We are now in the meanest time of a high school senior's life. A few weeks ago they had to commit to a college and by now, word has trickled out about who is going where, who got in where, and more importantly, who didn't get to go where they wanted.
It's a rough time for kids who live in competitive climates. They have spent four years pushing their treadmill into overdrive, scrambling to ace AP classes, taking and retaking their SATs or ACTs, perfecting their "resumes" to include just the right balance of sports participation, cultural exposure, and community service. Nothing they've done in high school was by accident and the day of reckoning has arrived: They are either going to their first-choice college or they are not and everyone -- everyone -- knows it.
But here's what everyone doesn't know: A whole bunch of them who are going to their "dream" schools will be coming back within the first year. Right now in kitchens across America, kids completing their freshman year are telling their parents, "Sorry Mom and Dad, but I don't want to go back to that school." All that hard work and studying, all that time and effort spent in applying, all that anxiety while waiting to hear, the drama of waving goodbye at the dorm and the money -- all that money!! -- and here is Junior sitting at the table saying he just can't go back. Say what?!
Probably the most overlooked number on every college website is the one that says how many freshmen leave after the first year. For parents, it's much easier to focus on how many of that school's graduates go on to great jobs or advanced studies, or how many spend their junior year abroad, or how many are involved in athletics, get scholarships, live on campus. But how many come high-tailing home after the first semester or year? Those numbers we prefer to overlook because they must be talking about someone else's less-committed daughter, not ours, right? Wrong.
I was sitting at a track meet a few weeks ago talking to someone I affectionately call Supermom. Corinne Le has four sons, all of them great kids. (Four sons and in her "spare time," she brought a child from Kenya into her home for months, tending to him as one of her own during his difficult surgery and recovery.) Corinne's umbrella is big and many seek safe haven under it, and there are many kids -- friends of her kids -- who feel comfortable talking to her.
Her eldest son chose to go to college locally although many of his friends did not. She began ticking off on her fingers how many from his high school graduation class are returning home as transfer students. She ran out of fingers.
"OK, kids talk to you," I said. "Why do you think it happens?"
In some cases, she opined, they only think they are ready to live away. It's a "grass is always greener" on the other side of the country thing. They believe it until they get there and then they learn otherwise.
In other cases, living on their own gives them a better sense of the financial sacrifice their parents are making and they see a less expensive way to reach their goal: by living at home or going to a community college -- or both. They've grown up in that year spent away and return home with a newfound sense of responsibility, maybe even gratitude.
But in other cases, there is this reality: The academic pressure has built to the point that they implode. They are bright kids who simply need a break from the stress and rigors they've lived under and they've mustered the courage to have "the talk" with their parents. The ones to worry about are the kids who aren't able to have that kitchen table talk.
Without question, the peer and family pressure to get into the Brand Name University can wind up disastrously. And yes, some parents freak out at that kitchen table talk. What they lose sight of is the underlying message: Your kid is unhappy and needs to figure things out. So help him if you can because this isn't really about you or what the neighbors will say when they learn he isn't returning to Yale.
The truth is, there are many routes that lead to the same place in life. And the country is already deep in the throes of reexamining how we see college educations. Zac Bissonnette led the charge in in 2010 with his seminal book, "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents." He challenged us to see college as a return on our investment -- and that it isn't always a good investment. It makes sense: Why graduate with $150,000 in student debt when your degree will get you a job that pays $30,000?
There are many other paths to take once you and your child stop caring what other people think of as the best or only route. I happen to love the idea of my kids taking a gap year after high school. While it's been a long tradition in Europe to spend time traveling around and volunteering before you enter college, the rat race in the United States expects our kids to jump in straight away. Maybe it's time to regroup on that one. I'd rather see my daughter volunteering in a Chinese orphanage and having a foreign living country experience than worrying about whether the TA to her professor knows her name. What's the big rush to launch on a career anyway?
Oddly, I think Moms of special ed kids have a leg up on the whole college race thing. We are used to our kids being the square pegs in a culture of round holes. We are used to them being the different ones and we long ago figured out that our energy was better spent teaching them that what others thought of them was less important than what made them happy. My kids will have no problem deviating from the so-called "norm" because they do so every day.
And for everyone else, maybe it's best to clear off the kitchen table in case a talk is coming your way.
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