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The Undergrad Experience: What Can Help to Choose the Right University and Program

So, your kid has excelled in high school and is about to apply to university. Congratulations! This is the most definitive transition into adulthood that can happen, and likely the first time your offspring is truly seeing the world as his/her oyster. But while many parents take pride in their children...

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Things to consider in helping your offspring choose the right university and program

So, your kid has excelled in high school and is about to apply to university. Congratulations! This is the most definitive transition into adulthood that can happen, and likely the first time your offspring is truly seeing the world as his/her oyster.

But while many parents take pride in their children preparing to become undergraduates, they are also filled with trepidation—and not just because of the cost of tuition. Worrying over which institution is the right “fit,” or how well their kid will fare if he/she doesn’t have a clear career path, or no longer being able to exert daily parental supervision are all sure-fire ways to lose sleep.

Nobody appreciates this more than Chris McLeod. He is the director of communications and community engagement at Athabasca University—and a parent well acquainted with sleepless nights, having gone through the tribulations of helping one son dive into the world of higher learning and currently coming to grips with the fact his 16-year-old will soon embark on the same journey.

Give Them Space

McLeod has many practical tips for parents in his shoes, but he stresses they must all be underscored by a mindset that may take effort to adopt. “This is precisely the time when you need to step back and give your kids space, not only so they can make their own decisions but mistakes as well,” he says. “For them to succeed they have to follow their dreams, not yours.”

He adds that this is tough to do in light of the fact that “the transition from high school to university can be severe, because students go from a place in which they have been totally supervised and expected to simply regurgitate information, to an environment in which they’re expected to take responsibility for learning what the information means.” 

Peter Tingling agrees. “I’ve had a front row seat to these problems because I have four kids of my own,” says the associate dean of undergraduate programs for the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University. “Giving space is crucial. And yes, many problems can occur due to the university experience’s being so fundamentally different from that of high school.”

Start Planning Early—in High School

At the same time as you get into the mindset of giving space, Tingling and McLeod say, parents should start talking about university with their children during their final year of high school, before they set sights on specific institutes of higher learning. “Ask them what their goals are, why they’re attracted to these goals, and what they think it will take to achieve them,” McLeod suggests. “This will help enormously in determining what university, programs and courses are the most appropriate.” 

Openly discussing financing—what mix of parent-paid, RESP, scholarship and student loan—can go a long way in inspiring the would-be undergraduate to make the most of the university experience; and seeking the input of school counsellors can result in a wealth of practical information.

Another initiative can further mitigate the difficulties of transition and should be undertaken prior to the student’s first day as an undergraduate. “A fair number of parents accompany their kids to our campus during the summer months,” says Tingling. “The benefits are numerous. It demystifies the campus for them both; it facilitates the separation process between parent and offspring; and it enables the undergraduate to befriend people he or she will spend the next few years with.” 

Of course, there are many things one should consider avoiding too. Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker, the authors of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It, warn parents that research universities are no place for undergraduates. The professors there are often more interested in doing research and working with graduate students than teaching undergrads. 

The authors caution that elite universities do not guarantee success; and they stress that beginning adulthood without debt is worth far more than a designer diploma.

Keep the End Goal in Mind

Arguably, nothing pleases a parent more than having a teenager with a specific career goal in mind. But what if a teen is determined to attend university without any idea of what he/she wants to become? “This is in fact admirable, not something to worry about, considering the number of students who enrol with clear objectives only to shift gears midway through,” says McLeod. “I would tell the teen to take a broad variety of courses during the first year, from the arts to the sciences. Chances are he or she will uncover a passion for something specific and stick with it.”

Usually, advice for undergraduates is aimed at youths graduating high school. What of the late bloomer who has spent years or even decades in the working world and decides to further his/her education? “The social stigma associated with adults attending university still exists in many brick-and-mortar institutions,” says McLeod. “Fortunately, the average undergraduate age at Athabasca is 28, not 19 or 20. In fact, last spring we had a 92-year-old woman in convocation. She had enrolled at Athabasca simply to learn as much as she could, and she was admired by everyone. So my advice is take time to research the social makeup of the different universities.”

All of this helps ensure a fulfilling undergraduate experience. “And this in turn enables the undergraduate to make the most out of university, which at Beedie hinges around experiential learning rather than learning from a desk,” says Tingling. 

Make the Experience Positive

Tingling goes on to note that, “Additionally, a pleasant undergraduate experience will encourage students to start thinking about being an exchange student later on. In short, they will literally take steps to go forth into the world, which is most exciting: as the American computer scientist Alan Kay once said, ‘A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.'”

McLeod reiterates, “A lot of strategies can be undertaken to help your kid become a productive and happy undergraduate, but it starts with your willingness to give your kid his or her own head. 

“And remember that although you are stepping back, you don’t need to disappear.” 

Created by BCBusiness in partnership with Athabasca University and Beedie School of Business at SFU.