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Inspire Your Teen to Start the College Search

If you have a reluctant teen who isn’t motivated to take the next step toward higher education, follow these tips to help inspire them.

High school is a complicated time for your teenager. On the one hand, it can feel like they have their entire lives ahead of them. On the other, countless adults are telling them what to do, where to go, how to act, and who to be. This is especially the case when it comes to higher education. While some high school students know that they want to go to college, some are unsure, or intimidated by the college selection and application process. Others have heard horror stories about starting their post-college life with large student loan debts. And some are so overwhelmed with the stresses of adolescence, that they just fail to prepare.

While higher education may not be on every teenager’s agenda, it should be on the mind of every parent. If you have a reluctant teen who isn’t motivated to take the next step toward higher education, follow these tips to help inspire them.

Look Into the Future

If the thought of more school doesn’t motivate your teen, the thought of making money or living independently from their parents just might. According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, having a college degree opens future job prospects and increases earning potential. The report shows that in 2016, twenty-somethings with a bachelor’s degree had an annual median earning of $43,00 per year, while those who stopped at a high school diploma had $25,500. A college degree also increases the odds that an individual will have health insurance and the potential to increase their overall life expectancy.

It’s not all about money either. In June 2013, HuffPost reported on a study by the College Board that said college grads also have overall higher self-esteem, better health, and higher job satisfaction. Simply put, a college degree opens doors, and these statistics may help your teen better understand why it’s wise to consider heading off to the university.

Explore Their Interests

Teens are more likely to want to pursue careers in fields they feel passionate about. They are also more likely to excel if they find the right path within those fields.

Barb Harvey, executive director of Parents, Teachers, and Advocates in Atlanta, Georgia, encourages parents to have their kids take a Multiple Intelligence Inventory test. “Find out where their gifts, interests, and talents lie,” she says. “Then use that information to explore career fields together.”

“I have had a few students interested in video games and writing programs for them,” says Jim Anderson, a college and financial aid planner and founder of Making College Worth It. Anderson also helps students see the multiple options that may be available related to their interests. “I show them many of the other things they can program, like cyber security, artificial intelligence, and robotics.”

Work with your teen to figure out possible career options—ones they will enjoy and excel at—without pressuring them too much.

Experience Campus Life

Many teens have never set foot on a college campus. Glimpsing campus life alone may be enough to get them interested in a step toward college.

“Let them walk the campus and see the dorms to envision what living on campus would look like,” suggests Kristen Moon, independent college counselor and founder of Encourage them to check out the academic departments that suit their interests, speak to professors and students, and get a feel for the college experience. Sometimes, professors will even allow prospective students to sit in on a class for free, just to see how different the experience is.

Contact schools that are convenient to your home first, and ask about tour options. Often, tours are free, and led by student volunteers who attend the school, so your teen can ask questions along the route.

Attend a College Fair

College fairs give prospective students a chance to meet with representatives of various universities. They provide a valuable option for teens who may want to explore several close and farther-from-home options at once. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) holds a free National College Fair and a Performing and Visual Arts College Fair each fall in Denver. The fairs bring hundreds of colleges together in one place and offer attendees information ssessions on a variety of topics including the college search process and financial aid. Attend together, or offer to drive your teen and a friend to the event.

Test the Waters

Summers can be particularly slow for teenagers, and it’s a great time for them to start looking into opportunities that might help them prepare for the working world. Use this as an opportunity to suggest they seek out jobs, internships, or volunteer opportunities in the field they are considering.

“Place them in an internship job that excites them about actually working in the field,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “The excitement becomes the gasoline that drives the teen and motivates [them] to do the work.”

Find College Prep Programs

Twenty-one-year-old Jessica Barrios credits her college education to the experiences through Breakthrough Collaborative, a nationwide organization that increases academic opportunities for underserved communities. Through after-school tutoring, bi-monthly programming, and summer-long programs, Breakthrough offers middle- and high-school students mentorship to stay on track in high school and to go to college.

“The public school system didn’t do much for me personally. Breakthrough was like a second home. My mentors…would actively push us to come to workshops and events,” says Barrios, a graduate of a Breakthrough affiliate in Florida, who went on to pursue a degree at Florida International University.

Similar programs exist locally and offer a variety of efforts to get students excited about college.

Inspire, Don’t Pressure

Arianna Smith, a psychotherapist at Quiet Moon Counseling in Littleton, reminds parents that applying to college can make teens feel like they have to decide their entire life path before they turn 18. “This can feel suffocating and overwhelming to a teenager, especially when they still have a variety of interests,” says Smith.

Moon adds that “pushing majors and career paths onto students they are not interested in, trying to dictate what college the student will attend, or being too forceful and opinionated when discussing college choices and options” are all sure-fire ways to turn teens off of the potential college experience.

Teens need your encouragement, not your commands. Support their efforts as they decide for themselves to look into, prepare for, and apply to college. After all, college is just another stepping stone toward the rest of their lives.

Let’s Talk Money

More than 70 percent of American college students bear the weight of student debt, according to Gabby Beckford, content creator at who won over $69,000 in scholarships while in college—enough to graduate without a single loan. “I believe that showing first-hand examples to teenagers that a life of student debt is not the only option is powerful,” says Beckford.

Beckford pursued study abroad scholarships as one option for paying for school while traveling, which she explains on her site. There are many ways to pay for higher education besides student loans, including scholarships, grants, choosing to live at home, and work study programs.

Make sure to involve your teen fully in the process of how they will pay, in order to help them become more fiscally responsible in the future. Any debt they incur will be theirs in the end, and it’s important that they understand this so they make better choices. For example, if they’re unsure of their major, suggest they begin at a more affordable, local community college to take their required courses prior to applying to a major university to finish their degree.

Find more local resources for paying for college at

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