Sending Your Kid to College: My Top Ten Tips
As a follow-up to Wednesday’s On the Culture item on the severe problem posed by higher education for your children (Seriously: Save Your Kid from College), let me offer some more advice. I am just young enough to have gone through college and graduate school after the moral life of academia had completely collapsed. Along with my wife, I've raised six children, all of whom have gone to college and kept their faith. My wife is a life-long high school English teacher, and I've both taught at the college level and helped to found a four-year Catholic college. So here are my top ten concrete tips for making the right college choice for your child, and for making that choice stick.
- It’s the Parent’s Choice, not the Child’s: There is a prevailing myth in the United States that a seventeen or eighteen year-old high school student is qualified to choose where he or she wants to go to college, and that the parents’ role is to offer suggestions and pay. This is senseless. Parents, especially parents who have been to college, are in a far better position to judge what school will be right for their child. The child has very little idea of what he needs, what he’ll like, or what’s good for him.
- Make this Clear Early: If you raise your children with the understanding that you are going to determine which colleges are acceptable choices for them, point 1 will be much easier to carry when the time comes. This will be doubly or triply true if you make a point of putting them in a private high school with lots of “high value” parents, so that they’ll encounter examples of other kids whose parents think the same way.
- The Right High School is Critical: Many parents send their kids to Catholic schools for elementary and middle or junior high school, but then send them to secular schools with more “opportunities” in high school. Their idea, I guess, is that the early formative years are the most important. Don’t make this mistake. If you can’t afford to educate your children in first class schools (morally and spiritually) throughout their years at home, then you need to recognize that the high school years are more important. That’s when kids become very interested in pushing the envelope, and that’s when they’re much more interested in what their peers and teachers say than what their parents say. It’s also when they most want to be like other kids, and when they form their impression of what sort of college they’d like to attend, often for all the wrong reasons. Ideally, you won’t have to sacrifice quality anywhere along the line, but if you do, make sure your child is in the right environment for at least four years of high school before going off to college.
- Downplay Extracurricular Issues: As children grow older, they often become more vocal about their extra-curricular interests. Sometimes their parents see certain talents and interests emerging, most often in athletics, which lead them to choose a school based on its extra-curricular opportunities. But nothing is as important as the spiritual and intellectual formation of your child, even at the college level. Be consistent throughout. Choose schools for your kids based on the spiritual and intellectual quality of the teachers, and on the relative commitment of the other families to the values you hold. Only when these things are roughly equal should you be worrying about picking a school with a better drama program, a superior art teacher, a wonderful band or orchestra, or great sports teams.
- Focus on the Catholic Thing: There are a very small number of colleges and universities which are institutionally committed to truth in general and to the Catholic Faith in particular. The Cardinal Newman Society can help you identify them. Your search for the right college for your child should start here. However, for a variety of reasons, none of these might be right for your child. An absolutely critical program or major may be unavailable, there may be serious special needs that these institutions are unable to meet, or your child may be tempermentally unsuited for at least some of them. If any of these factors are critical, you have more work to do.
- Discern the Community within the College: No matter how strongly counter-cultural your child is, he’s going to need a support group; obviously this is even more true of kids who, without being particularly counter-cultural or strong-willed, must go to a spiritually deficient college or university for some important reason—perhaps even for reasons of cost. If this is the decision you’re facing, you need to find out which schools have a strong sub-group of Catholic professors or a particularly sound campus ministry, either of which your child can connect with. To take an obvious example, Notre Dame has huge problems in terms of its institutional commitment to the Faith, but there is a strong and vibrant community of Catholic professors, students and apostolic groups within the larger University. You should identify schools with good key faculty, or with excellent Newman Centers (these were almost uniformly disastrous a generation ago, but that’s not necessarily true now). In particular, I recommend finding out if FOCUS is active on the campus you’re considering. Choose only after doing this type of analysis. And make sure your child is connected to that special Catholic community before he goes off to school.
