Are Parents Asking the Right Questions About College for Their Kids?

If you are the parent of a high school student, you are likely to be – or soon will be – caught up in the game of “where is junior going to college?” Many of you went to college twenty five or more years ago and the experience you had is likely the frame of reference you use in trying to decide – with junior’s participation, of course – whether and where junior should enroll. Actually, few of you will ask the question “whether”; and it is my thesis here that many of you will pose the wrong questions when attempting to answer “where.”

As you ponder the college question, you recall your experience and likely subscribe to the following axiomatic beliefs:

  • I want my children to be well-educated; high school does not complete the job; a college education is required for today’s young adults to be well-educated.
  • There are enormous economic and social benefits to going to college – salaries will be higher; many more job opportunities will present themselves; terrific social and business connections will be made; and my child might even find a suitable spouse on campus.
  • The alternatives are distasteful to contemplate – the military, the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps VISTA, a low-level job, or leave hearth and home to do heaven-knows what.
  • All my friends’ and associates’ kids will be off to college; how disappointing and embarrassing if my kid didn’t do likewise.

Armed with these beliefs, which you subtly – and not so subtly – imparted to your high school kid, you initiate the long, torturous and perplexing search for a suitable campus at which your child can reap all the benefits that you envision for him or her. The choices are legion and the possibilities bewildering. And so, in order to make the decision more manageable, you pose for yourself, your spouse and your child a set of critical questions. They probably run something along these lines:

  1. What is the academic level of any particular school under consideration and does it match my child’s capabilities?
  2. What will the cost be? Can I afford it or will Johnny have to take out student loans? Can we mitigate the cost through scholarships, grants, paid internships or part-time jobs?
  3. How far away am I willing to agree to? Is it better for Susie to be in a rural or urban environment?
  4. Will a degree from this school enable my child to readily find a good job after graduation? Does the school have a robust placement office?
  5. Is the student body one in which my son will make friends easily? Are there good opportunities for wholesome extra-curricular activities?
  6. Are there lots of choices for academic majors since my daughter is unsure what she wants to study?

Well, I have news for you. Things have changed drastically since you walked the leafy campus of your alma mater and these “things” are almost unrecognizable from what they were like 50 years ago. Which things? Among others: the academic curriculum (it is diluted, unfocused, and rife with speciously inauthentic subjects of study); the nature of the advice that faculty and administrators offer to students (it probably does not match yours); extra-curricular activities – to wit, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll; a highly politicized environment on campus with political vectors pointing in only one direction; the composition of the faculty (a surfeit of adjuncts replacing the tenured faculty with whom students are supposed to interact); employment options open to graduates (much lower level than in past generations); ubiquitous social media; the cost of the beast (astronomical); the racial and ethnic composition of the place, and a mindless obsession with so-called diversity; the pernicious effect of the feds (on students via loans, on faculty via grants, and on the whole place via a plethora of regulations that are strangling academic freedom); a disrespect for the military (although this has improved recently) and the acceptance of a derogatory interpretation of American history and culture; unchecked grade inflation on “elite” campuses; and the demise of in loco parentis – meaning that the university makes no effort toward and bears no responsibility for the rearing of your immature teen into a mature young adult.

These changes, of which you might not be aware, can wreak havoc in families that have just sent a child off to college. This observation applies especially to traditional or conservative families whose ideas and values are typically not reflected in the monumental changes that have transformed many colleges into hot beds of progressivism, nihilism and – in some cases – moral squalor. How many times have you heard the story of the college freshman who returns home for Thanksgiving and by the end of the weekend, the parents are thinking: “Who is this alien and what has it done with our child?” Well, if you want to avoid that experience, here are a better set of questions for you to ponder as you and your child search for the perfect campus:

  1. First of all, what is the prime objective in sending Johnny to university? Is it to ensure that he is well-educated, that is, for him to acquire a level of knowledge on many subjects that one associates with a learned person – one whose intellectual stature will garner the respect of his contemporaries? Or is it purely for him to acquire the requisite tools in order to get the best possible job? Or is it really mainly to aid him in his transition from a callow teen into a mature, independent, responsible and productive adult? The answer to this question should determine the best responses to the questions that follow.
  2. Will the college experience reinforce the values, ideals, goals and belief system that I have been trying to instill in him over the last 15-18 years; or will college subvert them?
  3. Will the exorbitant amount of money this adventure is going to cost me actually be money well spent?
  4. Do I have a good handle on Susie’s qualifications – how motivated and serious she is, how devoted to her studies, how intellectually fertile, and is she willing to work hard and stay focused?

If you can answer these questions honestly and definitively – and in a consistent way, then the selection of a few suitable institutions should not be difficult and you should be able to find a desirable institution that will accept her. But if you are uncertain of the answers, then here are some more questions you should ask.

  1. Do we have enough time to work with Johnny as well as with friends, relatives and school counselors in order to clarify our thinking and arrive at some definitive answers to questions 1-4?
  2. If that doesn’t work, am I willing to roll the dice, choose a college by throwing darts at a board and live with the uncertain consequences?
  3. Or should we consider alternate courses of action – e.g., military service; volunteer service (as in the Peace Corps); some sort of vocational school; employment; or relocation?

It has been suggested to me by a person, whose opinion I respect, that it is not enough to steer parents toward the more useful questions that I have suggested. Readers will also want some advice based on the possible answers that they might arrive at. So here are my “words of wisdom” along those lines:

  • If your child is mature, well-grounded and self-assured, and you are confident that she can retain the morals and values that you have instilled in her, then – aware that her core of belief will be severely tested at most universities – by all means, send her to the academically finest institution that accepts her.
  • But don’t go deeply in debt. The rule of thumb is you and your child (together) should never borrow more than your child’s expected first-year, post-graduation salary.
  • On the other hand, if your child is unsure of himself, easily influenced and shaky in his convictions, then you must be extraordinarily careful about where you send him. There are campuses – for example, Hillsdale College or Grove City College – where traditional values and unbiased scholarship are prevalent. You need to search very hard to find the right place for him.
  • Finally, if, together, you and your child have great skepticism about any campus being the right fit, then you should seriously consider alternatives. Perhaps a year or two of employment before setting off to college might result in enhanced maturity and self-confidence, and therefore a greater ability to succeed in college – without the surrender of personal and familial morals and values.

The university is a place of great opportunity for your child. But it is also a place of great danger. The latter is true in a literal sense as the occurrences of rape, muggings, severe hazing and theft are all too common on college campuses these days. But the more common dangers are: several semesters of floundering leading to a dropout and a demoralized youngster; or worse, a radicalization of your child as a consequence of the charged political atmosphere on campus; or worst of all – whether Susie graduates or not – enormous debt that cripples your child economically for decades, interfering with her ability to marry, have children or buy a home.

If you question your child’s ability to successfully navigate these dangers, then perhaps you need to go back and reconsider your answer to question #1. Also, revisit the advice offered above.

Sending Johnny off to college is not the same as dropping him daily at the local high school. At age 17 or 18, he is not an adult – although he will feel free to think of himself as one. More likely, he is immature, impressionable and uncertain of his own values. There are many campuses at which his head will be filled with ideas and “facts” that don’t square with the belief system and morals that you have been sewing into his DNA. There are other campuses at which his psyche will be reinforced with the kind of knowledge and behavior that you have been encouraging. You and he have a serious decision to make. In order to find the right college, you need to ask the right questions.

This essay also appeared, in abridged form, in ACTA (The American Council of Trustees and Alumni)