Jay Mathews: In college admission process, tough choices

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, May 27, 2010

I once interviewed Alyson Barker, a former student at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, about her attempt to use the college admission process to drive her relationship with her parents into a ditch.

Barker's parents wanted her to attend the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, a fine state school with lower tuition for Virginia residents. Barker told them, with a 17-year-old's irritating certitude, that instead she would attend a small, expensive private school in Ohio.

Because so many area families are starting their college searches, I am going to write a few columns on the hidden pitfalls of the process. I started last week warning against overlooking the quality of campus extracurricular activities. That was important but, I realize now, not the right place to begin.

Picking a college is like juggling plastic explosives. The generation gap between parent and child is large. Other family issues intrude. Popular culture insists it is the most important decision parents and children will make together. But students often do not share the parental sense of urgency. Much can go wrong.

When my wife and I began this perilous enterprise with our first child, we wondered why so many parents at his fine high school were spending thousands of dollars on private consultants. "We want our family to come out of this intact, and this way I know I can count on someone else yelling at my son when he hasn't finished his applications," one mother explained to my wife.

That is a sensible goal, but not many of us can afford her method. After a couple of decades reporting on and living this subject, I have found that creative thinking and careful phrasing by us tuition payers can win the day for sanity and peace at the dinner table.

Take Barker, for instance. Her parents pretended to accept her decision to spend their retirement fund in the Buckeye State. But after she announced her decision, they mentioned that if she wanted to study abroad, as they knew she did, perhaps an in-state school might work a little better. They would have more money to finance her dreams of an overseas adventure.

It was an offhand, unthreatening remark. Barker thought about it and eventually agreed to go to William and Mary, with five months in Australia her junior year.

"I just wanted to be rebellious and not do what my parents wanted," she said. "So perhaps they were manipulative, but whatever works, right?"

Right. There are ways to move even the most stubborn teenagers to where they see no alternative but cooperation on this college stuff.

One parent said she broke the tension-filled application-writing process into manageable chunks. She negotiated a schedule: Work on the easy parts one night, do an essay another night and discuss whom to get for recommendations a third night.

Another parent, whose daughter refused to trim her list of 18 schools, wrote each college's name on an index card, shuffled the deck and put them in front of her, two at a time.

"If there was a gun to your head right now and you had to decide," she asked her daughter, "which of these two schools . . . would you rather go to?" That helped narrow the list.

In the end, the smartest parents know their child's choice might not be their favorite, but a change is possible if the first one doesn't work out. Lots of people start at one college and finish at another, including John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and me.

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