When Your Kid’s College Choice is Wrong

Published by Wendy Nelson on

What do you do when your kid’s college choice is wrong? My short answer is, it depends on your kid.

We spent the weekend with our middle daughter, a college Sophomore. She has been struggling with her housing situation – 4 girls in a 4-bedroom apartment has led to a lot of drama, especially when agreements made at the beginning of the semester seem to be forgotten. She had already decided to get an efficiency apartment for the next school year, but the latest round of drama pushed her to list her room for next semester and and find a 1-bedroom apartment to move to. When asking her about her overall happiness at school, she admitted to me that she would not choose to go to her college if she could do it over. There are several reasons, but probably the biggest of which is that the school is way too big for her.  She wondered how she could have known that it wasn’t the right place for her.  I said that she couldn’t have known that.  Nobody really knows for sure.

After writing about college-related topics for the last 5 years and sending two daughters off to college, I firmly believe that selecting the right college is a bit of a “crap shoot”. There are no guarantees.

Most families use the following factors to guide their kid’s college choice:

  • Affordability
  • Academic match (usually by comparing the school’s mid-50% ACT/SAT score range and mid-50% GPA to the student’s)
  • Majors offered
  • Campus look & feel
  • Overnight Visit
  • Location
  • Activities offered on and off campus

In theory, these factors should help lead to a successful college match for a student. There are factors beyond the ones listed above that can lead to a bad college fit for a student.

As parents, most of us do our best to make sure our student will be happy at their selected school. However, being on the campus day in and day out for an extended period of time is very different than what is experienced on a campus tour and overnight visit. There are factors beyond the ones listed above that can lead to a bad college fit for a student. A school’s social scene can be one of the big ones.

If your student determines he or she made the wrong college choice, there are really two viable options: 1) Transfer, 2) Make the best of it.

The options I would not recommend are when your student drops out mid-semester or decides not to return for the next semester with no plan in place for returning to college. The reason I believe these options should be avoided is that the majority of students who drop out do not end up graduating within 6 years. Of course, I realize there are cases when a student determines he or she just isn’t ready for college life. In that case, dropping out may make sense, but a better option might be finding a local college he or she can commute to.

Transferring colleges has pros and cons. While it can mean a new beginning and a potentially better college fit, for students who received great merit scholarships at their first college, transferring could mean a financial hit. Merit scholarships for transfer students are usually not as prevalent and offered in lower dollar amounts.

“Making the best of it” can be a better option in many cases including when the student’s current college offers one of the best programs in his or her major, when transferring will result in a significant financial hit, or when transferring would require your student to take more credits than he or she would need at the current college. Of course if your student is truly miserable at his or her school, it will be worth sacrificing money, credits or even school reputation so that he or she can find a better environment.

In my daughter’s case, she has decided to make the best of it. She is on track to graduate after three years, which means she will be halfway through at the end of this semester. She would probably need to attend longer if she would transfer. In addition, her school is very highly regarded overall and not many other schools offer the type of program she is in. It will be easier for her to find a job in her field after graduation coming out of her college than it would be from many other colleges offering this program. She likes the program she is in. She just doesn’t like the large size and heavy party atmosphere of the college overall.

It’s important to know that if your kid’s college choice is wrong, it is not a failure. It is pretty easy to recover from a wrong choice.  I know, because I did, and it took me many wrong turns along the way.  I shared my story on the blog a few months ago. You can read about my experience here.