You’re bound to encounter a parent sooner or later who doesn’t want their child to go to college.

It’s particularly heartbreaking when the student does want to go to college and doesn’t have the support of their parents. What’s your role as a counselor in this situation?

Here, fellow high school counselors share their tips on how to problem-solve the issue of a student who wants to go to college with parents who’d prefer they don’t.

Figure Out What the Student Wants

“The first question to ask is, ‘What is the student’s goal?’” says former high school counselor Lauren Crain. You can only advocate for the student if you know what they want and how college could facilitate their goals. “What does the student want to get out of life? What career does the student want to have? Once we figure that out, we can move on to figuring out how to achieve that.”

Ask the Parents Why

Just like you can’t help the student until you know what they want, you can’t understand the parents’ point of view if you don’t know why they’re resisting college. While circumstances will be different, the reasons a parent isn’t supportive of a child with college aspirations generally boil down to a few things: cost, not seeing the value in college, fear of the child leaving home, and concern the student cannot handle college.

  • If It’s Cost:
    While cost can be a barrier, talking to the parent about financial aid options, including grants, scholarships, and federal loans, can help them understand what assistance is available. There are also alternatives to traditional four-year colleges that are more affordable. “Community college really is a win-win,” says Lisa Kurstin, cofounder of College Access Partnership. “It’s a wonderful way for parents to save some money while providing time for the student to carefully select a university and their course of study.”
  • If the Value of College Is Questioned:
    Whether it’s because the parent succeeded without college or didn’t see much benefit from their own experience, some parents simply don’t think college is worth it. Admittedly, college isn’t a good fit for everyone or needed for every career. But, if the student’s goals can be supported by a college education and their parents don’t understand why, education consultant Joseph Adegboyega-Edun suggests turning to hard data. Data can demonstrate how college creates better job prospects, opens doors to internships and leads to higher pay. You can encourage the student to do research about the impact of college in their specific areas of interest. “This makes the need for a college education, even if it’s at a community college, compelling,” he says.
  • If It’s Fear of the Child Leaving Home:
    While it’s normal for parents to fear their child leaving home, it can become an issue when that fear interferes with the child’s goals. When this happens, suggest that the student find an ally, be it a family member, trusted family friend, teacher, or coach. The student can use the ally to practice what might happen when they discuss college with their parents and rehearse how they’re going to present college as key to their future goals. The ally can also help with addressing specific concerns parents may have about the student leaving home and even accompany the student to the conversation as moral support.
  • If It’s the Student’s Ability or Work Ethic:
    If the student feels ready for college and the parents do not agree, you can help facilitate communication between both parties. “See how both parent and student can work together to help put the parent at ease about their student’s decision.” says Crain. “If, for example, the student wants to become a psychiatrist, I’d ask the student to research what it takes to become a psychiatrist: How much school do they need? What schools do they want to attend? How much would it cost? What options are available to pay for it? Then, I’d ask the student to reach out to some mental health organizations and see if he or she can begin volunteering there.” It’s up to the student to prove to their parents that they’re ready for the responsibility of college, but they may need a little guidance and motivation from you.

Suggest a One-Year Plan

If parents refuse to warm up to the idea of college and their kid is still focused on their college goal, you could suggest a one-year plan. A student can apply to college now and defer for a year, or they can agree to revisit applications in a year. You can help the family come up with a plan for the gap year—this may include earning extra money, demonstrating responsibility, or attending classes at a local community college. A gap year can leave the door open for re-evaluation and give the student time to address their parents’ concerns.

Ultimately, most parents want their children to be happy and successful. Adegboyega-Edun suggests appealing to that. “If the student’s mind is set on college because they knows they will succeed and become a professional with better earning opportunities than a high school graduate, it is reasonable for the parent to support this desire,” he says. Hopefully with your guidance, the family can come to a decision that makes sense for everyone.

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