The College Countdown

This past weekend, my morning reading brought me to a blog post on the New York Times, written by a high school senior, Michael Campbell, about his college search process. As he counts down to receiving decision letters, everywhere he goes he is asked “Where are you going to college?”

And of course, it’s too soon to know.

Accepting Rejection, Celebrating a Win

My son’s first letter was a rejection, and ironically, one of his only safety schools. It was a rough blow, and cause for concern. But days later, there were three more notifications – all acceptance letters with scholarship. And one, a fantastic school he would love to attend. As for the rest of the decisions? They’re due on Friday. You got it – April Fool’s Day.

And like Michael Campbell, my son has been deflecting the “where are you going” questions, putting on a positive face, and I imagine, secretly anxious. As you would be. As I have been.

As any parent would be, don’t you think?

Frankly, it’s been a hell of a year. Married or single, parenting an older teen has its special headaches, including getting them through the pre-college labyrinth – emotionally, physically, logistically, and financially. And speaking of financially, care to hear our price tag for applications, required portfolios, and aid-related processes?

Somewhere in the vicinity of $1500. And that doesn’t count college visits, which we weren’t able to afford.

Pressures on Kids, Pressures on Parents

Who doesn’t worry about too much pressure on their kids? Yet what parent doesn’t want their child to have a shot at his dreams?

For many, that means college and possibly graduate school. It means the college that suits them best, perhaps a “great” college, and it requires  instilling discipline and focus, cheering on their efforts when fatigue wears them down, and of course – shoring up the family finances.

Then again, in recessionary times, who has money left in a college fund?

My own financial reality has included extended unemployment (during which I continued to “work,” but without pay), and more disheartening still, the fact that support agreements are all but unenforceable in certain circumstances. We can rail against that fact or cover our eyes, we can hope some day to set the record straight (as we see it), we can fight that insidious injustice – and still be defeated.

Yes – it’s more pressure on kids, and on the remaining parent.

Parental Preparation, Parenting Style

I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent or a cockpit parent, but I am an “engaged” parent, allowing my older son enormous freedoms (he earned them), and monitoring my younger more closely (he’s been a very different experience).

But as the only parent present for 10 years, I’ve done everything to encourage their dreams and facilitate their opportunities. And yes, there has been a cost. But I’d do it all again.

Have I done their work for them?

Certainly not.

They would be incapable of making decisions for themselves, of practicing the skills so critical to adulthood, and I would be a failure as a parent if I had chosen that route. I will say that I’ve loosened the apron strings as needed – differently – and at different times, when it comes to each of my children. I’ve parented imperfectly, and by my gut.

Numbers Do Not Lie

My elder son, sensing we were in no position to take a chance on his not going to college, applied early decision to an excellent university that offered him a huge scholarship. In so doing, he bypassed much of what my younger son and I have been going through for the past seven months. Although he’s happy where he is, I can’t help but feel guilt that I wasn’t able to do more for him, so he might have the choices that my younger son will have.

But I didn’t know then what I’ve come to know now. And in the past 18 months, I’ve been packaging up years of financial documentation, researching and questioning, trying to keep my teenager motivated, and myself, not losing heart. I needed to face certain financial realities, knowing the numbers do not lie. I needed to work every angle I could think of, to make a case for grants and loans.

My incredible kid has been doing the heavy lifting when it comes to art and academics; I’ve had heavy lifting of my own. Without scholarships, there could be no college, much less the choices that offer opportunities he has earned.

Big Dreams

I know what it’s like to defer the career of your dreams because you carry so much debt from college or grad school that financial responsibilities weigh you down, narrowing your options. I know what it is to be paying off educational debt until you’re close to 40.

I did not want my sons to set aside their dreams in the way that I did, because of debt.

I also didn’t want our particular post-divorce situation to bar my son from his chance at college. To navigate our “exceptional” situation meant a gargantuan task in discovering school-specific exception processes for financial aid, and providing the data sufficient to make our case. I consider this a parental responsibility, and not my son’s worry. Somehow, it feels like the least I can do.

If you find yourself in this situation, know that it is possible to navigate these special requirements, but it’s difficult, time-consuming, and takes perseverance.

Anticipating Change

My younger son has been a special privilege to raise. At times a puzzle, he is nothing like his brother, who was easy in some respects and high maintenance in others. Yet this creative kid has taught me over and over what truly matters, and he encourages me (unknowingly) to grow in essential ways.

As we wait for April 1st, I’m relieved that if anyone asks my son where he’s going to school – as they asked the young author of that New York Times piece – he has an answer, and a good one. One that feels good – to him. And when the other letters arrive, if he has more choices?

It will be interesting to observe his decision-making process; it’s his future and his life, as major change awaits both of us. Oh, there’s still money we’ll have to provide, and I don’t know where it will come from. But somehow, I imagine we’ll figure it out like everything else – together.