College Tour Season. Where Should Your Child Go?

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Ohio State. Cornell. Tufts. SUNY New Paltz. RISD. U. of Michigan. Penn State. R.I.T. Madison. Maryland. SUNY Albany. Champaign. Tulane. Burlington, VT. Dartmouth. Temple. UIC. USC. New England Conservatory of Music. From Boston to L.A., upstate New York to New Orleans, our four kids considered enough colleges to keep us on the road for four straight years. I have seen more bright-eyed, backwards-walking student guides than I ever would have imagined possible!

In light of the recent admissions scandals, all those miles and nights at the Hampton Inn and road coffees and bags of potato chips are on my mind. Did we do the right thing giving our kids all these choices? And were they for us or for them?

Oh how times have changed. I visited five colleges as a high school senior. I borrowed my mom’s Chevy Nova for one trip, took a Greyhound bus for another, and may well have hitch-hiked on the last. I stayed on campus in arranged dorm rooms, once with my older brother and once at a frat. You got to interview with an admissions officer. You walked around the place and saw student life, sans parents. You had a hoagie, a grinder or a sub, depending on what region you were visiting. Maybe you had a few beers or smoked a joint with your potential fellow students. Your admission criteria were vastly different than they are today.

As we flinch from the bright glare of some current and really ugly parental behavior, it is hard to have this discussion without a nod to the obvious catchword: privilege. My sibs and I respectively attended Dartmouth, Middlebury and Vassar. Great schools, no doubt. We did our own applications, took out student loans, and paid them off ourselves. There is zero percent chance my parents helped with our essays and as far as I can recall, there was no SAT test prep. I took it twice and my scores sank the second time around. Were we fortunate to attend such fine academic institutions? You bet. But the reason we did was because our parents encouraged us, not forced us. Aside from that gift, they could not have been more hands off.

If you are reading this piece, your child is either a senior with a handful of cherished acceptance emails, or a junior weighing where they might like to go. How are you going to help with this decision? And with the ugly stain of a system gamed – and believe me, the kids know! – what do your children want or need from you?

It would be stating the obvious to suggest that one gigantic step is to turn down the heat. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written eloquently about the lack of correlation between where a child goes and what they accomplish in life. My wife and I drove that message home again and again. I wonder if teenaged children were left to their own devices, would this whole mess be limited to the wealthy few?

Mainly, I would advocate that as much as possible, we need to give high school students more agency over their decisions. Sure, I drove my kids to visit a lot of schools. As a mostly single dad, I raised them on road trips. We had a lot of fun. So it was an opportunity I welcomed. But when the time came for the actual tour, I was the parent in the far back of the group or auditorium, silently watching as they formed their own opinions. We developed a routine after each visit. No talk for at least the next 100 miles enroute to the next stop. It gave the applicant (our beloveds) a chance to think, digest, and decide how they felt. Did that help? You’ll have to ask them. But at least I know they were allowed to make choices, within the limitations of what we could afford, for themselves.

Those days are past for my wife and I, but it was such a gripping time in our lives that we still get caught up in the news, especially since we both consider education the cornerstone for someday reducing the economic inequality that permeates today. Friends with kids just diving into the fray ask me for advice. “You’ve been there four times? Can you help me make a list of schools for my son or daughter?” I’m not so good at that. Here is what I do suggest.

Ask your child first, are you ready to go to college? That may seem a funny question, but not everyone is. Gaming the system to get in is one choice. Taking time out to think about what you want is another.

Then there are a few simple queries that may provide very revealing. How are your grades? Are you happy with your test scores? Do you have any idea what you are interested in? Is there anything about this process that you’d like to talk to us about? This may not put an end to the culture of pressure, but it sure says we are listening, not telling.

That may be easier than it sounds when you are preparing to invest a small fortune, but if I have learned anything from the experience, it is this – it is their future, not ours. Their school, their community, their sense of independence over where they are going to fit in. Aren’t we best letting them decide that for themselves?


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