I am writing at the start of April when seniors have been admitted or denied admission, and when ambitious juniors feel the pressure to get serious about their college search. Both are moments of momentous decision, and both bring a complex of issues and emotions, for students and for families.
All of which comes to mind this morning as three friends have called in the last few days, two at the end of the search and one about to begin in good earnest. I know the three students and their parents and like all parties, and I worked for almost forty years as a college counselor, so the phone calls bring welcome activity and a reminder of why I enjoyed going to work every day. College counselors are privileged to meet students at a point in their lives at which they need and welcome serious conversations about their interests and their aspirations. They do not entirely welcome the ongoing reality checks along the way, SAT scores, course choices, grades, but they understand that they will need to be aware of how their strengths and choices will be assessed by people who have the authority to open a gate or swing it shut.
The combinations and permutations of college choices are endless, and the first sweep almost always has to consider location, size, cost, special programs, and what my kids call the vibe and I call the culture.
I entered the field with a bias towards small liberal arts colleges, a bias that probably affected my own children in their search. Two ended up at colleges (Whitman and Lewis and Clark) that suited them well although they each came to their college in a slightly round-about fashion. The experiences of all three now inform my judgment, perspective that arrived just as I left my career and began spending my days mowing the meadow.
One of my children is what I might call a polymath; he reads widely, is an informed student of politics and economics, displays astute critical response to contemporary culture, particularly film and music. When he began his college search, my thought was that only a liberal arts education could satisfy his wide range of interests. Over the past twenty years, however, I’ve learned that he didn’t need course work to stimulate and develop his mind; as a high school junior, this guy was reading Thomas Pynchon for pleasure. The Core curriculum in his liberal arts college was intended to provide a wide vista across the range of subjects; in his case, it just put obstacle after obstacle in his way, sticking him in required courses that were brain numbing. After graduation, he learned a zillion computer languages on his own and is now a highly regarded developer of software applications, but he probably should have gone to film school at USC, UCLA, or NYU. He’s writing screenplays in his spare time, several of which might actually hit the screen; film school would have given him the professional skills and connections to work at what he loves best.
I wish I’d known then…
The two round-about kids also taught me some important lessons.
One took a gap year without any particular plan in mind. The goal was not continuing self-improvement but simply allowing a little space and time from the hard work he had done in his high school years. He didn’t do community service, he didn’t save turtles in the Galapagos. He slept a lot, which turned out to be important, and he took classes at our city college, taking his interest in songwriting and in guitar to the next level. He got very good, and had the chance to perform his own work a bit, got some rest, and was ready to take advantage of everything his college had to offer.
The city college turned out to be a great experience for my daughter as well. Not only did she save an incredible amount of money by spending two years in a liberal arts program that prepared her for transfer, she also got excellent instruction in a variety of subjects. She met great professors who provided mentorship as she readied to go on in the field that had captured her attention, psychology; that preparation was sound enough that shortly after transferring, she was selected to assist her professor in a significant research project. It isn’t easy to find one’s place in a new school, but she got involved with everything from the organization of orientation of new students to the newspaper, ending up an editor as well as a member of the college’s judicial board.
My foresight was far from twenty-twenty. Until my own children found their own paths, I had a limited view of what a college education should be. I am grateful to them for showing the way; they are, in part, responsible for the inclusion of a variety of colleges and universities I describe in America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a guide identifying colleges of quality and character not as recognized for their strengths as they should be. Great opportunities are available in institutions of all sorts, and all sorts of roads lead to them.
One great difference between choices now and those years ago is that there are now a constellation of public liberal arts colleges, institutions with relatively small enrollment offering a broadly based adventure in the liberal arts at a state school price. There are now great public options in every region, from Evergreen State in Washington to Fort Lewis College in Colorado, from Southern Oregon University in our town, Ashland, to Division I University of North Carolina Asheville.
The phone calls from friends remind me of the anxiety which surrounds the choice of a college or university. I’m never able to fully ease the dilemma that arises with tough choices, but I do resort to a single question that has made all the difference in my own life. Every college has classes, professors, libraries, and gymnasia; every college has a social scene, dining halls, and dormitories.
I made my college choice based on an aesthetic impulse; my college looked like what I thought a college should look like. It was also important that I had vistas to look at from every corner of the campus. Not very ambitious or intellectual, but that campus sustained me through all the bumps and bruises the college years can bring.
So, what sustains you? Putting aside all the shoulds, what do you love? What can you not do without?
I’m still dedicated to finding vistas, answering the phone while looking out at fields and meadows and the tall evergreen trees of the Pacific Northwest. It seems absurd to advise a high school senior to follow his or her bliss, but in the end, that is really the only advice that matters.
Except for cost. Oh, Location. Uh, facilities …