Sunday, September 2, 2018

College: The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Mara here:

If you're a regular reader of the blog, you already know that my daughter, Malia, is a senior in high school. Senior year. It's finally here.

For years, my daughter has talked about this moment. When she was younger, she was mostly enamored with the idea of being older. She was anxious to be "an adult." And as she got older, the excitement was less about being older and more about going to college.

My memories of being Malia's age are fuzzy. I was already taking classes at U.C. Davis and I was not involved with the process of trying to decide about colleges. And even if I had gone through a more traditional process, I'm not sure it would have helped me prepare for what Malia is now going through.

The vague memory I do have about deciding about college is that if you were a good student then you knew you would get into a good college.

This doesn't appear to be the case anymore.

Malia is currently ranked #5 in her class. She's 5th out of almost 600 seniors in her class. You would think this means that she would have her choice of schools to go to.

It doesn't.

The reality of college admissions these days is that the competition for the top universities is so fierce that there are no guarantees about anything. Twenty years ago, good grades and good test scores were all you needed. Now, having over a 4.0 grade point average (Malia's is somewhere around 4.5) and good test scores is the baseline for the top-ranked schools.

So what gets you into top university? There's no formula. Too many kids get good grades, and too many kids get good test scores. So, in the sea of academically accomplished kids, how do universities decide?

For some schools it's about extra-curricular activities. Are the kids involved with student government, a sport, a charity? For other schools, it's about the admissions essays.

Unfortunately, for the kids, it makes the whole process unbelievably stressful.

When I was growing up, most of the kids I knew went to a UC (University of California). Sure, there were some UCs (Berkeley or UCLA) that were more difficult to get into, but you could definitely get into one of the UCs if you had decent grades. And there were always the state schools. Schools like Chico State or Sacramento State were great options for kids who didn't have the grades for the UC system.  But even the state schools are now highly competitive.

And the state schools are no longer considered cheap. The average cost for UC in-state tuition is around $30,000, including housing. When I was attending UCD my quarterly tuition was $1200.

This means that more and more kids are going to out of state schools because it's not necessarily cheaper to stay in California. Out of state schools like Texas or Wisconsin are giving scholarships to lure California students to their schools.

My point is that the application process for kids these days is complicated. And it's unnerving for kids to know that no matter what they do, it may not be enough to ensure admittance to their first-choice schools.

For Malia, the stress around being accepted into college started Freshman year of high school. Yes, 9th grade is when the stress starts. Every grade counts in high school. It's also the year we started to get mail from universities marketing themselves.

And because the emphasis of every high school class choice, grade, and activity has been carefully chosen for the purpose of getting into college, now that she's faced with trying to decide which schools she wants to apply for, it feels almost paralyzing. So many years of work have led up to this moment.

For Malia, it feels like the college she picks will determine the course of the entirety of the rest of her life.

And I guess on some level that's true.

But the reality is that Malia is fortunate in that she'll have lots of options. She might not get into her first-choice schools, but she will be accepted into many great schools. And the thing about life is that for many of the moments that feel pivotal, there are no real wrong choices. They're simply different paths.

Malia and her dad are going off this weekend to visit Vanderbilt in Nashville. They're visiting because part of the craziness of college admissions is that many schools are now choosing a large portion of their Freshman class if they apply and commit early. That means she has a much better chance of being accepted to Vanderbilt if she applies early with the understanding that if they admit her she will go. It's binding. If she backs out of the early acceptance agreement, it means her high school will be blackballed from Vanderbilt admissions for a set number of years.

This is what it's come to. Her chances of being accepted almost doubles if she applies early. (This is same for most private schools now.) But that means she won't have the opportunity to even apply to other schools.

So we'll see. For me, I am not concerned about what school she will attend, because I feel certain that wherever she ends up, she will have a great time. It will, in the long run, feel like the right decision. This is because, while going to college seems like a big life decision, it's not a decision that determines the rest of your life. Because every day is the first day of the rest of your life. Every day you have the chance to make different choices.

But it's hard to know that when you're 17 years old. And I don't expect her to. And a year from now, hopefully she'll be excited with the decision that she made.

Did you remember feeling a lot of stress about what colleges you were going to apply to and attend?

It would have been stressful, but my mother had just remarried (after my father's death eight years before) and, unfortunately my new stepfather took over her finances and made it clear to me that they wouldn't pay for private college—that my only option was a UC school. 

In sum, my relationship with him was stressful (to say the least!), but the decisions around college were not.

When Jamal was applying to colleges, was it stressful for you as a parent?

I recall being concerned about how we'd pay for a private college, but it never came to that because he decided to go to a UC.

Thinking about it, our family has been enrolled at a lot of the University of California campuses: I went to Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Davis (the first two as an undergrad and the last one briefly as a graduate student and then for law school); Your dad went to Riverside and Davis (the first one as an undergrad, the last one as a graduate student); you went to Davis; Jamal went to San Diego; and Brad got his MBA at UCLA. That's five different UC campuses!

It's a good thing I transferred from Santa Barbara to Riverside after my Freshman year because it's at Riverside that I met your Dad. But that's a story for another day!

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