Why Are So Many Parents Involved With College Selection?

Parents are highly involved with their kids’ education, particularly when it comes down to picking colleges for a number of reasons.

Reason #1 – Economic instability. In ye olde days, a nice, hard working kid from a suburban town would go to University of Pennsylvania and get a liberal arts degree and would end up just fine. Career, car, kids, house, vacations, whatever. In that comfort zone. It was all very predictable.

Now, people have no idea how they should steer their kids. What careers are off the table now? Law and journalism, for sure. How about medicine? Is that still considered a “good” career? What happens to kids with a English degree? Do they end up with suitable jobs down the line? Is pharmacy okay or is that being taken over by robots? What jobs aren’t being outsourced to Eastern Europe?

There are new good jobs around. I guess someone has to sell all those pop-up ads on my dumb cellphone games. But I don’t know enough to advise my kid on those matters. He’s going to have to figure out the job market stuff entirely on his own.

That’s scary for folks, especially because we all know families that are still supporting their 20-something kids. People are losing by making the wrong choices.

Reason #2 – There are options. For people who have never shopped for schools before, it’s a whole new experience. For those who have full stocked 520’s, I guess it’s like going to Burdoff Goodman for the first time with someone else’s credit card. Even for us, it’s fun to make decisions and to get wooed. Some parents are probably reliving their youths.

Reason #3 – There’s a reason that first generation kids have a hard time staying in college and making good choices. It’s hard. Parents have to be involved.

14 thoughts on “Why Are So Many Parents Involved With College Selection?

  1. College selection is high risk, unfortunately. All this is very hard for me because I have two warring inclinations: 1. not to get involved with her stuff because it’s too much work vs. 2. being a know-it-all about colleges. I have forbidden her to consider a business major*, but beyond that, I am trying to stay the hell out of it. And failing, but I’m trying.

    *Stupidest major in the world.


    1. Do you mean a “general business” major versus a specific degree (accounting or finance, for example)? Because I will gently disagree if are including accounting or finance in your “stupidest major.” One cannot become a Certified Public Accountant without a specific number of accounting classes which generally lead to a degree in accounting.

      My choice to be an accounting major at my land grant university has led to a highly successful life – not just for me but for many of my classmates (1990’s graduate).


  2. How would you feel about a business + something else double major?

    Or, say a business major and Chinese minor? Or math minor? Or Spanish minor plus a semester abroad in an actual Spanish-speaking country taking Spanish language classes–not one of those dopey take-classes-in-English-and-drink-beer programs. (Sorry! I’m a big snob on the subject.)

    I felt cold chills of dread a couple years back when Big Girl mentioned wanting to be an art major, but it’s not that bad when combined with a double major or minor in something more technical or vocational. Here are some of my back of the envelope ideas for Big Girl:

    Something from Column A: art or Latin (maybe even linguistics–although that kind of belongs in Column B)

    Something from Column B: math, engineering, computer science, maybe even physics or chemistry (nothing biological or medical!)

    If she did Latin and math (but wasn’t math doctorate material), a teaching certificate might make a lot of sense.

    Big Girl has very strong spatial skills and a very good memory, but her organizational skills aren’t at average girl level. I also don’t think that she should choose just one thing–either just humanities or technical–I feel like she’ll be happier with some sort of hybrid version.


    1. I have way too much experience with faculty who teach in business majors for me to allow my daughter to be a business major. She wants to go into business, fine. But she’ll do it with a non-business major.

      I’m also not a big fan of double majors.

      I don’t even want to tell you the major of the woman who’s housesitting for us while we’re away the next two weeks. 🙂


      1. I think double majors are great. My husband did math and physics as an undergrad–not sure if it was technically a double major, but it was at least a minor in physics. It’s stood him in very good stead. I did print journalism and Russian, which is a bit of a fail, but way better than doing either just Russian or just print journalism.

        Don’t tell me–pet sitting studies? These super-specific vocational majors have gotten out of hand.


  3. Laura said:

    “That’s scary for folks, especially because we all know families that are still supporting their 20-something kids. People are losing by making the wrong choices.”

    That’s not even the horror story–it’s almost to be expected that at least one child is going to be on the family dole well into their 20s.

    There’s a nice graphic here illustrating the difference between 30-year-olds in 1975 vs. 2015.




  4. We kind of envision our middle child as a doctor–good memory, good technical skills, conscientious, cares about people.

    But he’s 11.

    (Everybody’s heard the joke about the Jewish mother describing her twins in the baby buggy–the one on the right is the doctor and the one on the left is the lawyer. We’ve thought that about Middle Kid for a long time.)