- Ease Up Only after the First Year or Two of College: Don’t let anything dissuade you from putting your child’s faith and morals first for freshman year. If necessary, approach the problem of college in stages, insisting that your child go to one of a restricted number of schools for the “first year or two”. He or she may like it enough to decide to stay, but it is relatively easy to transfer a year’s worth of credits into another program, and often easy to transfer two years of credits with little or no loss of time. It's also wise to remember that an extra year in college is a small price for you and your child to pay for your child's soul. Once your child has had one to two productive years in a constructive environment, he or she will usually be well-equipped to take on whatever school is necessary for further professional development.
- Remember that Each Child is Different: Most kids are still far too malleable (except by their parents) when they leave high school. Consequently, the vast majority need an extra year or two (and sometimes more) in a good Catholic intellectual environment. But not all. Some are very strong-willed and counter-cultural; they may thrive in an oppositional atmosphere, and they may be smart enough to learn very effectively by recognizing the things that are wrong in their academic environment. I should caution that this is unlikely unless you have raised them in a very counter-cultural way, having already gone to considerable trouble to put them in independent Catholic schools or educate them at home. Still, this may be a significant consideration. Always evaluate your options with respect to the strengths and needs of each child.
- Consider Having Them Live at Home: I hate to bring this up, especially if a child has been difficult in his later years of high school, but if finances or other circumstances make it necessary for your child to go to college in a morally and intellectually weak environment, then you ought to consider having him attend a local school for a year or so as a commuting student. This will tend to insulate him from some severe moral challenges and unfortunate opportunities; meanwhile, you can keep an eye out for trouble.
- Sorry: You’re Not Done When They’re 18: Parents used to think they were done when their kids turned eighteen, or even earlier in some cultures. In our day, I can’t subscribe to that theory. We mature our children very slowly. The first year or two out of high school, when the child is situated in a fundamentally different environment with far greater control over his own life, are a necessary part of the maturation process. My firm conviction is that in most cases you don't dare lose control of their environment until age 20, and then you'll still have to pray very hard for them at least until they’re settled in their vocations and/or careers. You’ll still pray for them all your life, of course, but this is especially important before they “settle down”.
This leads me to a final point, a point so important that I don't dare make it part of the larger list. You absolutely must pray constantly. If you’re not praying at least a couple of times a day for your children, start now. The first thing you must be convinced of as parents is that you can’t do this alone. Left only to your own resources, you’ll fail. Pray constantly for your children, whether at home or away, and make sure you help them to develop their own life of prayer as they grow up. It is totally insufficient just to make sure that they attend Mass or that they participate in a Catholic youth group. They must develop their own interior life. Once that’s completed in them, they can go anywhere—not foolishly or presumptuously, but at least safely, and if they must.
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Posted by: -
Jan. 24, 2010 11:55 PM ET USA
Thank you! Especially No. 9 is important. Kids want to go "away" for only one reason. My parents sent me away, and it turned out to be a bad experience for me. There were several good schools near our house, too. So far, we have kept two out of three kids at home, commuting to wonderful schools nearby. The fourth will likely stay home too. The older two are now independent.
Posted by: a son of Mary -
Dec. 08, 2009 12:37 PM ET USA
wow! great tips Jeff - many thanks!
Posted by: pschloss4164 -
Dec. 06, 2009 3:25 PM ET USA
and what about their freedom?
Posted by: jp796848 -
Dec. 06, 2009 2:24 PM ET USA
Super advice! We have raised our 4 older children, homeschooled them etc. But . . I never thought about "teaching them to develop their own prayer life." That is so obvious but it didn't occur to us at the time.
Posted by: garedawg -
Dec. 05, 2009 11:48 AM ET USA
This all sounds great, but what about us poor slobs with big families but not much money? It's very likely going to be state schools for my kids, who are now in public secondary schools because we can't afford Catholic schools. Fortunately all 5 of them are very good at standing on their own two feet.
Posted by: -
Dec. 04, 2009 11:24 PM ET USA
Many good points here, Jeff. I would add that it helps if you let your kids see you praying for them (without being unduly Protestant about it!) And, for your girls be especially sceptical of Diocesan girls schools. Needless to say, avoid the Jesuit brand at every level.