How to help a student get into college when the parent is against it?
June 11, 2019 10:16 PM   Subscribe

I have a 17 yr old family member who just finished the 11th grade, and l very much want to help with the college admission process. However, her father (who never made it through high school and was once imprisoned) is doing things that directly discourage or interfere in this goal. He apparently tells her she should give up and just join the military, and is also extremely controlling and won't let her take part in any type of extracurriculars. I live across the country from them, and so far all I'm able to do so far is call her (on her parents' phone since they took away her phone) and try to talk to her about her plans. I've also mailed her copies of college materials and books on the subject (her internet access is also restricted). Right now I'm particularly concerned about the fact that she's not able to take part in anything outside of the home, not volunteering, not a job, etc. Are there things you all think she could do that while she's effectively homebound over the summer to improve her chances when she's applying to schools?

I should say that there's a lot of factors at play here, so I mainly just wanted to focus this question on what you think a high school student could do to become more competitive if they are stuck at home for the most part. I don't know the full extent of the abuse she's experiencing (and no doubt that it's abuse), but I'm trying to be a lifeline to her to the extent that I'm able to. I personally have a graduate degree and feel capable of coaching this person as much as possible through the application process, including discussing grades, standardized testing prep, seeking out recommendation letters, drafting/editing application essays, etc., but I feel I'm running into a huge roadblock whenever I bring up any time of extracurriculars. In the past, I've strongly recommended that she take part in school-sponsored clubs but her response tells me that she's also been discouraged from doing that - though maybe there are events that typically take place during school hrs and I should still push on that? She herself has told me she definitely doesn't want to go to into the military, but wants to go to college to become a therapist.

So any ideas about what she could do over the summer or in the fall to make up for the lack of involvement in any out of school activities? And am I wrong to assume that this is a critical part of a student's college application? Especially when, such as in this case, grades and test scores of the student are not exceptionally strong? I've even thought of suggesting she take a gap year off and join the Americorps, but not sure if that's good or bad advice.

This is all compounded by the fact that her family is very poor and neither parent has gone to college. So there are already endless hurdles set up for her. I'm just very frustrated since I'm motivated to help, yet I don't know what to do when one of the parents is so set on restricting her options.
posted by afabulousbeing to Education (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The first thing I think of is writing. Whatever she's doing, or thinking, or feeling, she can write about it. Her experience is an important experience that other people share, and if she can help other people understand it, that could be really helpful. She could potentially publish stories, or essays, too.

Her parents would probably be supportive if she got a paying job of some kind. If she can get out in front of that (or in front of their deciding that she "has to" get a job), maybe she can either find one that's related to her interests, or at least find a good enough one -- and then maybe write about that. Even if she's working at a fast food place (as I did in high school, briefly), I'd really find that interesting to read about, honestly.

She can also expand and also focus her interests by just letting herself explore, if she has internet access. If her house is like mine was, she probably doesn't have a computer all to herself -- but just in case she does, make sure she knows how to explore ideas on the net, rather than just following people.
posted by amtho at 10:34 PM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

She might be able to explore some job opportunities that will give her access to college educated mentors.
I was thinking maybe a job in a library or social service agency?
While in high school I volunteered and worked at a child abuse prevention agency that was in our neighborhood. Meeting and working with the therapists, volunteer coordinator, and other college educated women was very encouraging for me and my friends.

This will be a hard road, she will need to learn how to find resources and may need to be independent sooner than her peers. Keep in touch with her even if she can't openly discuss her plans and dreams at this point.
posted by calgirl at 10:54 PM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Would it be possible for her to start taking some community college classes? Many are offered online over the summer, even.

Most community colleges have transfer agreements set up with the 4-year colleges in their vicinity, meaning that if you meet the credit/grade requirements, you can transfer to that 4-year institution to finish your degree.

Her high school might have some kind of reciprocal agreement with a local community college as well. Definitely something to look into.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 11:04 PM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Honestly? Help her file for emancipation (before she turns 18), because otherwise, she's going to have one hell of a time getting any financial aid to go to school before she is 24, married, has a child, or one of the couple other things that make her an independent, rather then dependent, student. All he has to do to make it almost impossible is refuse to fill out the financial aid form. (It is possible, but very, very, VERY difficult to get a school to allow a non-emancipated 18-23 year old to be considered an independent student. Emancipation is significantly easier.)
posted by stormyteal at 11:29 PM on June 11, 2019 [68 favorites]

There's so much she can do online. She can start fundraisers online, or do online volunteer work for charities. She can livestream or start a YouTube channel or other social media activities (it takes work - market research, data analytics, strategy etc - to build a significant following or audience for a cause/channel online). She can start an online business. She can work online/remote jobs. She can volunteer in online communities that support mental health (esp if she wants to eventually become a therapist).

