A Q&A with the hosts of the podcast USACollegeChat and the new book, How to Find the Right College.

Marie Segares and Regina Paul photoMarie G. Segares and Regina H. Paul are on a virtual tour for their new book, How to Find the Right College: a Workbook for Parents of High School Students and have stopped by my blog to answer some questions on the college admissions process. In their book, an extension of their free weekly podcast, USACollegeChat, they write about all the options to consider when helping your teenager search for colleges. The book also includes an excellent worksheet to help both parents and students determine their priorities.

Regina has worked in the world of K–12 and higher education for more than 35 years and writes the blog ParentChat with Regina. Marie has been a higher education administrator and faculty member for 10 years.

They are giving away a free copy of their book to one reader of this blog. To enter, leave your name and email address, and a sentence or two about this post or the college admissions process in the comments section below and I’ll randomly pick one winner. Contest closes Thursday, November 12 @ 5 PM, EST. Good luck! [Contest closed.]

How To Find The Right College coverHow much input should parents have in terms of “deal breakers,” as you describe them in your book, the critical criteria that help narrow down the college options?

Parents have to do a balancing act between believing they know what is best for their kids and believing that sometimes kids know what is best for themselves. This is especially hard for parents who have considerable experience in higher education. Here are some things we know:

It is eventually impossible to make kids study something they don’t want to study. Parents might win for a year or two, but will lose in the end. We are inclined to let kids choose their own college major, with parents helping kids to keep their options open. One reasonable role for parents is to talk with their kids about starting with liberal arts and sciences courses in a variety of subject fields (often called “general education” by colleges and often required by colleges) before kids choose a major, whether that is a liberal arts major or a technical major (like engineering).

Because there are great schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas and because there are great large and small schools, we are comfortable letting kids make those decisions for themselves. Parents should certainly give their input, based on knowing their kids as they do; but our guess is that kids know where they will feel most comfortable, and that’s important for their success overall.

Because there are great colleges all over the U.S. that most kids never consider, we hope that parents would not make “staying near home” a deal breaker. Our virtual tour of colleges in every region of the U.S. (which has been running for the last several months on our podcast, USACollegeChat, and which is still available at no cost on our website) just confirms that most families know very little about the college opportunities outside their home region. And the very best option for a kid might well be outside his or her home state. We know that many families want to keep their kids close to home for many different reasons. We would encourage you to let go if your kid wants to go away to college and it is financially possible to support that choice.

Paying for college is a problem for virtually everyone in the U.S. We would encourage parents to consider carefully whether Direct Parent PLUS loans could help send a kid to a better college than the parents could have afforded without the loans. The payback schedule and interest rates are pretty reasonable. We also believe that it is very hard for many kids to work while going to college, so any plan that requires kids to work a substantial number of hours each week during the school year should be thought about very hard. Financing a college education is probably the one place that parents should have the final say. Remember: There is no prestige in going to a private college that is worse than a public college, and many private colleges are not nearly as good as our nation’s best public colleges. So, if you are going to borrow money, make sure you are spending it on a respected college.

How should parents and teens approach the college search for students planning to apply “undecided” with no idea of a major or career path? What about a student who is interested in several areas of study?

We think it is fine if kids do not have an idea about a career path when they are 17 or 18. We think it is also fine if kids do not know what they want to major in when they go to college inasmuch as they have never studied some things that you can major in—for example, sociology, art history, and linguistics, just to choose some from the humanities field.

However, it does make completing the college application a bit harder if a kid has no major to indicate. And sometimes college application essays ask why a kid is interested in a specific major. And sometimes you can’t even figure out which college or school within a large university to apply to if you don’t have an idea of the general field a kid wants to study.

So, we would say to try to narrow down the choice of a major as much as possible. No one is going to hold you to it. Most college applications ask kids for a second and even third choice of major, so indicating more than one should not be a problem.

Can you briefly describe the primary advantages and disadvantages of liberal arts study vs. technical study. Is one a better choice for a student who anticipates attending graduate school?

Our book talks about this subject for a whole chapter, but let us say briefly that we probably have a preference for liberal arts study unless a kid is absolutely dead certain that a technical field is his or her preference, based on a long-time interest in that field, good grades in high school subjects that prepare a student for that field, discussions with people who work in that field, and some kind of internship or summer work experience in that field. Here’s why:

Credits for liberal arts college courses (especially those taken in the first year of college) can be transferred far more easily among programs and among colleges than credits for technical courses can. That means that a kid can change his or her mind after starting college (and many, many do) without losing too much time and money. That’s the practical reason. We could go on and on about the philosophical reasons for creating well-rounded citizens who can think critically about many issues. Or about the fact that even some of the military service academies allow their students to major in a liberal arts field because it is important to have officers who have a broad view of life. Or about the fact that great schools of engineering also have liberal arts requirements so that they produce great people as well as great engineers.

For students anticipating attending graduate school, their main concern should be getting good grades in undergraduate courses—and then getting good scores on whatever graduate admission test they are likely to have to take (which means that students who take no math in college are going to have to do some serious study and review before taking most graduate admission tests). We think that the choice of a major is less important, understanding that some students might have to make up some courses that could be missing from their undergraduate studies. It’s also important to note that, generally speaking, employers are less concerned about college major than they are about the skills students have developed in their college years.

In this competitive college admissions environment, what advice do you have for parents and their teens to help them avoid excessive stress as they go through the process?

Believe us: There are a number of interesting colleges out there for every kid, and it is likely that you haven’t heard about most of them. The way to avoid stress is to cast the net far and wide. Look at some colleges that your kid’s classmates are not considering. Get outside your geographic comfort zone and your preconceived notions of where to apply. Look at great public flagship universities in every region of the U.S. We believe they are the hidden jewels of the world of higher education in the U.S. Look at small liberal arts colleges that are amazing, but not well known nationally (like St. John’s dual campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis). Look at options abroad—which can be cheaper than U.S. colleges and which have an undeniable “cool” factor. We talk about all of these in our virtual tour of colleges in Series 4 (Looking at Colleges Outside Your Comfort Zone) on our USACollegeChat podcast. Listen to them. They are free!

Thank you, Marie and Regina, for sharing your expert advice.

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