Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

The Unintended Parent-Child Disconnect

CJ Westerberg, May 21, 2011 10:56 AM


"The real value of college isn't in teaching what is known;
it is in preparing students for the unknown.
- Joseph Ganem

The Expectations Trap
College Choices:  The Unintended Parent-Student Disconnect

By Joseph Ganem, Ph.D.

Each September a new class of freshmen enter college to begin studies toward their degrees. As the students navigate the bewildering array of choices for majors, minors, special programs, and studies abroad, a predictable tension develops between interests perceived needs. Anxiety over making the right choices is often exacerbated by the expectations of parents and family members. Student interests and aptitudes are often not aligned with parental expectations for their programs of study.

College is an enormous investment of time and money. Parents, who usually foot most of the bill, understandably want a tangible return on the investment. From the parental viewpoint, a minimally acceptable return is a child who becomes an independent adult with a stable, career-oriented, well-paying job with benefits. To this end, some majors are deemed more "practical" than others. Parents subtly or not so subtly, guide their children towards programs of study in engineering, business, pre-law, or pre-med, while discouraging aspirations to study philosophy, history, or art. The reasoning is that few people make a living as philosophers, historians, or artists, and those that do often struggle.

But this reasoning is often misguided because it ignores certain realities. First, college is not a job-training program, nor is it ever possible for college to be a job-training program. The number of different kinds of jobs available is simply too large for colleges to ever hope to teach. Worse, the number of future jobs, yet to be imagined, is even larger. For example, when I went to college the World Wide Web and the multitude jobs it would require - Webmaster, Java programmer, blogger, etc. - did not exist. History will not stop. Yet to be imagined industries will exist 30 years from now offering jobs that workers will need to perform.

Second, employers expect to train people on the job. They want people with a demonstrated ability to learn, and good grades are the best way to demonstrate that ability. Good grades imply a commitment to excellence, a trait employers highly value. A degree with bad grades in a "practical" subject is useless. Stated aspirations to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer will not be taken seriously if a student's grades are poor.

"Student interests and aptitudes are often not aligned with parental expectations for their programs of study."

It is for these reasons that parents, and students, need to be realistic about expectations. Grades will be much better in a major that the student enjoys. A few years ago, a student who I advised, entered his third year of college as a biology major. In my advising session with him, I examined his record and noted that he had not passed a single science course. He had either failed, or withdrawn before failing, the first semester courses in biology and chemistry three times each. He still needed to fulfill the one-course distribution requirement for science. I told him that even if he passed the first semester of biology, he would need a dozen additional courses for the biology degree, and they would not be easier courses. I asked him what he most enjoyed studying and his response was theater.

"Major in theater," I told him.
"But that's not a practical major," he replied.
"It's not practical for you to fail all these science courses. It's better that you have a theater degree with decent grades than no degree and a slew of Fs on your transcript."

He admitted that he hadn't thought about his choice of major in that way. He switched his major to theater and graduated a couple years later.

This particular student was an extreme case. However, I've seen many students in majors for which they have no real interest or aptitude, but their parents refuse to fund their college education unless they study something "practical." These expectations lead to students just getting by in the major of the parents' choice, when they could be excelling in a major of the student's choice. As a result, there are students enrolled in engineering programs even though they cannot do the math and have no interest in building anything. There are students muddling through business degrees who would be much better served in the long run with a liberal arts degree. It is actually more practical to have good grades in history major than bad grades in a business or engineering major. Good grades in a history major means that you can write and critically analyze, which are skills that employers value.

But, expectations sabotage students in other ways.

I've seen students who are not mature enough to be in college, but go because it is the expected next step after high school. The result is that they are wasting their time and their parents' money. Partying all night and sleeping all day can be done at a much lower cost at home than in college, and the results achieved will be the same.

I've seen exceptionally smart students who should become scientists, but their parents expect them to become medical doctors because of the prestige it will bring to the family. The result is that if you ask these students why they are so passionate about medicine, that they intend to devote their life to its practice, they can only express a nebulous desire to "help people." Of course, I can think of many professions that "help people" and are unrelated to medicine. If you intend to become a medical doctor you should have a real interest in medicine.

I've seen students juggle the demands of double and even triple majors so that they can pursue their interests and satisfy family expectations. The result is a great deal of stress from pursuing credentials that have little meaning in the long run. Employers care more that you have a degree than all the majors and minors that you acquired along the way.

Perhaps the most important advice I received in school was from my doctoral thesis advisor, Dick Norberg, on the day I left. I had completed and defended my doctoral thesis, finished up with the movers, and packed my car for the drive to my new city and job. I stopped at his office to thank him and say goodbye. His parting words were:

"Whatever you do in life, do what you enjoy. Don't do what others expect. Your wife, your parents, your children, your friends, your co-workers, will all have expectations. Don't give into them. Do what you most enjoy."

As time has gone on, my appreciation of this advice has grown. Giving into expectations is a trap. Parents need to let go. Students need to accept that no matter what they study the future will always be uncertain. The real value of college isn't in teaching what is known; it is in preparing students for the unknown.


Originally published The Daily Riff September 2010

Joseph Ganem, Ph.D., (website JosephGanem), is a professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland, and author of the award-winning book on personal finance: The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy. It shows how numbers fool consumers when they make financial decisions.
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