Who Is Making the Decision?

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We are just days away from welcoming our new freshmen to campus. Orientation weekend is full of excitement, anxiety and emotion …. especially for the parents. Parents play a critical role in their child’s transition to college. I recognize how difficult this can be in so many ways. But evidence is mounting that parents are playing an increased role in determining their child’s college career and I wonder if we are moving in the wrong direction?

As the search for a college begins, we encourage parents to help their child to make a good decision. We suggest that the role for parents is one of advisor and counselor … helping their child to clarify what is important, what are his/her interests, and what is the best fit for his/her aspirations and goals. But we also emphasize, too often without effect, that it is not the parents’ decision. The parents will not attend the college. They will not take classes or live on campus. They will not be pursuing career interests. (We do remind them that they will be paying tuition bills!)

With all of the recent studies and research on “helicopter” parenting, it should come as no surprise that parents find it difficult to refrain from taking a more active role in making the college decision. And a report published last week summarizing interviews with college administrators indicates that the parental role continues to be significant and appears to be increasing in dramatic ways.

More and more parents are now directing their child’s decision about an academic major and a career path. More and more parents are choosing for their child the institution that they believe offers the best opportunity for post-graduate success. More and more parents are attempting to insert themselves into the day to day decisions being made by their child in order to guide his/her college career and orchestrate his/her future. As one college counselor put it, “parents are more concerned on career than quality of life.” And I think this is wrong!

While I understand the realities of the economy and the job market, as well as the desire for parents to help their children, the college years are a time for young adults to pursue their dreams and their interests and to discover their passions.   While no parent wants his/her child to graduate into a world of unemployment and financial stress, it would be even more distressing to see your son or daughter enter a career with no interest or enthusiasm because the current job market is strong. All parents want a better life for their children, but we can’t and shouldn’t live their lives.

In my experience, the undergraduate major is becoming less and less important. Students who major in art or philosophy can still transition into careers in nursing and education. The undergraduate educational experience should provide the opportunity for intellectual adventure and the pursuit of wide ranging interests. While life-long learning is a value, the four years of undergraduate education may be the last true opportunity for academic and co-curricular fun.

I appreciate parents who care about their children’s education. But I wish more parents would let their sons and daughters have more freedom to make decisions including a few mistakes. It is all part of growing up and taking steps along the educational journey. And good decision making is an important lesson to learn … for both the student and the parents!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Friday, 18 April 2014