Let Your Children Go (to College)

I was born in the last year of the Baby Boom Generation, or the First Year of Generation X, depending on whose culture yardstick you go by. Thus, I was at the tail end of the first generation in American history, and possibly history period, to over-nurture their young. Presumably, this was due to a few factors: we had the post-war economic means to do so, with fewer children per couple, each one was proportionally a little more precious than back when the norm was to birth a whole litter, and finally, if social anthropologists are to be believed, we were absolutely in love with ourselves, and what better immortality project is there than perfect offspring?

We made sure they had the right baby food (breast milk, and then organic vegetables), the right teachers in the right school districts, the right coaches and cultural experiences, and the right stuff (usually delivered in the form of constant praise for minor accomplishments). All of this over-nurturing inevitably led to the Great Game, the defining cherry on top of our superlative child rearing – admission to the college of their choice (i.e. the college that was more highly ranked than that of our friends’ kids).

We of the Animal House generation had probably lived in lousy dorms, ate uninspired food, went to some pretty fun parties, and worked fairly hard either at school, or at least at some other quixotic quest, while at university. The stakes seemed a little lower then, probably because the cost was so very much lower. Most of us went to perfectly adequate state universities for what now seems like a laughably small amount of money (Since 1990 consumer prices have doubled, medical care has tripled, and college costs have quintupled. Source: U.S. Labor Dept.). So, we stayed up too late, watched Letterman, talked about life, ate Pizza, and got into the usual shenanigans that are common to young people with both time and a degree of boredom on their hands.

But then, as the years passed, and selective memory being what it is, we proceeded to fetishize and glorify our experiences well beyond reality. We began to sell this notion to our kids: that this would be the defining experience of their young lives; that it would be the most thrilling, fun, crazy, hilarious and profound four years of their entire existence. Which is a huge load of crap.

Our competitive selves were also paying close attention as our community’s older kids were getting into the “right” (and sometimes not so right) schools. If we were going to set our children up for life success, we had to nail this thing. And, maybe more importantly, if we wanted something enviable to share every time the question of “where is Julie going next year?” came up at a party, we hoped to be able to respond with a “Yale,” or “Georgetown,” or maybe “Michigan” in order to call, or hopefully raise, their Brown, Bowdoin or UNC.

The kids got the message, loud and clear, from their parents, friends, counselors, and the culture. “This is it” they heard. Get in to the right school and a life of happiness and success awaits you. Get into your safety school, or your safety-safety school and shame and degradation waits. The colleges took the Great Game as a great gift. Endowments swelled as alums hoped to play favors with admissions. The schools, non-profits that they are, raised tuition non-stop and poured the proceeds into every conceivable luxury, creating campuses that would make most cruise ships blush, all in an effort to make the physical reality begin to at least resemble the collegiate myth that had been created. When the family arrived on campus for a tour, it was the parents that wanted to see the massive buffet with the white hatted chefs intently working the sushi bar, the athletic facility that could make pro football teams envious, and the dorm rooms that insured little Justin would never, ever have to wait in line to take a shower or use the john.

When the acceptance letters finally arrive. The students are told to “pick the one that feels right” as if this will be the most obvious thing in the world to them. At best, they’ve visited once and took a tour. So, they do the next best thing which is pick the one they think will either make their friends the most jealous or cost their parents the most money.

And then the problems arrive. They arrive on campus fall of freshman year, still just 18-years old, and full of promises. And guess what? They are just as confused, just as insecure, just as human as they were on the last day of high school. College isn’t a non-stop, feel good party combined with new best friends to eat pizza with while watching YouTube into the late hours. Some of that stuff happens of course, but not without the usual irritations, jealousies, and social anxiety that accompanies all of life. And now, they are confused! They feel like failures. Clearly, everyone else they know is totally having the promised perfect life at their perfect college – one only has to glance at Instagram to see proof of this; and yet they are sad, which makes them feel more sad, and terribly alone.

Many of them, probably most, eventually, figure it out. They fight through it, find their friends, and figure out that life is still life even on the collegiate cruise ship. But far too many spend a year or two feeling depressed and miserable. Many of them transfer in the hope that it was just the wrong “fit.” Others drop out altogether. But just about everyone goes through a tough adjustment period that probably wasn’t entirely necessary had their parents and educators just leveled with them a little bit.

Generation X and Y, I’m talking to you now. Let it go. Let them go. College is great. Really, it is. But please stop building it up with unobtainable expectations and overwrought consequences about the school they attend. Just about any school they pick, including the more affordable options, will allow them to learn and grow as people. They will be fine. And for goodness sakes, strongly suggest that they take a gap year so they can be a tiny bit more prepared and mature before embarking on the most expensive investment of their lives.


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