The college rat race raised deep-seated insecurities in me as a parent.
My youngest child recently made her college decision. I feel relieved that she made a choice, which I believe is good, but after an excruciating process, I still worry.
An Instagram ad popped up earlier showing a slick-talking man pushing his program on how to give your 6th-12th grader an edge so they can get into a “good college” and therefore live a good life. I laughed.
Is it fair to burden our 12-year-olds with worries about college? Is a “good college” the single path to a good life? And what elements are we using to judge what constitutes a “good college?”
I got caught up in the competitiveness of the college admissions process
Can a college be “good enough” and lead to an equally good life as one ranked high on a list? Yet, knowing how ridiculous the college admissions process would be, I got caught up in its competitiveness. Both of my girls are ending up at state schools even though they’re high-achievers and could’ve gotten into more elite schools, and while I’m proud of them and know what they’re capable of, I feel a little embarrassed, if I’m being honest.
I see many of my friends posting about their kids going to Stanford or Princeton or Barnard, or Northwestern, and I wonder if mine will be able to compete. My youngest applied and auditioned for performing arts BFA programs. As incredibly talented as she is, I didn’t have her apply to NYU or Juilliard or Carnegie Mellon as I knew we wouldn’t qualify for need-based aid, didn’t want to rely on the possibility of merit aid and couldn’t justify putting that kind of money toward college rather than funding my retirement.
I didn’t want to saddle myself or my teens with college debt
I knew I didn’t want to saddle my kids with college debt. We did apply to a handful of private schools that we heard might offer merit aid, but even with merit aid, the costs were too high to justify. While I feel as though we made the prudent choice of a state school with tuition exchange with a growing performing arts program, I still feel jealous when I see a post with an NYU acceptance.
As a 50-something divorced mom, I happened to date two different men over the past several years who had coincidentally attended the same prestigious Ivy League college and brought up their college glory days regularly. Neither is particularly successful. They are barely making ends meet.
This isn’t a statement or reflection on the college or the men, but just an observation that as proud as they were of their alma mater, their attendance there didn’t necessarily lead to a life of success and abundance. On the other hand, I attended a state school and had a successful career at a well-known company in a sought-after field.
I tried to make the case to one of these men that an equally good education could be had at any university — that it mattered more how dedicated your kid was to learning and making the most of their college experience and what they did with that education in the end. He scoffed and called me naive as we argued over an expensive bottle of wine that he bought with one of the big fat checks his wealthy parents sent him regularly.
Why are we comparing our uniquely qualified children over the colleges they attend?
I reasoned that I had no idea where most of my successful colleagues even attended college and that we rarely discussed college. On the occasion we did, I was usually surprised to learn that most regarded state schools or smaller or lesser-known colleges. But even as I said, I knew these colleagues aspired to send their kids to fancy schools — they posted photos with the Stanford and Yale sweatshirts.
Again, I had that pit in my stomach — my kids were just as good, if not higher-achieving than theirs. It felt… gross…to think this way, comparing our unique and equally valuable children over which college they attended.
I’ll admit that deep down, a part of me wants to post a photo boasting of my child attending a name-brand school too. I’m ashamed to be getting caught up in this competition. It brings up memories of high school where I — the product of financially struggling parents — wore generic J.C. Penney jeans while my girlfriends wore Guess and Jordache.
Is any college worth an $80,000+ per year price tag when you factor in room and board, books, and expenses? Those peddling their expensive programs promising to get your kid into a “good college” will try to convince you it is. Students are literally killing themselves over getting into top schools. The Varsity Blues college scandal showed just how far people will go to be able to wear a sweatshirt with a prestigious college logo along with their designer bags and shoes. But what are we really going after — an education or a label?
I feel confident that we made the right decision for our family
I feel confident we’ve made the right decision for our family. My kids attend schools where they can get a solid education and make the most of their time there…or not. It’s up to them. When they graduate, they can go on to do great things with their lives…or not.
The outcome can be the same whether they attend a mid-level state school or one of the “best schools” as touted by lists made up (or paid for) based on objectionably questionable criteria. Might some schools — or alumni — initially open more doors than others? Possibly, though, I’ve never recommended a job candidate based on the name of the college they attended. And when an alumnus from my alma mater reaches out, I’m no more apt to recommend them than anyone else unless I know more about them as a person.
After thinking it through, I’m ready to proudly don my daughter’s new state school sweatshirt and break out a bottle of wine — one I bought on my own, with the money I earned from a career I built after graduating from a state school — debt-free and without burdening my parents. And to those whose kids attend those top-listed colleges, congrats to you and your children. I hope we all find the best fit for our kids — institutions where they can stretch their minds, meet their potential, and head off to build fulfilling adult lives.
The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.
More Great Reading:
Does it Matter Where You Go to College? An Interview With Frank Bruni