Parents: Here's how you can involve yourself in the college process

Post-secondary education is an ever-evolving field. It’s generally understood that someone who applied to college in the 1950s or ‘60s encountered an admissions environment very different from the one you’ll find today, with different application processes, different admission standards, and tuition rates that seem impossibly low from today’s perspective.

What you might not realize is that even if you went to college more recently, in the ‘80s or ‘90s, your experience also doesn’t reflect the current state of college admissions. Acceptance rates, standardized tests, admissions requirements, and college costs have all changed significantly within the space of a generation. At the same time, it’s more important than ever before that young people go to college—the career and income benefits are substantial.

If you’re a parent who is currently helping a student navigate the world of college admissions, and especially if that child is your first to go through the application process, it’s important that you update your expectations and assumptions about what that process will hold. In order for your child to successfully get admitted to a college that’s a great fit for them, they’ll need your informed help. Here’s our advice for what you need to learn and how you can get up-to-date.

The Changing Face of College Applications

Now more than ever, a bachelor’s degree is a highly valuable asset when thinking about career opportunities. You yourself may have come of age in a world where attractive career prospects didn’t necessarily require a college education, but the country is changing. Employers are raising their educational requirements for entry-level jobs, both because those jobs now require additional skills, and because the competitive job market allows them to be more choosy.

With more students applying to more colleges, and applicant pools at top-tier schools continuing to grow, it’s also gotten harder for a student to get into their college of choice. 

For example, in 2016, Stanford University, currently the most selective school in the nation, accepted fewer than 5% of undergraduate applicants, less than one in twenty. Compare this to the 1995-1996 application season, in which Stanford accepted nearly 16% of applicants—still highly selective, but quite a different figure.

One important takeaway is that there’s always some element of chance to elite college admission. Competitive schools have to turn down many qualified applicants simply because of space constraints, and your child may very well be one of them. There’s simply no way to be sure, so you’ll need to be realistic about your expectations and help your child be realistic about theirs.

 Overall, the college application process is just more serious than it used to be. Parents and students routinely spend considerable time and money perfecting applications, preparing for standardized tests, and piling on extracurriculars, leadership positions, specialized summer programs, and other enrichment experiences. Today’s aspiring college applicants tend not to get much unscheduled free time. 

The stakes are high, and there’s a lot of pressure involved. Many college admissions advisors, including those here at CollegeVine, encourage today’s applicants to think strategically when applying to college. It’s no longer just about finding a few schools your student likes—it’s about compiling a carefully chosen list of schools to maximize your student’s chances of getting admitted somewhere that’s a good fit for them.

How you choose to approach this new set of realities is up to you and your student. However, you need to both be aware that getting accepted to a top-tier school is difficult, and your student will be competing with applicants who have put this kind of concentrated effort into making themselves compelling candidates for college admission.

Paying for College: The New Realities

Many different factors come into play when figuring out which colleges might be strong matches for your student, but one of the most significant is cost. Need-based financial aid, scholarships, and loans can help make a college more affordable, but the bottom line is that without a way to pay for a college, your student can’t attend.

You’ve probably already heard that the cost of getting a college education has gone up dramatically over time, and that’s true even within the last few decades. In fact, college tuition increases have outpaced inflation, meaning that not only is the dollar amount higher, but it’s actually harder for the average family to afford college than it used to be.

The average cost of tuition plus room and board at four-year colleges was $23,600 for the 2014-2015 school year, compared with $7,602 for the 1990-1991 school year. As of 2017, at a few especially expensive colleges, the yearly estimated cost of attendance for an average student is nearing $70,000.

For top-tier colleges, it’s close to impossible for most students to pay their own way based on savings and part-time or summer income, as many students did in the past. Financial aid can help a great deal, but most well-regarded colleges award financial aid based at least in part upon the family’s financial need, so your income and assets will be taken into account when assessing your student’s aid eligibility.

What does this mean for you as a parent? It means that if you make assumptions about college costs based on your own experiences from two decades ago, you and your student likely won’t be adequately prepared for the realities of college costs today. Updated information is essential if you’re going to make informed decisions about saving for college, seeking financial aid and scholarships, and choosing colleges your family can afford.

Top Tips for Parents: Getting Up to Date and Helping Your Student

If your established notions about college admissions process were formed a long time ago, you may feel a little overwhelmed by the amount you need to learn. However, many resources exist to help get you on the right track. Here’s a selection of our best advice for getting informed, adapting to the current state of the admissions world, and helping your child make wise choices throughout the application process.

• Get informed. Acknowledge that the system has changed, and use all the resources available, from websites to info sessions to meetings with guidance counselors, to gather information about applying to college today, especially regarding the schools your child is interested in. Don’t assume—look it up.

• Talk to other parents. Parents whose children are slightly older than yours and who have been through the process recently will have valuable information and personal insight to share. Ask them what they wish they’d known.

• Start early. Many application tasks, especially those that are research-related, can be started well in advance of your child’s senior year. Your plans don’t need to be set in stone years in advance, but it’s a good idea to have a sense of direction.

• Stay realistic. It’s okay for your child to have big dreams and apply to some reach schools, but you should help them manage their expectations about application outcomes and match their accomplishments to appropriate colleges. You probably think that your student is pretty great, but admission to selective colleges can be brutal, and many qualified applicants are rejected. Think practically, and have a backup plan.

• Help your child build a strong applicant profile. Starting early in high school, ask questions and offer opportunities for your child to figure out what subjects or career paths interest them most. Encourage them to maintain strong academic performance and extracurricular involvement, and address academic or other problems early before they become major obstacles.

• Openly discuss paying for college. You may be uncomfortable talking to your child about money, but it’s essential that your child knows what the family can afford. Like it or not, cost is a major factor in choosing a college, and your student needs to know which schools are practical possibilities and how much financial aid might be required.

• Be prepared to deal with practical tasks. During application season, you may be able to help in innumerable small and large ways, from arranging for tutoring and assistance to checking in about deadlines to helping to gather information. Individual needs depend upon your student—talk to them to figure out where you can be most helpful.

• Always offer personal support, encouragement, and love. You’re a parent, not an admissions coach, and your close personal relationship with your child is important. While you may have to push your child to be focused and responsible sometimes, you also need to look out for their health (mental and physical) during this stressful time, help them build good habits, and respect their need to make independent choices (and sometimes mistakes) about their intended adult path.