It’s January, so high school seniors everywhere are finished with college applications and are now just “waiting to hear.” That’s how their parents will phrase it when they bump into friends at the grocery store and church and are asked where Sally or Jack is going to college: “Well, she’s applied to blah blah blah and now we’re just waiting to hear…” Depending on the subtle inflection in the words, there’s hope in them, or exasperation, or desperation, or smugness, or false modesty. When a parent of a high school senior says that one sentence, we are just waiting to hear, so much more is conveyed. There’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but she got Cs and Ds in high school and there were those two incidents with the police so it’s not looking good,” and there’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but what with the four-point-eleven GPA and the National Merit Scholarship and the charity work and the nuclear reactor she built in the garage, we are confident she’ll get in somewhere.” And everything in between.
When decision time is near, the brag factor is real, especially in an area where having parents with graduate degrees and bulging investment portfolios is as common as having a family pet. The kids aren’t the ones doing the bragging, it’s the parents, and though it is born out of pride in their child’s hard work–and the parents’ surviving it–it catches you off guard, masquerading as chit-chat that sounds like something in a Meg Wolitzer novel. As in, “Cornell is her first choice, but if she doesn’t get in, she may have to settle for Vanderbilt, and we’ve told her life will still go on if you have to go to Vanderbilt…” Or “He got into Stanford, but the scholarships from Duke and Northwestern are so big, one of them might make more sense, you know?”
The brag factor is not only real, it’s strong enough to propel people into decisions so financially unwise, they’re painful to hear about. Parents taking out a second mortgage to pay for Swarthmore, grandparents taking out loans to pay for Amherst, or even students taking on decades of debt to pay for Brown, all because Swarthmore and Amherst and Brown are not only great schools that might give your child a leg up on getting a really good job someday, but because they are all so freaking fun to say when someone asks where your kid is going. Not just fun, but, in some circles, almost necessary to really be a player in the game of smart, sophisticated, suburban parent who shall be taken seriously. At parties or work events, when you are with people who on the short list to become a federal judge, or just sold their third book to Simon and Schuster, or are head of Coronary Care at Hopkins, and someone asks politely where your eighteen year old might go to college, it’s a tough pill to swallow to say a state school or community college.
Besides the “good school” pull, there’s also something we don’t talk about, because it’s overtly snobby and there’s no way to say it without sounding like a character in a British play but we just can’t help it: we parents want our kids surrounded by the right kind of people. They don’t have to be rich, and they don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be smart. And ambitious. Preferably kind, but mainly shiny and polished and going somewhere, and while these type of students exist at any university, they are in abundance at the really good ones, and we’re often willing to pay through the nose for our child to be one of them.
The kids fall into the trap, too; they intuit early and clearly that going somewhere with wow factor in the name automatically imbibes them with a cool sapience they are suddenly ready for, and is a sure defense against anyone thinking they didn’t work their butt off in high school. Four AP classes junior and senior year, two honors with labs and final projects, and that stupid on-level class that might as well have been AP, the teacher was so tough. In their minds, they worked so dang hard, they sure as hell aren’t going to settle for some lame-o state school like a dumb jock. Then what was the point of all that?
Only here’s the rub: the schools with wow factor are getting too expensive, even for the upper, upper middle class, so their smart-as-hell kids are flocking to the state schools that impress with a smaller price tag–the Universities of Virginia and William and Marys–making those schools even harder to get in to. So now students with a four-point-five, memberships in clubs and on teams and glowing letters of recommendation can’t necessarily get into their state schools, at least not the “almost-ivies,” making them wonder why they worked so hard and slept so little in high school. Straight As and being team captain might not be good enough if you didn’t also build a nuclear reactor in the garage, and unless you lost a limb in an accident or a parent in a war, you’d better have a disabled sibling or some charity work in Haiti to write about for your essay. (If you don’t, write about something so mundane it’s barely worth mentioning, like being a redhead or playing Monopoly, and maybe the sheer quotidianness of it will impress them.) Even then, the top-notch state schools might be out of reach.
About a year ago, I visited my alma mater with my daughter for “accepted students day,” walking her around the quad and showing her the English and history department buildings, my old stomping grounds. Unexpectedly, a former professor of mine was sitting in his office, eating cheese and crackers for lunch, so many books and papers surrounding his bow-tied self that he looked like a professor in a movie. He remembered me, congratulating me on life in general and my daughter on getting in. “Honest truth,” he asked her, “Where do you think you’ll go? Is this your first choice?”
“I don’t know,” she said, earnest and blunt as ever. “I didn’t get in my first choice, or where I thought was my first choice. There are pros and cons to everything, and I don’t know exactly what I want, like I think I’m supposed to. So I don’t know what to do.”
My professor smiled at her like a grandfather and chuckled. “You know what? It doesn’t matter,” he said. I felt the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile as he said what no one else had ever said to her said to her, certainly not someone with a PhD and decades of teaching and scholarship.
“Almost any school will give you a good education if you work hard,” he went on. “It just doesn’t matter that much. Pick one because you like the size, or the area, or because you can afford it. Then go enjoy it. Study hard and don’t party too much, make some lasting friendships. Just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.” She laughed, and I swear she seemed a little more care-free the rest of the day.
It would be interesting to take a photograph of a college senior and her parents every day from the day they submit their first application to the day they commit to a university and send in the check, and put those photos together in a time-lapse video showing the whole–dare I say it– journey. I’m not sure pictures would capture it, but if you could film the hope and the uncertainty, the surprise and pain of rejection by a school your child was sure she’d get in, the surprise of acceptance from a school he thought was a stretch, the humbling moment of hearing someone else rejoice over their child’s acceptance to a school your child didn’t get in to, it would be a fascinating movie, but from the distance of a few years, all that drama might ring a bit false, as reality TV usually does.
Like so many events in parenthood, the whole process and decision seems huge at the time, so absolutely critical to your child’s development and identity and future, but years later you can’t help but think, oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal. As long as you love them and listen to them and help them make a wise decision with the tools they’ve been given, it just isn’t that big of a deal. It’s good post-college advice, too: we should all just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.