In just a few weeks my husband and I will send the second of our four children off to college. My daughter has spent the better part of the last two years making sure her resume includes a wide variety of activities, volunteer experience, and applicable courses. Together she and I have spent countless hours on everything from college visits to filling out scholarship forms to shopping for dorm supplies.
It has been challenging, fun, and exhausting. As we near the end of our college preparations for Child Two and begin the process for Child Three, I can’t help but compare my experience as a parent of a college-bound child with that of my own parents.
In fact, to be honest, I sometimes fantasize about being a mom in 1987… If this were 1987 things would be vastly different for me and my daughter.
How my daughter would be applying to college if this was the 1980s
For starters, my daughter would not have spent three weeks of the summer before her junior year, in an ACT prep class. Instead she would have had a job as a lifeguard (no SPF required) or a babysitter or working at an ice-cream shop—something fun that had little or nothing to do with her future plans. In fact, she probably doesn’t even know what her future plans are because she’s just 17, and a lot of people don’t even pick a major until their junior year of college.
Because she would not be spending the summer at volleyball practice or band practice or collecting all those volunteer hours so crucial to a college resume, she would spend her ample free time watching Days of Our Lives or just riding around with her friends listening to the latest Bon Jovi cassette.
She would not have any summer reading assignments for upcoming AP classes. Instead, her biggest concern would be waiting three days to go swimming after getting her hair permed.
Sometime near the end of her junior year or the beginning of her senior year, she would sign up to take the ACT. Even without the three-week boot camp, it’s likely she’d score the 23 necessary to get a full tuition scholarship to our state university. If not, her dad and I could probably scrape together the $1000 it would cost us to send her there each semester. After all, it’s the 80’s—banks are paying ten percent interest!
During her senior year, there would be no road trips or costly flights to find just the right college. She would simply go to The University—like every other member of our family. She would not spend hours painstakingly crafting scholarship essay after scholarship essay or studying for AP exams. Instead she would fill out an application, pick a dorm, and coast until August.
For her graduation, we would not host an elaborate party. Rather, she and her friends would have a bonfire by the river or in a cow pasture. Later that week our family would all go to Chi Chi’s for dinner. She would be allowed to order a margarita even though she’s just 18; after all, she is with her parents.
Her father and I would then present her with her graduation gift—either a strand of real pearls or a new boom box with a dual cushion eject cassette player (for making mix tapes). She would be thrilled.
Later that summer she would spend a night at The University and attend her college orientation. Her dad and I would not go to orientation because we are parents and we are not attending college so there is no need for us to be oriented.
The next day when I pick her up, we would swing by the mall and pick out a new twin comforter for her dorm room. I’ll admit, I’d probably get all caught up in the moment and spring for the Laura Ashley set with matching throw pillows and bed skirt.
On move-in day her dad and I would follow her to The University. We wouldn’t really need to go. After all, all she has are her clothes, her comforter, her electric typewriter, and her giant teddy bear. But we would go anyway because it would make us feel better to see her get settled in.
Of course she would not yet have met her roommate, although they’ve exchanged a few letters. We would be relieved to see that that they hit it off right away. Both of them have brought a Nagel print poster, and they are both really into this obscure band called R.E.M. How totally awesome is that?
It’s 1987 and there’s no air conditioning in the dorm, so the windows stay wide open. Thankfully, our daughter’s roommate has brought a fan. And they’re both pretty lucky because the bathroom on their floor has six showers for 32 girls!
Before we leave, we would go down the hall with our daughter, her roommate and her roommate’s parents to check out the TV room. The girls would be happy to find out that boys are allowed in there—but only until midnight. They would begin planning a watch party for the season premier of Moonlighting.
We also make sure she knows that the phone is at the other end of the hall and we remind her that we expect her to call collect once a week. During the year she phones us faithfully every Sunday night, and we even get a few letters in the mail! The University mails us her grades at the end of each semester.
She has a great first year! When she finishes her last final, she loads everything in the back of her Honda Prelude and heads home for the summer.
That is how it all would have gone down in 1987. There is no question that my mom had it easier thirty years ago. Helping me prepare for college consisted of mailing my application and a trip to the mall. In 2021 we parents help our kids research schools, visit campuses, research scholarships, proofread essays and fill out stacks of forms.
Once our kids choose a school, there are yet more forms to fill out and in addition to the student orientation, there is a parent orientation. We make sure our kids have the right computer, the right software, the right meal plan, and everything they could need or want for dorm life. Sometimes helping a child get ready for college feels like a part-time job.
Of course there is one huge perk of having a child in college in 2021, we don’t have to wait for that Sunday night collect phone call to stay connected.
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