What are her interests? Especially these days, colleges don't necessarily prioritize applicants that strictly do "IRL" stuff - I think that an applicant who demonstrates the ability to start/oversee/commit to significant online projects/endeavors also has a strong portfolio of extracurriculars.
posted by aielen at 2:01 AM on June 12, 2019

"And am I wrong to assume that this is a critical part of a student's college application?"

It depends. For colleges with competitive admissions, yes, extracurriculars are important. But not all colleges are competitive. There are plenty of four-year colleges with acceptance rates over 80%, and quite a few with rates approaching 100%. As an added bonus, these schools often charge less for tuition and have experience with (sometimes even formal programs for) kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:43 AM on June 12, 2019 [15 favorites]

Best answer: From reading your post, I am left with the impression that some of us are glossing over the fact that this young woman is effectively confined to her home with limited internet access.

What are her SAT scores like? She can retake it in the fall of her senior year, and if she has no extra curricular activities, this is going to be the only thing she can really work on. Shipping her SAT prep and practice books would be useful.

The financial aid forms are going to be a massive barrier -- you have to assume her father will not fill them out. Emancipation generally requires the minor to be financially self-supporting, which she is not., though you should obviously look up the laws in her state.

When does she turn 18? Can she leave at that point and finish highschool living with you? That would at least allow her to go to community college for 2 years while everyone figures out what to do next.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:58 AM on June 12, 2019 [15 favorites]

Emancipation sounds like a good idea. Working and earning credits at community college would be a good plan after high school. It will give her some independence and there are plenty of clubs and extracurriculars at CC. When she’s ready to apply to a 4 year school in a couple of years, admissions will be looking more at her CC record than high school (some don’t even look at high school at that point)
posted by horizons at 4:13 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nthing the warning that the abuse needs to be documented (and acted on) before she turns 18 or she will be SOL for financial aid until she turns 24.

I think at this point, the goal might be find activities that would get her out of the family home.

Is there a religious community she is a part of? If so, perhaps there is an opportunity to get involved there.

Also, “if” your family member is “going to” join the military, then she needs to prepare herself physically. Ideally your family member will be able to convince dad that she needs to leave the house to run/ go to the gym, but at minimum she can do body weight excercises while at home. (Planet fitness/ the Y have free or low cost options for teens over the summer).

Also participating in a sport/ junior ROTC during the school year is another way for her “to prepare” for the military’s physical requirements.
posted by oceano at 4:29 AM on June 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Can you offer to have her live with you for the summer with the promise of a job lined up? Then you can work on emancipation, because as others have noted, if she goes to post-secondary school she has to pay for it by getting her parent's permission to apply for financial aide. Even with the maximum finical aide it is VERY hard to go to college/university when you do not have family money supporting you. If she can't live with you can, she get a job as a live-in camp counsellor for the summer? That gives her freedom from her parents, and you could provide a phone with internet access.

It is good that you want to help her, but with her parent's being so controlling (from the best of intentions because they are "older" and "have more life experience"), and now you telling her what to do (again from the best of intentions) her own voice and self-empowerment is getting drowned out. She may need a year or two after graduating high school to flounder a bit and get her sea legs - and that is ok! Lots of people are late to starting post-secondary and go on to have successful careers/lives.
posted by saucysault at 4:32 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

kevinbelt: "But not all colleges are competitive."

Yes, I was going to say she should be setting her sights on a regional comprehensive university. The faculty who teach at these types of institutions have similar qualifications to your big-name schools, many offer great internship and co-op opportunities, and unless your relative is in CA, FL, or AZ, they are likely experiencing enrollment declines and would be thrilled to have a committed, motivated young woman like her. If you're curious about what kind of SAT/ACT is typical at some of her possible destinations, you can poke around national data on the DoE's College Navigator.
posted by capricorn at 5:10 AM on June 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

The military is actually an excellent way to get out from under your family's thumb (and get money for college). Does her school offer ROTC/cadets?
posted by Mistress at 5:28 AM on June 12, 2019 [8 favorites]

Does she have a guidance counselor at her high school? That is a person who is devoted to helping students further their educations, and can connect her with other resources to explore such things as emancipation. The counselor can also help her explore financial options, including scholarships, and explain the enormous potential trap of college loans, especially if she focuses on con-competitive colleges that practically guarantee admission. If she's a good student why would she do that?

