College Planning: Mid-Junior-Year Check-In
Hello, February. For most of us, January—with its shiny new year and resolutions and such—feels like a new chapter. I’m not saying I didn’t feel that way, necessarily, but it didn’t feel like a huge change. But February… February with a high school junior feels like a major shift.
The seniors are doing interviews, applying for scholarships, and starting to get their college acceptance and rejection letters. They’re figuring out where they’re headed in the fall. And juniors like my daughter are taking notice.
Our original plan was to do some college touring over the summer, between junior and senior years. Several parents of seniors, though, had mentioned to me that they wished they’d done it earlier, both to experience campuses while they were teeming with students, and to have longer to process what they saw/learned. I’m beginning to see the wisdom of that suggestion, and so we’re planning to start doing campus visits over spring break (which is next month).
When I first wrote about our early college planning with my daughter, the focus (both of the piece and life) was on—for lack of a better way to put it—financial logic. What can we afford? What’s the financial aid landscape likely to offer? What’s the limiting scope, here? College applications are expensive, and you can’t put a price on crushed hopes, either; the idea was to head off any pie-in-the-sky desires that would simply be financially unfeasible. So maybe it hadn’t even occurred to her, but hey, let’s just stipulate that no, kid, you’re not going to head to, say, Sarah Lawrence or another college with a $65k+ price tag. Not only is that money we don’t have, I don’t believe anyone needs to spend that kind of money to get a good education. I did such a good job of driving this point home to my child that I recently discovered she had no plans to even apply to any non-public, out-of-state university. And that’s when the needle scratched across the record, for me. That wasn’t what I’d meant to do. And soon it became clear that I’d approached this all wrong.
Practical vs. Allowing Yourself To Dream
I stand by my assertion that no one needs to bankrupt themselves to get a good college education. But at the same time… if there’s a school that doesn’t fall into the narrow band of affordable options my daughter is viewing but offers something unique that matters to her, heck yeah, I want her to apply. There’s all kinds of financial aid out there. Who knows? Sure, I don’t want her applying only to schools we can ill afford, but I don’t want her ruling out options based on money, necessarily. You just never know what financial aid might be offered. So now I’m trying to revise her stance into something that looks more like, “Make sure you have schools on there which appeal to you and we know we can afford, but don’t be afraid to consider a few reaches, too. Let’s just see.” It’s an ongoing conversation, because this will, ultimately, be a huge decision, and money is definitely part of it. But only part.
Program of Study
My daughter has friends who already know, without a shadow of a doubt, what they want to study in college. Although she would never admit it, I think she feels some envy, viewing these kids who are certain they know where they’re going and how to get there. This one wants to be an architect, and that one is going pre-med, etc. My daughter’s interests are diverse, and while she suspects she’ll end up in one of two or three special interest areas, she’s really not sure, yet. As someone who majored in one field, then picked up a second major, then went to grad school, switched fields multiple times, and am now working in a career for which I never went to school, this stuff… doesn’t worry me a whole lot. You can always make a change. But for a teen surrounded by other teens proclaiming to know their optimal life path already, it can feel like a lot of pressure. Given that we know “something in liberal arts” is the likely goal, and also knowing that she may want to explore, some, that means we should look for schools with a strong liberal arts core and lots of options.
In addition, it means we have to do this delicate dance with her of “explore now” without making it feel like she has to make a hard-and-fast decision. Example: a great opportunity came up for my daughter to do a lab internship at our local university this summer. She might want to pursue a career in science, though she’s not positive. We supported her in the application process and now we wait with crossed fingers to find out if she’s won a placement. If she does, that’s some fabulous real-world experience for her to either realize she loves it or doesn’t. If she doesn’t get this internship, well, we’re already talking about what else might make sense for her this summer; she wants to make some money, but will bagging groceries help her with her college decision? Or are there other similar internship-type opportunities which may be more useful, if potentially less actual cash?
This is the area where I feel like we’ve really let my daughter down, and part of the reason we’ll hit the road next month to start checking out schools. With this extreme focus on “what do you want to be?” and “what can you afford?” I feel like my daughter has all but forgotten to consider perhaps the most important question of them all: What sort of life do you want to have for the first four years of your adulthood? This encompasses so much—where do you want to live, what sort of student body composition do you think will work for you, what kind of fellow students’ motivation will best match your own, etc. It recently became clear that my kiddo was looking only at giant public universities, and somehow it had never occurred to her that, environment-wise, that might be all wrong for her. (Spoiler: That would probably be all wrong for her. Between her learning disability and personality/learning style, giant lecture halls are not going to be her friend.) Marching band has been such an important part of her life in high school, she was looking at schools with big football teams and bands. But… she’s not planning to major in music, and while band would be great, what about everything else?
It turns out that there’s a small college not too far from here where the student body (at least from what we’ve been able to learn) is composed of young people who sound a lot like my kid—smart, engaged, diverse in their interests, and passionate about their choices. The average class size is 20 students. They offer a wide variety of majors and a tight-knit community on a beautiful campus. I don’t know, yet, if we’d be able to afford it, or even if she’ll get in… but the more we dig, the more it becomes apparent that this has to be a school she checks out. And—beyond that—it’s clear she has to start really thinking beyond marching band or where “everyone else” is applying. She has to find the school that fits her.
It’s all starting to feel really real, and it’s scary, but it’s also really exciting.