Talking your student out of college may be a worthwhile discussion

Right now, while high school seniors are being encouraged to work on college applications, 40% of parents should be asking themselves whether their son or daughter is a good risk for college next fall.

That's right, 40% of parents should be asking whether college is the best next step. Then, the hard part -- they should be talking with their sons and daughters about it before investing --or worse, borrowing -- college tuition money.

Here's why. According to the U.S. Department of Education, among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a college diploma, even if given 8-1/2 years.

Have you and your senior talked about options yet? Have you compared his thoughts to your own?

In the 37 years that I've been a psychotherapist, I've seen many families maneuver through this process. Often, it begins with an assumption that the student will go away to a four-year college. But if your child hasn't done the things that go into being successful academically in high school -- getting to classes, completing homework on time, studying for tests -- there's no reason to believe that he will do these things in college. That doesn't mean he isn't planning to go.

It's a tough spot for parents. "I can't tell my son that I don't think he'll be successful in college!" one mother exclaimed. She was right. You can't -- or shouldn't -- say it quite that way.

It's also true that you shouldn't be making what you suspect is a bad investment -- or stand by and watch your son take on student debt -- for a plan that you don't think is going to work.

Do you believe that a college degree is the only path to success? Will you be heartbroken if your daughter doesn't go away to college next fall? If so, you need to examine these beliefs. Otherwise, you may wind up gambling on wishes and hopes and inadvertently setting your daughter up for failure when you might have been able to protect her from it.

Here's what I know. You can say almost anything to almost anyone if you say it right.

There's a big difference between saying, "You goofed off in high school and I think you'll flunk out of college," and saying, "Let's take this in small steps so that when you go away to college we're all confident that you're going to be able to graduate."

If your daughter is hell-bent on going off to college, there will be some initial angst, often of the "you don't trust me" variety.

If this is your situation, here are some things that should help make this must-have conversation go well.

1. Your daughter needs to know -- really know -- that you're on her team. This isn't about blame. It's about taking all available information and making a sound financial decision.

2. You want to hear -- really hear -- her ideas. How much flexibility does she seem to have? How much information has she obtained?

3. Students who are 17 and 18 are just beginning their entry into the adult world. They often need help seeing that there are options to what may be their intensely held plans. They can only listen if they aren't defending themselves. Few students this age have any real comprehension of what the consequences of $20,000 (or much more) of debt for an unfinished college degree will mean in their lives.

4. You get to control what you contribute to different post high school options. This means you can "sweeten the pot" to make the option that makes sense to you more attractive.

For example, you may choose to make a substantial contribution to the purchase of a car for your daughter if she elects to spend her first college year at the local community college, living at home and working part time. Your contribution -- payment for tuition, books and whatever amount for the car -- might be more than what you are willing to contribute if she elects to attend a four-year college.

You might also offer to pay the entire cost of a non-college program -- for example, beauty school or paramedic training -- that will allow your daughter to earn decent money and then if she chooses attend college later.

5. The bottom line is that you get to decide how you invest in your daughter's education. Once you know that, you can remain supportive and on her side while she grapples with the options. You should invest only when you feel confident that you are making a good investment.

Enabling your student to go away and fail is unlikely to benefit him in any way. Paying for his failure -- or worse, co-signing a loan that he won't be able to pay -- is almost guaranteed to endanger your relationship with him.

At 17 or 18, he may not be able to understand and despite your best efforts may be disappointed and angry with you. In the long run, you should do about college what hopefully you've done through his childhood -- make the best judgment call for his well-being that you can make.

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