She might actually need to separate herself a little more gradually, such as getting a job and saving money so that she has more autonomy from her controlling parents. She can perhaps take classes at a low-cost community college, where there are also wonderful guidance counselors dedicated to expanding the horizons of low-income students who often rise above the narrow expectations of their families. Community colleges are full of first-generation college students and are familiar with common impediments to completion. If she commits to full-time college on loans and doesn't complete her degree, she will be left with huge debt and no degree, a disaster! There is more than one path to higher education, and transferring to a four-year college is more common than you might think.

You can perhaps best help her by being dependably supportive, whatever she sees as her pathway. To many people higher education right after high school is obviously the best choice - but people are complicated and sometimes need to negotiate big life decisions in ways that make sense to them in their own situations. She probably loves her parents and sees them as flawed and limited, but not malicious. You can be that outside cheerleader, who most of us needed as teenagers (and adults), providing love and advice, and strategic financial assistance if you are able. I applaud your instinct to help her see that college is possible for herself, but caution that disappointing you if she feels she can't make that leap might damage your important relationship with her. I urge you to listen more than push.
posted by citygirl at 5:47 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

She should get a paying job that gets her outside the house and gives her her own money. It doesn’t need to be something prestigious—a retail or restaurant job is fine.

I think the best things you can do to help (other than doing anything you can to keep her safe and encourage her to apply) is help her work on a personal essay for her applications that gives detail about the adversity she’s overcoming in applying. You could also try to make sure she develops a relationship with the college counselor or guidance counselor at her school, if there is one, and a connection with a teacher who gets her and can write a strong recommendation for her.
posted by sallybrown at 6:06 AM on June 12, 2019

Best answer: Something else to keep in mind, as you're formulating a plan, is the possibility of transferring later. It's true she may decide she wants a fancier, more specialized, or more competitive school, or one with a different student culture, or etc. But rather than preparing for those things now, she can spend her first year or two of college preparing to transfer someplace that offers them. That will free her up now to focus on emancipation, which (as other folks are pointing out) will get her financial aid, which will help get her out from under her father's roof as quickly as possible.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:37 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm confused about all of this advice about her getting a job. The OP has said that this young woman is not permitted to get a job by her parents.

I agree that her high school guidance counselor is (or should be!) her best resource for navigating how to get a college education without her parents' support or permission. Can she put you in touch with her guidance counselor, so that the school knows that there is another adult in her life who is encouraging her?
posted by desuetude at 7:15 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

If she has a phone, crisis hotline volunteer work might be something that could translate to a uni application for an aspiring therapist. It would at least demonstrate her ability to work with people if she's not permitted to in person. She would need parental permission as a minor however she could get references from teachers at school.

Americorps might be a good suggestion, although keep in mind extracurriculars go on that application too. Also given her father's attitude of "give up" and "just join" the military it's very possible her disinterest is based on an extremely misleading image of what that might entail.
posted by ToddBurson at 7:46 AM on June 12, 2019

It sounds like, from other posters wiser in these matters than I am, that extracurriculars can be ignored if she focuses on the right schools for her/community college. (CC is generally pretty inexpensive -- when she turns 18/graduates, will she be able to just walk out of the house, get a job, and eventually use some of the money from that to enroll in CC?)

I want to flag up that her school may not have guidance counselors, or if they do, they may have a ratio of like 1:500 students or something similarly insane. Plan on her having no local, in-person support, I guess is what I'm saying, and try to get her materials to fill that role.

Do her parents allow her any privacy at all? It's not an extracurricular, but she's having a hard time of it, and if she's so inclined/has the ability to keep it private, I'd encouraging writing/journaling. This can become the basis for part of her application/personal statement and also just give her a creative outlet/literally anything to do right now. My only hesitance is if she wrote stuff down and her father found it, I cannot see that ending well.
posted by kalimac at 8:29 AM on June 12, 2019

Practically speaking, if her family is this poor and also against her plans, she is going to need money for application and test fees, too. Can you offer to pay those fees directly somehow? Most of them are online now, I'd assume. Has she taken the SAT yet?

