state school. There are alternative options to “We can’t afford to send you to that school.”

School is expensive, and finances have to be part of the conversation. It is becoming increasingly difficult to send your kids off to college and have it all paid for. However, this is your kid’s future, and college should be their choice. Rather than limiting choices to what you can or can’t afford, it may be better to discuss the actual financial situation ahead of time. Talk to your child about how much you will be able to financially assist with their college education. Let them know about their options. Should they choose a school outside of your budget, then they would have to find another way to pay for the remainder. Scholarships, a part time job, or student loans are options in this case. They, then, can make the choice of whether or not they want to pay more to go to the school of their choice. This is their education, let them make the decision on how much it is worth to them.

For even more expert advice, Peterson’s sat down with Louise Williams of the College Doctor, LLC. Check out her interview below.

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