Why the College Decision Just Doesn’t Matter

It’s late winter, 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 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 her work with the Junior Peace Corps, we are confident she’ll get in somewhere.” And everything in between.

It really doesn’t matter where our teens go to college; it matters what they do when they get there. (Shutterstock Jacob Lund)

As decision time nears the parental bragging get more intense

When decision time is near, the brag factor is real, especially in areas 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…” 

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.

We want our teens to go to school with the “right people”

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 known for high acceptance rates, 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

Teens fall into the trap of feeling like they need to go to a ‘good’ school to succeed

The teens 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 dual-enrollments, 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?

About a year ago, I visited my alma mater with my daughter for “accepted students day,” walking her around the quad, showing her 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. 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, certainly not someone with a PhD and decades of teaching and scholarship.

My daughter got great advice from a college professor

“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.

Like so many events in parenthood, the whole college decision process seems huge at the time, and absolutely critical to your child’s development, identity and future. The way learning to read “on time” did when they were in kindergarten. Years later you can’t help but laugh, because it just wasn’t that big of a deal. It all worked out.

To put it in their vernacular, it’s not that deep. 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 big of a deal.

It’s good post-college advice, too: we should all just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.

More Great Reading:

New Study on College Rankings: It’s Not Where You Go To School It’s What You Do When You Get There

About Paige Johnson

Paige Johnson is a teacher, writer, and professional singer in the DC area. Most importantly, she is a mom to four young adults who are picking colleges and sometimes attending them, getting their first jobs, and coming back home to do laundry. Paige lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and whichever kids are home that week, and teaches high school English and Creative Writing.

Read more posts by Paige

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