Long Drive. Short Flight.

I help students identify colleges that “fit” them academically, socially and personally. I make sure each of my students enters his or her senior year of high school armed with a list of potential colleges. Criteria explored and considered include academic rigor, available activities, campus vibe, possible majors, climate, availability of academic assistance, campus size, class size, cost, religion, political climate and more. Before I get started on my extensive research to find a school that has, say, rock climbing, the ability to join music groups without being a music major, liberal, but not too liberal students and the possibility of double majoring in engineering and fine art, I always have to ask, “How far from home do you want to be?” The answers I receive from students often reveal the high level of anxiety parents have in regards to their children attending a college far from home.

“My parents and I have agreed to no more than a half a day’s drive.” (Is that 3 hours or 6?)

“My dad wants to be able to get to me quick in case of an emergency.” (Always call 911 before calling your parents.)

“My mom feels more comfortable if there is at least a family member nearby.” (Are we talking grandma or a third cousin twice removed?)

“I want to be able to come home for all holidays.” (You will.)

“My parents said it is up to me, but I sense they want me to be close to home.” (Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.)

I completely understand. Allowing your child to become independent can be scary and even a cause for panic. But, you have so much practice with this! Remember when they were two and you let them walk without holding your hand? And then they were five and you watched the red tights or the blue backpack march up those school bus steps for the first time. At six, YOU were the one who took the training wheels off the bike and jogged beside them, holding the seat. And then…you let go. Fast forward ten years and you even gave them the keys to your car. And now you are sending them off to college, as an adult who still needs you but not in the same, physically present, way they do as a high school student living at home. 

Distance, perhaps jarring in the short term, becomes much less relevant to the relationship between parent and child. College students need their parents to act as supportive cheerleaders who they can count on to be at the other end of the phone or text, showing interest and concern and offering wisdom and advice.

I hear you protesting: But my kid isn’t used to being away from home! He will be homesick! She will miss the dog! Yes, going away to college is an adjustment and this will be true whether they are two hours from home by car or 4 hours by plane. Generation Z lives in a digital world. Kids are connected all the time. They will be in constant communication with their friends from high school. And they will also stay connected with you because you are their mom or their dad and they need you. They can even Facetime with the dog!

So, why should you consider schools farther than half a day’s drive from your house? BECAUSE IT IS EASIER TO GET IN! College admissions counselors are responsible for building a diverse freshman class. This means that they want kids from all 50 states. So, if you are from Pennsylvania, all things being equal, you are more likely to be accepted at a college in Minnesota than close to home because fewer students from Pennsylvania apply to colleges in Minnesota. 

And then there is the cultural aspect: Being farther away from home will give students a broader world view because they will meet people from other places, with backgrounds and points of reference that differ from their own. They will have new experiences and graduate from college with new interests, an expanded comfort zone, a greater tolerance for the differences in people, and perhaps a better and stronger appreciation of home. 

Finally, there is everything to be said for sending the message to your children that you trust them to be on their own, you value and respect their independence, and you believe that they are capable of making their own decisions and managing their own life.

So, when setting up the “guardrails” around your student’s college search, I hope you will consider that a short flight, rather than a long drive could result in your child finding the college match of his or her dreams.

Michelle McAnaney is the founder of  The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She recently completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.