Should Parents Try To Influence Their Children's College Applications?

It is college application time. While kids scamper to put the application packages together, parents fret and worry about the choice of degree and choice of colleges. While the kids are busy rating how "party" friendly the different schools are, parents are busy trying to figure out how "pocket" friendly they will be. A teenager's idea of a cool career is bound to be different from their parents' idea. Unsurprisingly, this could lead to a lot of flare ups when parents don't quite agree with their children's choice and the children don't want their parents to interfere.

Consider for example the case of my colleague. She wants to make sure that her daughter goes into a major that will lead to good career prospects. She wants her daughter to lead a worry-free life. My colleague is a brilliant engineer. As a first generation immigrant, she knows what it is like to struggle through life to get to a financially comfortable position. She wants to protect her daughter from having to go through what she considers "unnecessary pains" of making bad career choices. She feels that her children have a lot more opportunity and guidance than she did when she was younger and so they must be able to coast through life. She would prefer for her daughter to major in engineering. If her daughter must rebel she wishes it were to pursue a professional degree like law or medical school :)

He daughter on the other hand wants to pursue fine arts. She is an honor student with several advanced placement classes under her belt. But in her senior year in high school she was influenced by her peers into thinking that professional degrees are for dorks and losers. And now she wants to pursue a fine arts degree.

Which degree (or discipline in general) is better is only one of arguments that they have. Which college to send apps to is another huge point of contention. Some of the schools of choice for the daughter come at a hefty price tab of $40,000 per year. And they are known "party" schools. My colleague has the money stashed up, but it took a lot of blood and sweat to raise that money. She believes it is a complete waste to throw it away on an arts degree from an expensive party school.

I don't think there is anything very unique about my colleague’s situation. This drama is played out over and over every year in thousands of households across the country. Parents in their infinite wisdom want to protect their children from making stupid mistakes. They want to give their children the opportunities they perceive that they were not provided. They want to save their children from making some of the mistakes they did.

The children on the other hand are not really children anymore, but young adults. They believe that they know what they want. They want to stand for themselves and what they believe is their best option.

So, should the parents try to influence their children’s choices?

I believe that if the parents are paying for the education, they have every right to set some ground rules. Unless the parents inherited the money themselves, they must be able to have some influence over what and how their hard-earned money gets spent.

Now, if the parents can't afford to pay the children's college expenses and the child is actually taking out a loan, things get a bit dicey. Some of my friends believe that the parents don't really have a right to interfere in such a situation. I disagree. I think that it is a parent's responsibility to prevent the children from making what might be a choice that they will regret later in life. Just like a parent would never allow a child to walk into a busy street with a lot of traffic, they should also try to protect their children from burdening themselves with huge college debt for majors that can't provide for them in later life. The children may not listen, and they may fight back, but that didn't stop you from teaching them the right thing to do when they were younger and wanted to play with a knife!

It’s easier said than done. But there are ways in which this can be achieved. For instance, in my colleague’s case, they have established a truce of sorts now. My colleague has convinced her daughter to consider a degree in computer animation. Since a degree in computer animation requires her daughter to take some computer courses as pre-requisites, she feels comforted, that later in life if push comes to shove, her daughter can work as a software programmer. Her daughter has agreed to the option since a degree in animation will allow her to explore her creative side. As for the school they are still working it out :) The current offer on the table is that my colleague must allow her daughter to go to any school that the daughter can obtain at least 50% financial aid. In some schools (particularly the one that the daughter wants to go to), that is still a huge amount. But I am sure they will find a way to resolve it.

What would you do if your kids wanted to take up a major that you firmly believe will not prepare them for life in the real world? What if it involves taking our a huge student loan? How did your parents try to convince you?

In the mean time, if you are looking for some resources to share with your kids, here are some good starters –

*Image Credit: FranchisePick.Com

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plonkee said...

The short answer is no. If the parent is paying, then they get to make rules about cost (which can include length of time, distance, etc). At some point, you have to realise that you don't get to make the decisions anymore. You can certainly help, point out things that they might not have thought of etc, set expectations in terms of completion and assistance you will provide.

Majoring in engineering isn't the key to a worry-free life. If you really want to do fine arts, then doing engineering instead is probably the path to a miserable and unfulfilled adult life.