If she can identify a few schools she might be interested in, you can help her talk with the financial aid folks about what to do if she falls in the gray area between "might not have all the info necessary to file for emancipation" and "....but my parents still won't give me FAFSA info"
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:56 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

1) First priority: increase standardized test scores.
2) Develop plan for improving grades. Are they meh because she's not invested, doesn't do homework, has learning difficulties?
3) Speak to guidance counselor about fee waivers. Many application and testing fees can be waived if a guidance counselor says there's economic hardship.
4) Identify schools she could reasonably attend based on her grades and her parents' possible unwillingness to help. (If you can figure out if they're willing to contribute, you should.) Are they low enough income so she would likely get enough funding to go to a state school with only subsidized loans? (There are financial aid calculators online if you have any idea of their incomes.) Will they allow her to live at home while she attends community college? Are any other relatives willing to let her live with them while she attends school?
posted by metasarah at 9:35 AM on June 12, 2019

Best answer: I actually know a young woman who was in a very similar situation w minor variants: her parents were divorced, her Mom was pro-college, her father (who had custody) was vehemently anti-college. I don’t personally know all of the details, but essentially it went

1. Emancipation
2. College via a ROTC program.

She recently graduated and I don’t know what her next steps will be, but she’s very happy.

I should note that the young woman was *highly* motivated to go the college route, and received a *lot* of support (emotional and other) from her Mom, her friends - including her steady boyfriend of many years, who attended college alongside her - and people at her high school (where she was a star student). I guess I’m trying to say that Emancipation was part of it - but her support network, her intelligence, and her personal motivation were large factors in her success.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:09 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

I want to chime in about the emancipation thing from a financial aid perspective. Back in my day, my closest friend was accepted to a good school with a decent scholarship. Her parents refused to fill out the FAFSA because "we probably won't get anything anyway" and "we didn't go to college and we turned out just fine." Long story short, she couldn't get financial aid and wasn't able to go, so it's something to seriously consider.
posted by thejanna at 11:47 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wrote my earlier post in a hurry between waking up and getting in the shower, so I'd like to add more.

By no means do I wish to downplay what your family member is going through; it certainly sounds like an abusive situation that she'd do well to escape. However, I do want to try to see things from the father's perspective, in the hopes of "getting to yes", as the title of the book says. Basically, is there a way to overcome his objections?

I think there is. I don't know what his deal is, but I've known people in similar situations and there are usually a couple of factors at play:

A) He could be worried that, given her unspectacular grades and test scores, that she wouldn't get in, and he's trying to protect her from humiliation. I've known a lot of people, especially from low-SES backgrounds, who think it's better to just not try than to try and fail.

B) He's concerned that, even if she is admitted, that the family won't be able to cover the costs. Again, better to not try than to try and fail.

C) He thinks that, if she goes to college and moves up the ladder, she'll be ashamed of her family of origin and lose contact.

D) Having never been to college himself, he just doesn't understand the process and so he's ostrich-ing.

A and B are both easily dispelled. Assuming she applies to the right schools, she can show an offer of admission as a fait accompli. He can't argue that she isn't college material if there's an actual college saying, in writing, that she is college material. Likewise, an offer of financial aid is hard proof.

C is trickier, because it's emotional, but it's doable. A lot of the types of schools that have been recommended so far (i.e., regional comprehensive universities, non-selective public schools, or community colleges) are often commuter schools. Assuming there's such a school nearby, she could attend college while still living at home.

D is assuming good faith, which may not be true, but if it is, you can play an important part here. You can be the guide for the family, helping them with everything in addition to their daughter.

I don't know if any of this will work. But I'm an optimist and I believe in the ability of reason to change people's minds, so to me it's worth a try.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:37 PM on June 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

The first thing I think of is writing. Whatever she's doing, or thinking, or feeling, she can write about it. Her experience is an important experience that other people share, and if she can help other people understand it, that could be really helpful.

While this would be a good idea in most cases, I would not encourage it with the level of parental restriction she's encountering and the evidence that it's gotten worse (she had a phone, but they took it away). They could very well read her personal writing and become even more restrictive and abusive.

I would suggest looking at admission requirements for colleges in her state. Lots of colleges go by SAT scores alone. Some states even have open-admission universities, where every high school graduate from that state is admitted (I taught at one, and my bright students there were every bit as good as the brightest students at the much more highly ranked university I taught at). As noted above, community colleges are also a good option.
posted by FencingGal at 1:50 PM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

College life can be pretty harsh without decent financial support and family support. Some students overcome these issues, but they're highly motivated.

Military Enlistment is one way to get an education, but the important thing is researching the options for placement in a role in service with decent transferable skills & educational opportunities, and then negotiating for this at the recruitment office before signing on.
posted by ovvl at 4:13 PM on June 12, 2019

I teach at an open access (no SAT required) 4-year public commuter college. I have had so many students like her and other similar circumstances (foster kids, runaways, "homeschooled" by mentally ill parent, both parents incarcerated/deceased and shuffled around among family members). I'm glad you're looking at for her. We have so many resources aimed at students like her. Help her find a way to a place like ours. She will not be alone.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:30 PM on June 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

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