5 Higher Ed Mistakes I Made With My Kids

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I’ve long been a fan of how Matt Reed writes about his family. Matt artfully walks the line between bringing our higher ed work home while maintaining family privacy.

When I let Matt know how much I admire his way of writing about his kids and partner through a higher ed lens, he encouraged me to give it a shot. So here goes.

Over the past two weeks, my wife and I have attended commencement ceremonies for our daughters. We had two graduations within a week because our older daughter had her Covid two-year delayed commencement.

Watching the ceremony of these ceremonies and seeing my kids in regalia and all the commencement trappings brought to my mind all the things that I’ve gotten wrong as a higher ed parent. Here are a few of the higher ed mistakes I’ve made with my kids:

Mistake #1 – Thinking I Could Tone Down the Insanity of the College Admissions Process:

We are lucky that the college town where we live is blessed with a fantastic public high school. The downside is that the high schoolers feel enormous stress and pressure throughout the college admissions process.

Many of the kids have parents that went to fancy schools. It does not seem to do any good to tell our kids that it was much easier to get accepted to a fancy school back when we were applying.

Nor does it seem to do any good to tell our kids that there are tons of terrific, wonderful, and top-notch colleges. We say to our kids to focus on a school that fits their strengths and desires and to pay no attention to rankings, status, or brand.

It doesn’t work.

It turns out that the power of peers is exponentially greater than parents.

My kids experienced the college admissions process stress. If anything, my imploring them to stress less about the process stressed them out even more.

Mistake #2 – Overestimating My Ability to Judge the Right College for My Kids:

I thought I knew what a good college should be. And therefore, what a good college would be for my kids. I was wrong.

In my mind, the ideal college is one where teaching matters first. What I wanted for my kids was a place where the professors (tenure track all) could get to know the students as individuals.

I highlighted the schools in the smallish-to-medium-sized liberal arts variety. Places where I thought the classes would be small and the professors would be caring.

What actually happened is that my younger daughter ended up transferring from one of those smaller private liberal arts schools to a big public research university. And she was so much happier having the room to explore and find her way at a bigger school. She found those small classes and tight-knit bonds with professors within a smaller college situated in her larger university.

Mistake #3 – Going on Too Many College Tours:

We went on so many college tours.

The blame for all those campus visits lies entirely with me. I love visiting college campuses. Ask me what my favorite thing to do in the world is, and I’ll say visit a college campus.

The problem is that you reach diminishing returns from campus visits at a certain point. And then you go into negative returns. There are only so many schools that any potential applicant can reasonably process.

The lesson here is that kids of academics should not listen to their parents’ advice on planning prospective student visits. Instead, the high school junior/senior should come up with a reasonable list of their top few schools and then, if possible (and privileged enough), visit those.

Mistake #4 – Not Being Very Knowledgable About the Transfer Process:

Our younger daughter transferred after her first year. She did this entirely on her own. I was no help.

It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t help her with the transfer process. That was on her, and it is good she did this all herself. It is more that I never really talked about how normal it is it transfer. Nor did I have insight into the timelines for transfer, what questions to ask, or the pitfalls to watch out for.

As I had never transferred as a student, I had not internalized how common transferring is. As I don’t work directly with anything having to do with transfer students in my higher ed work, I had no insights into the process.

What I learned is that parents (at least us parents) put all sorts of emphasis on the initial college selection. And way too little focus on where our kids may ultimately graduate.

Mistake #5 – Thinking That My Knowledge of the Higher Ed System Translates into Knowing How to Be a Higher Ed Parent:

My final mistake when it came to my kids’ college experience was believing that I knew more than I did. There is a depressingly little correlation between professional higher ed expertise and practical family-related higher ed knowledge.

Likely, parents who are therapists (or hostage negotiators) will tell you the same thing. You may know a great deal related to your professional life, but be cautious in thinking that knowledge translates into anything related to parenting.

Smart experts know how much they don’t know. My identity as a student of higher education blinded me to how little I could understand about my kids’ college journey.

Fortunately, my kids navigated their college experiences — and did so in their own way. So maybe I did a few things right along the way.

What higher ed mistakes have you made with your kids?

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