  5. We pretty much made the decision for Autistic Youngest and told her that she could go to any of the higher ed institutions that are local to us. Because she didn’t follow through on portfolio work, she couldn’t apply for the programs in arts/animation/architecture that intrigued her and ended up enrolling at my institution for CS. We’ll see how she manages there but I make no apologies: it would have been disastrous, personally as well as financially, to let her vague aspirations to go somewhere cool and live the college life run up against her very real life skills deficit.

    Eldest got our advice about what universities and programs she might enjoy as well as a sense of our fiscal limits but then she was left free to make her own decision. Of course, it was still a lot cheaper for her anywhere in Canada!


    1. J Liedl,

      That sounds very sensible.

      About Canada–it can get pretty expensive if you go to school in Toronto and spend 7 years working on a 4-year degree. One of the younger relatives in my extended family did that–or very close to that (I’m not sure that all 7 years were in Toronto).


  6. Gee, I can’t imagine forbidding or directing an 18-year-old on what they should study, as opposed to suggesting which majors are more intellectually rewarding and/or more career-enhancing than others. I discouraged our daughter from a business major, on the grounds that most of the top people in financial services have degrees in arts and sciences. She ended up with a math/poli sci combined major, which she enjoyed as much as she would enjoy any intellectual activity, and which people in financial services find impressive.

    Financial services is the only field I know anything about (other than law, but that requires a graduate degree), so I couldn’t advise anyone about anything else.


  7. y81 said:

    “I discouraged our daughter from a business major, on the grounds that most of the top people in financial services have degrees in arts and sciences. She ended up with a math/poli sci combined major, which she enjoyed as much as she would enjoy any intellectual activity, and which people in financial services find impressive.”

    So, another vote for a craftily chosen double major.

    Wendy, any thoughts?


  8. I agree that it’s mostly a fantasy to imagine controlling the life of a 20+year old to the degree of forbidding a major (or a boyfriend, . . . .), and that part of the reason we imagine we can are that we are still parenting teenagers of various ages. We may still control money at 18+, but I think when they hit 18 and then 21 there’s so much legal control they have over their lives, that you have to be far more “controlling” to control (rather than influence) that it’s unlikely that we’ll be choosing majors (rather than influencing them).

    I do think the money is a big part of why parents are so hyper-involved now (and also have more power, and even control). It’s basically become impossible to pay for college without parental help now (absent extreme circumstances). And if parents are making financial decisions that are among the biggest in their lives (colleges are house-style purchases, and a less reliable investment), it’s only reasonable to expect them to be involved in the decision making.

    I’m always shocked again when I see the sticker prices on the state colleges. I don’t always correct properly for inflation, but I do think it was possible, in my day, for kids to just plan on paying their own way (which gave them freedom from their parents) and for parents to tell kids they had to pay their own way.


  9. It’s the “Paradox of Choice.” As Caroline Hoxby and others have noted, the college market is now (inter)national. Back in the ’80s, most students who applied to colleges would have stayed local. Now, they can apply to 20 colleges at once. The internet and the Common App have made it much easier to apply to far away colleges. (whether the reality matches the viewbooks and marketing material is open to question.)

    I would not require my children to sign up for any particular major, especially if it’s “sensible.” Why? I have known a number of people who are still angry at their parents, decades after college, for being forced to complete a “sensible” major. Even though the nurses ended up with a practical career, which is still flexible enough to allow them to move and raise a family, they were angry to the point that it came up frequently in their descriptions of their parents (especially after drinking.)

    Another cut off ties to his parents, as he did not want to be an engineer.

    Parents try to fit their children for the world they know. The problem is, it’s changing so rapidly, something I find sensible may be behind the times. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Advertising, Promotions and Marketing Managers” earn a median pay of ~$125K per year. The outlook for the field is good, too–9% growth in the next 10 years. There are currently 225,200 such workers in the US.

    In comparison, Petroleum Engineers (the highest paid engineers) are doing well. They earn $129K per year. Growth in employment is forecast to be 10% per year. On the other hand, there are only 35,100 in the US. And of course, the recent collapse in oil prices may mean the BLS should reexamine their projection.

    The next highest paid engineers, Computer Hardware Engineers, make (median pay) $14K LESS than APM Managers. There are only about 77,700 such people in the country. Growth in the field is slower than average. Oh, and they are likely to be required to live in high-tech cities, which usually require a notoriously high cost of living.

    I’m sure there are many more parents forcing their children to be engineering majors than to major in Visual Studies or Communications. Does it make sense for any particular child?


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