It’s never too late to learn something new, and I’ve learned a lot in the last year about colleges, applications, financial aid, and all things related to institutions of higher learning. In fact, I’ve learned it twice (or at least learned twice as much as most people), because I have two very different twins who graduated high school in June and have spent the better part of two years figuring out what comes next.
One thing I’ve learned is that there is a lot of snobbery surrounding the whole college scene. As a graduate of a Big 10 university, where it is practically a requirement to minor in arrogance, you can color me guilty. I won’t name names, but you can see in this ancient photo that I tried to indoctrinate my twins right from the start. Neither one followed in my footsteps.
Early on in the process, we got a great piece of advice from my daughter’s high school counselor, who said: “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” This really resonated with me, because as much as I loved my college experience, I spent little or no time trying to determine whether it was the right place for me. My parents said: “You can go to any public school in state.” I applied to just one.
My daughter knows herself better than any 18 year old I’ve ever met. She honed her search down to small, east coast liberal arts colleges that offered the two majors she was interested in. She focused on women’s colleges, but not exclusively, and ended up applying to 11 schools. Right until the moment we got to her dorm, I think she still harbored some disappointment that she did not get into her “top” choice.
I got to spend a couple of days on campus with her during orientation a few weeks ago. We were welcomed by faculty and students alike and my daughter bloomed before my eyes. “This is the right place for me,” she said, “I love the buildings and my roommate and the campus and my classes. It’s perfect.” That Sunday, I left (sobbing) knowing that she had found exactly the right match.
On the way home, a friend told me a heartbreaking story about a boy she knew years ago who had applied to five of the top universities in the country. He got into four of them, the only exception being Harvard. This young man killed himself over that one disappointment. I still ache when I think of him, even though I never met him and he died more than 15 years ago. The story is sadder still when you think of how arbitrary these choices are, when colleges receive hundreds and hundreds of applications for every available spot.
The other side of our story is my son, a bright young man who learns differently. He has faced and overcome more challenges in his short life than I can count, and still struggles with a short-term memory deficit and poor graphomotor skills. He’s taking two classes at Oakton Community College and going to a transition program through the high school three days a week.
On August 24, when his classes began at Oakton, he was beaming. I’ve never seen him so proud, or been prouder of him. Several people have asked him how he feels about his sister going away to school. He said: “It’s the right thing for her. She’s happy. I’m not ready for that yet.” I realized then that he knows himself very well, too.
The community college has been a revelation to me. Accommodations that we tried to get for my son throughout high school weren’t even questioned. He had a notetaker assigned to him on the first day. Technology, like his laptop and iPhone, are welcome tools for any student. I have learned that community colleges are in the business of making education accessible — geographically, logistically and financially. They accommodate adult learners, students returning after a long absence, learners with special needs, and students who work full time and raise families and who still want to go to school. They are a valuable resource that university snobs like me tend to ignore or dismiss.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are about 6,900 accredited postsecondary institutions and programs in the country. With the emergence of online and distance learning programs, the number of choices available to students continues to grow. Now that the new school year is in full swing, I feel very lucky that my children have made two such perfect matches. I know the choices they have made will help them achieve success in their college careers and beyond, which is the real prize.
For anyone just starting this process, please refer back to paragraph three, sentence one.