Partnering with Parents
Shaquinah Taylor Wright is the Mid-Atlantic Director of College Access at Let's Get Ready, an education nonprofit that provides low-income high school students with free SAT preparation, admissions counseling and other support services needed to gain admission to and graduate from college. Shaquinah served as the founding College Counselor at a charter school in the Bronx where she designed and implemented a 9-12 college counseling program. Prior to that, Shaquinah was an Education Pioneers Graduate Fellow where she partnered with an education organization to design a project to help increase college matriculation for disconnected learners. She also worked for two years as a college advisor with the MGI/Gear Up program at an Early College high school.
Shaquinah received her BA from Cornell University with a major in Sociology and Inequality Studies and her Master's in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College. As a first-generation college graduate, Shaquinah has a passion for creating sustainable action to address issues of opportunity and access for students.
Every year I sit down with students and talk about their college options. In between the standard list of requirements (medium-sized school, 2-3 hours away, business program, etc), I seem to get a handful of students whose most crucial preference is “somewhere far from my family”. And when asked how comfortable their families might feel about them being far away, most responses range from “we haven’t talked about it” to “it’s my decision so I don’t care what my dad thinks”. That line of thinking is great – right up until tuition is due.
Many of the students I’ve worked with have been first-generation college students. And it’s definitely a challenge when parents who haven’t gone to college assume that it means they cannot help their child with this process. I once had a father of one of my students tell me that I was the “expert” so he was just going to tell his son to do whatever I said. And while it was really nice to be trusted, I quickly explained to the dad that he was an “expert” too – in his son. It does not matter how great a school might fit a student on paper if there is something going on at home that will prevent them from attending.
Parents provide a much needed context when you’re working with a student. One of my students had a pretty serious chronic illness and she needed certain services to manage it. Her most important college preference, however, was a screenwriting program, not access to a health specialist. But after talking with her mom, we were able to get her into a school that had both. Obviously, this kind of one-on-one partnering cannot always happen with families. But as advisors, it’s important that we find ways to be a little more proactive about ways to work with parents.
1) Start the conversation early. As college advisors, we’re used to giving our students a plethora of surveys about their college preferences. During a college meeting for my juniors and their families, I give students and parents the exact same survey about college options. The questions are pretty straightforward (ex. I would be happiest if I/ my child were at a college no more than X hours away) and forced students and their parents to talk about all these factors early in the college process. It’s a lot better to know that a family is adamantly opposed to a student going across the country before you start helping with their USC application.
2) Encourage college visits. Nothing freaks me out more than when a student commits to a college that they have never visited before. Being able to physically see the campus and get a feel for the environment can help students and their families test drive the experience. When a student and her mom went to visit a community college upstate, I got a text that it was “in the middle of nowhere” and that school was immediately crossed off of her list. Preparing for visits and knowing the types of questions to ask is pretty easy with resources like CollegeBoard’s Campus Visit Guide (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/find-colleges/campus-visit-guide).
Colleges want students and their families to visit and most schools list their open houses and info sessions online. College visits can add up, however, so to keep costs down I’ve created lists for families like “The MetroCard’s Guide to College Visits: Schools to See around Town”. There are also tons of schools along the LIRR and Amtrak that are pretty accessible for families without cars. It’s important to stress to students and their families that if just arranging a visit to a school is problematic, it will probably not be any easier if they actually choose to matriculate there.
3) Be prepared for difficult conversations. Students and their families do not always see eye-to-eye when it comes to their college choices. From distance to majors to financial aid packages, parents will have an opinion. As an advisor, it’s important not to choose sides, but to provide as much information as possible as to the benefits and challenges of choosing certain schools. That can definitely be problematic when a student you’ve been working with for years gets accepted into their dream school (with a great financial aid package), but mom does not want them to go away. One of the most powerful meetings I’ve ever had happened with a student who was accepted to a private college in Pennsylvania and his mom who wanted him to stay home. When he asked me to meet with him and his mom he told me that it was my “job” to help him convince his mom to let him go away. But I actually didn’t speak during the meeting and what followed was self-advocacy at its finest. Watching him passionately argue for the type of future he wanted convinced his mom to let him go to that school better than anything I could have said.
4) Focus on financial aid. Sometimes it’s hard to get parents involved in the college process until it’s time for all of the financial aid paperwork. Organizing a financial aid workshop is a great way to touch base with parents while giving them crucial information. OPTIONS offers great professional development around financial aid. In addition to giving them an overview of the financial aid process, actually helping students and families fill out their paperwork is another great way to work with families. New York Cares will bring a free FAFSA workshop to your school or site. They have trained volunteers who will work one-on-one with families to fill out their FAFSA and TAP applications. New York Cares will even do a workshop on how to evaluate financial aid packages in the spring.
College is a really exciting time and it means the move towards independence for many young people. And while we want our students to make the best possible choices for them, it’s important to remember that their choices do not exist in isolation.
How have you worked with parents around the college process?