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Decision Day: College and Cutbacks

by the Staff of the NYU Child Study Center

High school seniors wait in anticipation in April, when final college admission announcements are made. We offer tips to help you and your teen get through this rite of passage.


April is a tense time for college applicants as they wait to hear from their top choices. For high school seniors it seems like the most important turning point of their lives, and indeed it does start them on a particular course for the future. They submitted their applications in the fall of 2009, choosing where to apply and whether to apply for early decision.  Now in the economic climate of 2010 college acceptance decisions present new challenges and considerations.

The impact of the recession

As the impact of the recession deepens, students, parents and college admission officers each have their own concerns. Students may avoid locking in early decision acceptances before April, preferring to wait to hear about possible financial-aid. Parents are reconsidering plans to send their children to colleges whose tuitions they may no longer be able to afford. Many students say they will wait as long as possible before mailing deposits, and college admissions officers say that if the economy continues to slide, they expect a large number of students to try for state schools. Job layoffs, especially in middle-income and professional households and general unease about how far the economy will slide this year are causing apprehensiveness in college officials.

For many students, the sagging economy means they will have to apply for scholarships, take out student loans, work part time, and graduate with loans to pay back. College administrators report a surge in requests by students for information on financial assistance. In addition, they are now getting calls for emergency financial aid from families of current students who never needed it before. Colleges fear they may have to cut back on scholarships to poor and minority students, who add diversity to privileged institutions. Alumni and corporations whose contributions underwrite scholarships and other programs are themselves feeling the pinch of recession.

As economic pressures force top students to attend state universities, those with weaker academic credentials and limited finances will have to settle for openings in second-tier public institutions or community colleges.

Tips to help you and your teen get through this rite of passage

  • Be prepared. Keep realistic expectations in mind. It's fine to have schools that are a "reach" but don't set your heart on these, and don't feel that the "safety" schools are a last resort. All schools have something to offer.
  • Don't confuse your ambitions or past disappointments with those of your child. Although teens can profit from parental advice teens must experience things for themselves.
  • As much as we would all like to imagine otherwise, there is no such thing as a perfect college. There is such a thing as a perfect fit, or a good enough match to make the college experience an enriching and enjoyable one.
  • Have a plan for what will happen based on the outcome of the decisions. Know ahead of time how you and your teen rank order schools, list the pros and cons of each different place.
  • Once you get the news.  To open or not to open. To read the email or not. The old fashioned way of judging the decision by the size and weight of the envelope may no longer hold up. Nevertheless, talk to your child about how the mail delivery issue is to be handled: phone calls home from school and letters read over the phone vs. saving the mail for the teen to open.
  • Elicit your teen's feelings about the decision: elation or dejection or relief that it's over. Be aware that feelings may not be readily apparent or registered right away. Have some gauge of the peer group culture and standards, as well as how tuned in or competitive your child is with friends.
  • If the financial situation of the family has changed since the time of application, explore possible sources of financial aid and other alternatives.
  • Recognize that the move to college represents a milestone in life for both parent and child. Regardless of how close or far away the campus, college signifies a move towards independence and adulthood that should be acknowledged and celebrated.
  • Monitor your own attitude. The manner in which the parents and family handle stress and disappointment and their feelings about higher education will influence how the teen copes with the situation.
  • Realize that you and your child's reactions may be related to a host of other feelings and issues: fears and desires about moving on. "The letter" represents a concrete separation and the fact that there will be a change in the family. Even if the teen remains living at home during the college years, the roles of parent and child no doubt will shift as teens take on new responsibilities.
  • For the child with multiple choices this is a time to consider advantages and disadvantages of each option. You may not want to think about it, but nothing is forever and many students transfer.
  • Take time. Regardless of the decisions, plans become clearer over the course of the next days and weeks and feelings of either joy or sadness become less intense. It takes time to adjust to whatever decision you make as a family regardless of the decisions made by college admissions counselors.

Keep in mind that the college that accepts your kid may be different than your last visit and has probably been trimming costs - hiring freezes, faculty layoffs, program changes, scholarship cuts, dorm renovations. It may be helpful to make a phone call or another trip to get information about possible cutbacks and how your teen will be affected.

For parents the process can seem like a reflection of themselves. However, try to keep the whole college application and selection process in perspective. Above all, remember that acceptance or rejection is not a measure of the child's worth nor does it guarantee eventual success or failure in life.

Breathe a sigh of relief. No matter what, at least the decision is made!