It’s college admissions season.
The stakes are high. The pressure is high. The SAT scores, the GPAs, the volunteering, the FAFSAs, the AP exams, the letters of recommendation, the applications.
The campus visits with their requisite airline tickets or long drives, the application fees, all packed into two final years of high school. Parents of high school kids know this game.
In theory, all college-bound students are following that path, working themselves into nervous breakdowns to turn the B into an A, to pass one more AP exam, to sacrifice friends, sleep, family time, and mental health to be perfect for some faceless college admissions officer or scholarship committee.
The real fear is fear of missing out. College, in this model, is a Big White Cruise Ship, emblazoned with a mascot and school colors. Be a Cougar, a Wildcat, a Duck.
It’s sitting at the harbor. It’s going to start honking its massive horn soon.
You better be on one of these boats or it’s leaving without you.
This model says, you must be a fully functional young adult, capable of all this perfection in the college admissions process at ages 16 through 18 (or have parents who will push and shove you through it), or you will miss this boat called college and your life will be toast. You’ll have a life of underemployment. You’ll be a failure.
And some kids are capable of the college applications process. These are the Hermione Granger kids, the ones with organized, prematurely self-directed brains, the ones who thrive in academics and love the library, who live and die by their index cards, who love Cornell notes and exam schedules and calculators.
The kids who take to this structure and love it, own it, and drive it themselves. And good for them. (Full disclosure: I was one of those kids.)
What about the kids who aren’t baked yet?
The kids who are great at imagination but struggle with schedules? The kids who don’t want to leave home yet? The kids who don’t know what they want to study? The kids who look at a massive pile of debt or years of carefully scrimped family savings and quail under the pressure that all the money entails? The kids who are great at math but still struggle mightily with essay writing, or the other way around? The kids who aren’t willing to sacrifice every minute of down-time for two years?
What about the kids who want the freedom to change their minds, again and again, before committing to a direction that will cost thousands of dollars and impact the rest of their lives? Does every kid have to be Hermione Granger (or be forced to act like her by their well-intentioned parents) to be a successful adult?
What if college isn’t really a Big White Cruise Ship after all?
What if, instead of a cruise ship, college is an airport people-mover? You know, the long belts with handrails that move you down Concourse D toward gates 52 through 65?
You get on. You ride along for a while. Then the belt ends, and you get off. You look at the signs, assess where you are, and get on the next belt. Are you on the right concourse? Do you need to turn around and go back? Did you take a wrong turn? You fix it. There’s a people-mover going the other way too, to the next concourse. Or to Terminal C on the other side of the airport.
According to an article from Inside Higher Ed, 37 percent of college students transfer at least once in six years. And of those transfers, 53 percent go from a four-year school to a community college. Not the other way around.
More than half of the transfer students are ditching the Big White Cruise Ship and getting onto the people-mover.
My son is at community college. My daughter is starting there this coming fall. My son spent his first full academic year majoring in “I Changed My Mind” while he took classes all over the school in about four or five different departments that interested him, before he found his direction. And we didn’t go bankrupt in the process. He rode those people-movers all over the place.
If he’d been on the Big White Cruise Ship of our State U., we would have spent a significant sum of money for the same process, and he likely would have come home in the middle of that first year feeling like a failure.
The Big White Cruise Ship model doesn’t account well for directions tried and then abandoned. Students on those ships get a few wrong turns, sure. But they don’t get many before the mounting cost makes their parents have heart attacks. When every year at State U. (plus dorm fees) is the price of a car, there’s no way that trying this-and-that for a full year—or multiple years—makes any kind of financial sense.
And the program my son found and loves and is thriving in? Aviation Maintenance. It doesn’t exist at the State U., although he still might go there after he finishes his certification and AA degree.
Every time I look at an article titled something like, “Ten Things Your High School Student Must Do Their Junior Year,” I have a mini heart-attack. My daughter (and my son before her) has done almost none of them.
The cruise ship is honking in the harbor and I have a jolt of adrenaline—she’s going to miss it! And then I force myself to breathe. Remember? It’s not a cruise ship. Do those ten things really fit my people-mover daughter and the state she is in right now? Would a better title be, “Ten Things Your Student Must Do Before They Apply To A Four-Year College”? I pause. And I stay on the course that she chose, that her brother chose before her, and I know it will be OK.
They will all get there in the end. The Big White Cruise Ship kids and the people-mover kids. The kids who take a gap year. Who take a year off to work. Who don’t know what they want. Who change their minds, again and again, while they take another year to figure things out.
They will get to adulthood, with the degrees or qualifications they need, and they won’t be doomed to a life of under achievement. Successful, self-supporting adulthood is the end goal for all of them, and they will get there, in their own time.
Tina Sansom Ricks is an editor, writer, mom, and wife in Beaverton, Oregon where she edits law books for a living. She is mom to a high school senior, a community college student, a school-carnival goldfish that has survived since middle school, and a paranoid Labrador.