Alright, there will be no sugar-coating here.
If you want to hear the lowdown about college, keep reading. If you’re going to stay safe and warm in a cocoon of propaganda and feel-good placations, hit the back button and scroll.
I’m the parent of two college students, one about to graduate and one about to finish their second year of school. One of my kids goes to a highly selective, single-digit admissions rate, uber-competitive school. The other goes to a large public state university with an over 75% admittance rate.
While their experiences have been very different in many ways, there have also been countless similarities. We’ve all learned a heck of a lot along the way. Our assumptions have been confirmed in some cases and obliterated in others. We’ve been surprised, disappointed, and caught off guard over the years.
So, I’m boiling down some of my teens’ experiences here for those who have yet to have a child start college, hoping that we might help you navigate your paths more efficiently and smartly. Here’s what we’ve come to accept as the reality of college life today.
Hard truths about college
1. College admissions are only a scary thing if you drink the Kool-Aid.
Somewhere along the way, higher education in our country became just another Big Business. The product happens to be education, which we were taught to think of as altruistic, as our kids gain valuable knowledge and skills to be successful. Shouldn’t it be fair and pleasant, with sunshine and rainbows as smiling students engage in group projects and have deep discussions over coffee? No.
A business thinks first of its bottom line. It tries to drive up demand for its product. It advertises and competes. Fairness and meritocracy are not necessarily a part of the equation. If you buy into the self-inflated reputations and rankings based on certain “expert” opinions, your child may have their heart broken.
We’ve seen the lengths that some parents will go to get their kids into the “right” schools. Be an educated and realistic consumer, and your student will be accepted to schools that are a good fit for them.
(Suggested reading: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni)
2. College is nothing like high school.
It doesn’t matter where your child went — if it was an accelerated program, an IB program, or all AP classes. You may think your kid has been expertly prepared for the rigor and routine of college, but it’s a whole different ballgame. Why? Way more freedom and way less handholding.
Whether your child goes away to school or still lives at home, the day-to-day experience is strikingly different, and in most cases, no one cares that much if they succeed or fail. It’s up to them to recognize when they need assistance, seek it out, and then execute the behavior changes to turn things around.
People will not be bending over backward to push them to excel. Helpful resources are abundant, but only if the student realizes they are necessary and makes an effort. Temptations to slack off and engage in risky behaviors are also more abundant. Self-motivation and self-control are vital.
(Suggested reading: Countdown to College: The Essential Steps to Your Child’s Successful Launch by Monique Rinere)
3. Not all professors are skilled teachers
It doesn’t matter what kind of school your child attends or how much tuition you pay. Like every other profession in the world, some people are fantastic at what they do, and others underperform no matter how long they’ve been doing it.
The “top” schools may give tenure to professors that are great researchers and can keep publishing like nobody’s business, but that does not guarantee they are good at explaining facts or communicating to students in or out of a classroom. Many professors, graduate students, and TAs are lovely people and excellent teachers, but some are not. Buyer beware — you don’t always get what you pay for.
(Suggested reading: Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level by Saundra Yancy McGuire)
4. Diversity — expect it and get comfortable with it.
Over the past several decades, our colleges and universities have made great strides to create campuses full of a rich tapestry of all kinds of students from all walks of life. There’s a good chance your teen came from a primarily homogenous high school. There’s a big chance their college will not be that way.
This may be the first time your teen is faced with the reality that they are way “more” or way “less” than those they live and learn with. Will they try to get to know kids who are very different from them? Diversity can frighten and solidify homogeny or create brilliant understanding and essential connections.
(Suggested reading: Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald)
5. Alternative viewpoints have to be heard.
Along with a diverse student and faculty population come many world views. Your kid should expect these feelings when they go to college: anger, persecution, affirmation, confusion, and cultural incompetence. Their beliefs and truths need to be pushed and prodded and questioned.
There may be a speaker that comes to their campus, or simply a professor or fellow student who speaks out and challenges their religion, political views, or deeply held moral stances. That’s what college is for. Adults need to be able to listen respectfully and engage intelligently. We send kids off to grow and learn and develop critical thinking skills, not to be surrounded by people who are just like them and agree with their beliefs.
(Suggested reading: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt)
It can be a fantastic time of life for students who choose college to be part of their path moving forward after high school. We should help them accept that it will be challenging, eye-opening, and excellent preparation for a job and life.
(Suggested Reading: Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults by Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington)
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