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Selecting A College: A Parent’s Pick or Student’s Choice?

April, 2008
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Question from a parent: After studying at an international school in Beijing for four years, my daughter is graduating from high school this June, and she prefers to go to a Chinese university here. But with our work contract completed in June 2009, my husband and I will be returning home to the USA and want her to do her college back in our home country. We’d like to be with her one year longer. Should we support her choice? What do you suggest?" IMG_0160  

   Dr. Michael Thompson: I know many families that would be thrilled if their child wanted to go to a university in a foreign country, believing that such an experience would provide a uniquely challenging learning environment. 

  I also know many families that would be totally heartbroken at the thought of such a separation between parents and children.  In the end, this comes down to a question of cultural values, family loyalty and the pain that distance might cause.  How can a psychologist, especially one from the U.S. (a highly individualistic society that is not very family-centered), resolve those issues for any particular family?  I’ll be honest: I cannot.

  All I can do is share my perspective. I favor allowing children to pick their own colleges, for two reasons. After all, it is the child—or should I say "young adult"—who is going to college, not the parents.  Performing at a high level in university requires a lot of intrinsic motivation and I think a child is more likely to be invested in a college that she has picked for herself.  Secondly, I believe that many children use the departure for college as part of the process of late adolescent identity formation and some children really do need the adventure and challenge of being far away from their families. Also, in your daughter’s case, she has gone to an international school in Beijing for years; China is what she knows and where she feels comfortable.  

  But the choice of a college is a process of self-discovery in which a child asks herself: What is the best educational environment for me and what do I need to be happy socially and content with myself?  Teenagers often don’t really know the answer to that question at seventeen. They work out the answer by talking about their college choice with peers, teachers, coaches…and parents. It takes time and a lot of discussion to arrive at an answer that feels right.

  If you aren’t already in a painful fight about college choice with your daughter, I would ask her to explain all of the reasons for wanting to stay  in China and I would listen seriously. You may hear something that changes your understanding and feelings about her choice. Once she has had her say, if you still feel strongly that you want her to attend college in the U.S., I would lay out all of the reasons why you want her to join you there.

  Finally, I would offer her a compromise: one year at a university in China, three years at a college in the U.S (or two and two). Are either of you willing to compromise?

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