Little Miss Moneybags said...

I don't think it's appropriate, but it's what happened to me. I wanted to major in theater, my mom thought I should have "a backup plan". Then she ended up making me a deal: she would pay tuition and room and board at any one of eleven colleges around the world that were associated with her church. Not one of them offered a theater degree. If I went to any other school, I was completely on my own in paying for it.

At 18, with no credit and parents whose income was too high to qualify me for a lot of financial aid, did I really have a choice? I went to one of the church schools, got a degree in journalism, and only sort of felt blackmailed.

The thing mom was right. I might be great in and really enjoy regional theater, but it's not a lifestyle I would be happy in long term, and it's certainly not an easy, stable job. My degree gives me the flexibility to work in a lot of different fields, all of which I'm at least somewhat interested in, and I have no debt. They've offered this same deal to my three siblings (all younger), two of whom took them up on it and one of whom is somehow making it through a different school.

It's not fair for a parent to tell their child "you have to major in this or that"--the child is the one who has to live with the repercussions of that choice for the rest of his life. However, it's also not fair to expect parents to finance an education without limits (up to X dollars or whatever school for X years). While I will not give my children the choice my parents gave me, I also won't do as my friends' parents did and take out a second mortgage on the house for him to go to college for eight years and still wind up with no degree because he couldn't make up his mind. There's got to be a middle ground.

Also, in this situation, a fine arts degree could be many, many things, some of which provide very stable jobs. It's unreasonable to write off an entire field of study.

Anonymous said...

We resolved this issue by telling our daughter: we will pay the same dollars per year for you to attend any college you choose, where you can major in whatever you choose. If you get scholarships at a cheap school, you can even pocket some money. If you choose an expensive school, you will have to take out loans for the balance we are not covering, and then pay off those loans out of your income.

Thus, you need to think about your career choice when you choose schools -- a cheap school will give you a broader range of options. An expensive school will force you to aim for a higher-paying career, and will preclude teaching or other careers that don't pay enough to cover those loans.

We then made her prepare a spreadsheet, comparing the schools that accepted her. We reviewed it, defined the categories, and then made her find the numbers to fill in. She chose the expensive school, and she is planning to attend law school.

This solution obviously won't work for everyone, but it worked for us.

Stephanie said...

I agree with Little Miss Moneybags, in that it is blackmail to do this to a kid. Because of the way the financial aid system works, there's no way out.

I saw this happen to a friend of mine - her parents, who have a lot of money (thus she would not be able to qualify for any financial aid at all) would only pay for her schooling if she went to her dad's Alma Mater. Thankfully, that school happened to have an excellent program in exactly what she wanted to study. They also wouldn't pay unless she lived at home and commuted.

This only stunted her college experience and made her rebel. Do rich parents have a greater right to control their adult children, just because they have the capacity to do so? My parents couldn't have controlled my college search if they wanted to, since they couldn't contribute financially.

And honestly, isn't age 18 the time you have to start letting them make their own mistakes?

On another note, I highly recommend my school, Rochester Institute of Technology for it's Film and Animation program. I know, I've knocked the "film" side of the degree on my blog, but the animation side is stellar. Lots of RIT animation grads end up at places like Pixar and Dreamworks. Not to mention it's a big engineering and computer school - so if she ever decided to change her major to what her mom wants, she'd be in the right place. It is a little expensive, though. But worth a look.

Pinyo said...

I agree with the method that the anonymous commenter wrote. I also agree with little miss that parents should not impose the major on the child.

That happened to me, and I was miserable. And, I didn't use anything I learned from my degree anyway.

ispf said...

All: Wow, it looks like I am in a bit of a minority here :) Note though that my intention was not to say that parents should blackmail their kids into doing a major of the parent's choice, but simply that they should try and "influence" their children from making wrong choices. Maybe that is just splitting hair, but I do think a lot of kids (or young adults) pick their college degree for the wrong reasons and end up with large loans on their hands and a degree that does not land them a well-paying job that helps them pay back that loan quickly. I guess my opinions are colored by my own experiences.

