By Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta

Over the last several years, we collected and analyzed more than 200 personal stories and surveys of more than 1,000 students who chose different paths for higher education to understand what was causing them to enroll.

We discovered there are five primary reasons why people attend college:

  1. To Get Into Their Best School
  2. To Do What’s Expected of Them
  3. To Get Away
  4. To Step It Up
  5. To Extend Themselves

Although that sounds simple, each reason contains forces pushing and pulling people that range from functional considerations—for example, if I get another degree, I’ll receive a raise that justifies the cost—to emotional and social considerations.

One way to visualize some differences between the five is to imagine a math major who is:

  • Seeking her best school and saying, “Help me get my math degree from Harvard.”
  • Looking to do what’s expected of her is saying, “My mom said I was good at math, so I am taking it.”
  • Trying to get away and saying, “I’m good enough at math. I’ll major in it to get me out of where I am today.”
  • Aiming to step it up to be a data analyst because it pays much better than her current job, and she sees that majoring in math is a ticket to that role.
  • Looking to extend herself and is interested in math because it will help her better serve her existing clients or because of a deeper curiosity in mathematics. The student is intrinsically interested in the subject.

Just because all of these students said they want to go to college, doesn’t mean parents should treat each of these students the same.

Here is one tip for what a parent should do in each of these circumstances.

1) Get Into My Best School

Help your child relax by throwing out the college rankings lists. It’s a poor way to figure out the right fit for your child.

2) Do What’s Expected of Me

Do not force someone to go to college for its own sake without a sense of excitement, passion, or purpose. Instead help them broaden their options for what they could do next.

3) Get Away

Make sure your child can get away, but that in so doing, that she doesn’t bite off more than she can chew. Whatever your child does next should be short and low cost.

4) Step It Up

As your child struggles to improve her life, don’t help your child avoid that struggle until she has wrestled with the full dimension of it. Instead, the key is to coach her through it.

5) Extend Myself

Give your child permission to go for it. Help her see that she has little to lose and much to gain by getting more education when she’s in this circumstance.

By understanding where their children are, parents can avoid pushing when they should listen, push when their child needs a nudge, and illuminate the right path ahead.

Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta are the coauthors of Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life (September 2019).