The end is near for the Parent Imperfect. That’s not meant to be ominous, just an acknowledgment that an important part of the identity of this blog has been that of a flailing parent of students in the Boston Public Schools. Our daughter’s BPS career is ending, quite predictably, with a decision to continue her education. I’ve written about this choice at a couple of earlier points and report here on the end of the process (or its beginning, depending on your perspective).
That choosing a college gets more stressful every year is old news. Those aspects of the game that create the most stress (cost, competition, high-stakes testing) are very much in the interest of people who hold power over the process. So, despite all of the hand-wringing about the cost and the stress, higher education continues to become more expensive and competitive. These structural factors certainly influenced Connie’s college search experience, but a lack of clarity about values and a lack of discussion between parents and student about those values also had a big impact. It isn’t just those big, bad institutions!
In addition to going through the college choice process this year, Connie has been doing intensive rehab from a serious sports injury that required surgery, participating in a demanding “racial reconciliation” program at a local community health center and grinding through one more year of high-pressure, unforgiving academics at the nation’s oldest public high school. Why would she be stressed?
So…what happened? In March, Connie heard from all of the colleges that she had applied to during the “regular” admissions period. Of course, some schools offered her a spot, others did not. This is a crapshoot that defies all logic. To her credit, Connie turned quickly to the question of which of her “acceptances” she really wanted to pursue.
She chose to focus on three priority schools during this last period, and we made plans to visit each of those schools in the one month that colleges give students to respond to their offers of admission. As much as any other moment in the process, this choice of three reflected her educational values…her evolving sense of what would be good for her in a university experience. More than a little of her stress this year has come from internal conflict about these values. Six years at BLS (nominally a public school, but a proud partner of Harvard University) have encouraged reverence for elite education offered by private institutions. At the same time, other influences in her life have challenged those elitist assumptions. Part of that challenge has come from her parents, who support public education for reasons other than the price tag, but may not be as clear on this issue as we think we are.
We visited one of her priority schools for their “accepted students’ weekend” and she was hooked. We never made it to the other two. At this point, Connie’s intense desire to be DONE weighed very heavily. The only other decision to make was whether or not she would tell the school that she wanted to take a “gap year” between high school and college. That idea intrigued all of us, but going down the gap-year path was going to require a whole other set of decisions over the next few months. In large part, because she did not want to face the stress of those decisions, she opted not to take a gap year before entering college.
“Money, money money, money….MONEY!” How can one talk about the process of choosing a college without talking about money? One can’t! The cost of college is the elephant in thousands of living rooms every year. It is a huge part of the discussion about what one values in education. Over the last year, we said a lot of things like, “Look at these schools from the perspective of where you really want to go,” suggesting that we would figure out the money thing. But we never really had a “come to Jesus” conversation about our ability to finance a second private university (Connie’s brother will be graduating this spring from such an institution). This is one place where our hesitancy to engage and (most likely) our own lack of clarity about values made life more difficult.
Connie had some generous offers of financial aid and other offers that were much less generous. Can you predict that her “priority” schools were among the ones that are most expensive and offered her the least financial aid? Here I must say something about “need-based” aid. For me, it is great that a small number of wealthy, elite colleges have made a pledge that admissions will be “need-blind” and that they will provide aid to meet the financial need of all accepted students. The “need-blind” thing seems a little disingenuous. Given the intrusiveness of the college application, one need not see the financial statement of the student’s parents to know something about the financial situation of an applicant’s family. They may choose not to see it, but colleges are never blind to the financial need of applicants.
A smaller number of schools (19, I think) go a step further. They pledge to meet student need exclusively with grants (no loans). Given the millstones that student loans have become around the necks of millions of students and families, this is a bold and helpful step. All three of Connie’s priority schools are in the “meet all need” category and two of them do it “without loans.” Beyond question, this is a great step forward. It means that a number of students from economically-disadvantaged families go to these colleges each year. Many of these students would never have attended such schools under the old financial aid formulas. Their presence is a gift to the entire university community. But while providing access to a small number of students in this way might make elite universities look and feel better, it does not fundamentally change the nature or the impact of elite education in this country.
What surprised me is that each of these three institutions received the same financial information from us and came up with very different assessments of what we could contribute to the cost of education. We tried to negotiate with two of these schools around the aid package, without success. The third offered so little aid that it seemed fruitless to negotiate. We didn’t prepare ourselves nearly enough for these important conversations. Someone has since told me that they did a formal appeal of their aid offer, including a very quantitative report by an accountant. We did none of that, perhaps because we had gotten surprising results for brother Vince, without any outside intervention. Connie ended up choosing the school that, among her three priority choices, offered us the most help with college costs. Even with the generous aid, however, merely speaking about the cost of the school requires taking a deep breath.
In the last stage of the process, the lack of clarity about finances made the whole situation much more stressful than it needed to be. Out of one side of our mouths, we were encouraging Connie to choose a school about which she was truly excited. Then came the inevitable sticker shock, and out of the other side of our mouths came concern about the money. It was amazing to see how quickly the stress subsided when we stopped cringing at the price and Connie made her decision. Other stressful days will certainly come but, for now, Connie seems quite at peace with her decision. As a friend said to me today, “it’s a leap of faith for all of you.” The problem is that I’m not much of a leaper these days.