Giving it the old college try

The grass is cut low so you can see the dew glisten on the ground. The flower beds look immaculately cut and mulched. There isn’t a piece of liter on the ground. The campus looks friendly and inviting. 

We have been on a seemingly endless college tour since the summer. My son is a senior in high school and has been researching colleges he would like to attend next fall and where he’ll hopefully spend his next four years.

My wife and I have gone through this process three times now with each one of our kids. The visits and open houses are all different, but very much the same. I know the process so well that I can give a college tour in my sleep. They generally start out with a welcome and introduction, maybe a stop or two at a state-of-the-art, high-tech classroom or lab and then a fly-though of a dorm. There’s little talk of parties or poor grades. The tour guides fit in lots of discussion about majors and self improvement and find a way to fit in an “if I can do it, you can do it too” pep talk. They usually have three simple goals:

  • They want you to feel at home.
  • They want you to feel special.
  • They want your money. 

Oh, they don’t come out and make the pitch about cold, hard cash, but whether it’s Biff, the admissions counselor in his monogrammed shirt and khaki pants at Private U, or Joey, the part-time admissions guide in his State U sweatshirt and shorts, the unspoken message is the same: bring your $$$ here. 

Getting the ball rolling

Thanks to Covid, most kids my son’s age didn’t have much of a chance to visit schools last year. A few schools allowed tour visitors, but many were closed. To top it off, our son has been going back-and-forth on majors. He worries about what he wants to do with the rest of his life. (I suspect this isn’t the best time for me to tell him that I’m adult and I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up either. Whenever I start to tell him, my wife shushes me and tells me to act my age! Lol.)

Fortunately, our son visited a few schools early in the summer and in narrowing down his list of what he wanted and didn’t want from college, his thought process about a future career started to become clearer. Yes, he wanted a school with a strong academic reputation and a larger student population, no he did not want to attend a smaller school where he would have the chance stand out or commute. (And for my close friends, he decided he didn’t want to go to my alma mater. What an atrocity! How dare him!)

As my son got more serious about the process, it’s been interesting to watch the colleges and universities and how they try to separate themselves. Some schools use recent grads or smooth talking admissions professionals to welcome prospective students, others let their current students do the talking, but the end of the day, they’re all trying to outshine the other:

  • “Come here.”
  • “No come here. We’ll give you X.”
  • “No, no, come here, we’ll give you X, Y, and Z.”

An emotional experience

I make fun of Higher Education, but I must admit that I feel sad to see the game come to an end, because it means that my kids are adults. And by the way, it’s very much a game. My daughter earned her acceptance into one very exclusive school. Even after her original acceptance letter, they continued to woo her with glossy brochures and calls telling her that they couldn’t wait to see her on campus.

We thought things were promising, but apparently not enough to reduce their pricey tuition figure.

When I had the audacity to ask about the price tag, the admissions counselor ignored my question. When I had the bad manners to continue to press my case and ask where the tuition dollars actually went and whether my daughter might warrant merit- or need-based aid, the counselor told me that they liked what my daughter would bring to the college, but not that much, and that would be the end of the discussion.

The choice was my daughter’s, but when I passed along the comments, she had no qualms accepting her admissions to another school and never thought twice about the decision. I value my own college education, it changed my life and has allowed me to do things that I could never have imagined. However, the cost of college has gotten out of hand and out to the reach of most average folks and that’s not right. (Yes, it’s a column for another day.)

Nearing the end. 

In any event, we see the end coming. My son has applied to a number of schools and has already heard back from a few of them and hopes to hear back from a few others. He broke his applications into three groups: one pile to strong universities where he should easily earn admission and the cost would be lower; a middle pile of his favorites, where again his prospects look strong; and a final pile of bigger named schools with strong academic reputations and where he might have a tougher time earning acceptance. He’s got his fingers crossed.

We keep reminding him to consider all the factors in his decision: cost, location, size, academic reputation, and advising and support to name a few. My best advice has been to try to find a school, no matter the size and reputation, that cares about him, that wants him to be a part of their school. It’s simple customer service: go where you’re most wanted.

While I wait, I’m trying to prepare myself for the future: cringing when the bill comes, figuring out how to pay for everything, and dealing with drop-off day. The changes will most certainly be big ones. I’ve pitched the idea to my son a few times that he should consider staying home and commuting to school. He gives me a smile and tries to let me down easy. Each time, I curse myself for having encouraged him at a young age to think for himself. Why can’t he just do what I say? I guess those days are behind me.

In any event, when he finally heads off to college, I’ll have to learn again that, yes, indeed, life does go on!

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