That said, I do think what anonymous mentioned is the right amount of "influence". They were actively involved in their daughter's application process and made her do a spread sheet and compare the schools before accepting a school on a whim. Push it a little and it ends up being blackmail and back off a little and it ends up being irresponsible and uncaring (at least in my sight). It's a fine balance and that is what I was musing about. But boy, some strong opinions, here, huh?

Stephani: Thanks for the info about Rochester Institute of Technology - I will pass it along to my colleague. said...

My parents didn't push me in any given direction, but I ended up making a pretty decent choice my self. I'm getting into a high-paying career and coming out of school with no debt since I went to a public school. It's definitely the way to go. I think if my Kids were making a really bad decision about their school, I'd let them know, and probably not support their decision financially.

thebaglady said...

When I was 16 I really wanted to be a writer and I was thinking of majoring in English or Journalism. At the same time I was very good at math and science so I could do engineering just as well. So when I told my mom that I thought of majoring in maybe journalism she went ballistic and had a huge fight with me. It was a pretty huge fight, and in the end I ended up choosing to be an engineer after taking a couple college classes in math and computer science. I have to say that I do like being an engineer, but I still like to write also. Some of my peers weren't so fortunate. A couple other girls I know from high school who got forced into engineering by their parents really hated it and chose to switch careers after they graduated. I think plonkee is right in saying that majoring in engineering isn't the key to a worry-free life. Generally you do better in things you care about, and some of these classmates of mine that were miserable in engineering didn't do very well in school and had a hard time finding a job after they graduated because your GPA is actually important for your first job. A couple of them did drop out and change majors because they just couldn't handle the classes. I think parents should really assess their kids skillsets before pushing them into something they hate to do and aren't good at.

plonkee said...

Thinking about this again, it comes down to how much choice you give. Specifying either the exact college or the major is out. But saying that you'd (strongly) prefer colleges within a certain distance from home, or with a broad selection of majors is ok.

Too many restrictions is likely to backfire. It also depends on your reasons for doing so. For financial reasons, ok, because you don't know what careers you can have with a degree in Latin, not so much.

Anonymous said...

Same anonymous as above: I agree that parents need to take an active role in the choices, but the student still needs to be happy with the choices. Thebaglady is correct, that people are far more likely to fail when they resent or dislike their chosen path, while they are far more likely to succeed when they choose a path that they enjoy. As a corollary, we believe that our kids are more likely to succeed when they perceive their college choices as their own, rather than their parents' choices forced onto them.

mOOm said...

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has a strong program in electronic arts. I used to teach economics there.

Shadox said...

The question has nothing to do with who is paying for the education. Using your financial position to push your child into the decision you want them to make is morally wrong, not to mention a horrible decision for your relationship with your child.

Having said this, it is a parent's duty and obligation to advise and stir their kid into making the right directions. Keeping in mind all the time that very often in life there is more than one "right" decision.

Midnightsky Fibers said...

My parents played a big role in where I chose to go. Granted, it was probably the best choice for me money wise and otherwise, since my passions can be pursued without a degree.

My grandma paid for my entire tuition (but my parents would have if not for her) and my parents helped with housing, paid for all my books, and made sure I didn't have to work full time while I was getting my BA. I got my BA in anthropology from the UW in two years, which was great because I didn't want to be in school longer than necessary, and I wouldn't have been able to do that without my parents.

Now I am doing a continuing education through the UW as well (paralegal), and they are paying for that (and the books, thank goodness, law books are $$) since I was only in college for two years. If I decide to go and get my masters, a pHD, or go to law school (their hope, since I refuse to go to med school, ha) they will defiantly pay for that at least in part as well.

Broke Grad Student said...

I would say no, but I don't think it really matters in the long run. I think most of us reach a certain point where we realize that we are responsible for our own decisions. We decide to do what we want without worrying about what our parents think. For some people this happens before leaving for college, and for some it doesn't happen until later in life.

anushree said...

well...i wud say that parents can suggest their child in what course to pursue but not impose their decisions on their kids...this is likely to transform them into an inexperienced adult. Moreover the child's mental growth is likely to be affected as every decision is made by their caretakers. Parents should discuss with the child regarding what they want to do n suggest ways to improvise but certainly not interfere completely as it is the child who has to bear the consequences in the long run...!