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Your Child and College


Nov. 8, 2019

A number of its ideas aren’t standard but I believe are worth considering.

More students should defer or forgo college

Yes, students who did well in high school (B+ average or higher, 1200+ SAT), who aren’t burned out on school nor eager to do something like start a business, probably should go to college.

But even some other students with a strong high-school record would do well to accept the liabilities of not following the crowd to college: Yes, when their friends and yours ask “Which college is s/he going to?” you may feel embarrassed to say, “S/he’s doing an apprenticeship or taking some time to explore the world outside the classroom.” And yes, if the child decides to later go to college, there’s the liability of being older than the typical freshman. But those are often more than compensated for by one of more of these liabilities of attending college:

Dropout risk. If your child is sick of school, going straight to college makes him or her more likely to be among the 60% who don’t graduate in four years, the 40% who don’t graduate even if given six, with those last two years typically with minimal financial aid.

Risk of little learning. The average college student grows shockingly little in the core areas of critical thinking and writing, the two subjects tested in the landmark nationwide study, Academically Adrift. 

Substance abuse risk.  At many colleges, alcohol and drug use and abuse is common. That’s because college provides a perfect storm of teens away from home for the first time, living together in dorms with minimal supervision, and taking courses from some professors who pile on lots of often uninteresting, stressful work. And if your child wasn’t a great student in high school and isn’t unduly motivated to do yet harder academics, it’s easy to see why college can, ironically, be a spawning ground for a drug or alcohol problem, while your child’s brain isn’t fully formed and thus is more vulnerable.

The risk of narrowed thinking. Academia’s traditional role as a marketplace of ideas has often given way to the teaching mainly of a liberal orthodoxy, for example, socialism good, capitalism bad; minorities and women good, white males bad; redistribution good, meritocracy bad. Wisdom resides across the ideological spectrum but at too many colleges, students are exposed mainly to the left side. 

The opportunity cost: Many young adults benefit from and enjoy taking at least some time away from academia.

Of course, the case against college is strongest if your child didn’t do well in high school. With grade inflation, that typically means a GPA of less than 3.0 and an SAT score of under 1100.

Community college, underrated

Community college is, for many students, including good ones, a fine option.

Yes, if your child can get into a designer-label college (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech) unless at risk of burning out, s/he should probably attend. Spending four formative years around the best and brightest with a door-opening diploma as a going-away present should rarely be turned down. And such universities are very wealthy and so can give lots of cash financial aid if only because they know that, over the grateful students’ lifetime, those institutions’ pitches for donations will yield payback.

Alas, much of the public doesn’t realize that universities acquire their prestige not mainly from the quality of teaching but because of research productivity, which derives from hiring and promoting faculty heavily on their research, which usually is on an arcane, narrow topic, far removed from what undergraduates most need to know. The researcher’s skill set, preferences, and the institution’s reward system are often very different from those needed for good undergraduate teaching. That’s why teaching at community colleges tends, surprisingly, to be better. There, hiring and promotion is based far more on teaching performance. So you’ll likely learn more for far less money at a community college.

Plus, most community colleges have a wide range of extracurricular activities, which you’ll have more time for because, you may not need to study so much to learn universities’ harder, often more poorly-taught material.

What about community colleges not having residence halls? As mentioned, dorms are too often hothouses for behaviors that would make many parents cringe. It’s often wise to spend the first post-high-school year or two living at home even if there weren’t a cost-saving, which there usually is.

Choose a less-selective college?

Most college-bound students end up choosing the most selective college that admit them, for example, SUNY Binghamton over SUNY Oswego, UC Berkeley over Sonoma State. Yet the difference in prestige and student quality is, for some students, outweighed by too great a difference in workload, stress, and the often necessary sacrifice in extracurricular life, which can be at least as valuable as academic learning.

Alternatives to going straight to college

If your child is more a concrete than abstract learner, more career-oriented than enjoying learning for learning’s sake, s/he’d likely do poorly in colleges’ vaunted liberal arts courses, which are required in quantity even for non-liberal-arts-majors, for example, business, engineering, or nursing. In contrast, apprenticeship is an under-considered option, especially by parents who are college graduates. For more information on this earn-while-you-learn-and-get-credentialed option, see the federal government’s apprenticeship site.

Start a business or learn on the job? 

A small percentage of young adults are self-starters who, with just modest assistance, are able to start a business. Even if it fails, great learning can accrue. Or they can talk their way (perhaps with your help) into a career-launchpad job, maybe working for one of your successful, ethical friends or relatives?

Talking with your child about all this

Many students and parents resist those ideas. This dialogue between counselor and teen offers language that a parent might want to use with their child:

Child: But I worked so hard in school. Now you’re asking me to consider going to a less prestigious college than I could get into, let alone to a community college or apprenticeship?!  I’d be so embarrassed to tell my friends.

Counselor: I can understand. The question is whether it’s worth going along with the crowd even when that’s not in your best interest.

Child: But it is in my interest to go to a good college. If I go to one like UC Riverside, I’ll get a respected diploma. But if I go to a community college or do an apprenticeship, I’ll get some crappy job. I don’t want to be a plumber.

Counselor: Do know that if I filled a room with 100 students with your high school record and half went to UC Riverside and half started at community college or did an apprenticeship, the latter group would likely, on average be happier and more successful and saved a fortune?

Child: How can that be?

Counselor: Because half of students with your high school record end up dropping out of a place like UC Riverside, having learned little, not acquired an employable skill let alone a credential, with damaged self-esteem and a mountain of debt. Students at community college are likely to have learned more because, unlike at a university, the instructors are hired on how well they teach, not how much esoteric research they do. And in an apprenticeship, you prepare for a career at the elbow of a master plus take some practical courses at a community college. You finish your apprenticeship likely to have a good career and it certainly doesn’t have to be plumbing. Apprenticeships can prepare you for everything from robot technician to chef to land surveyor.

Child: I’ll think about it.

Counselor: That’s all I could ask. I know how hard it is, especially for a teenager, to not follow the crowd.

The procrastinating college applicant

Parents are often frustrated that their child has been lackadaisical in choosing and applying to college. That can reflect a child’s rational or emotional concerns, which should be discussed. But those go beyond the scope of this already long post.

The following dialogue addresses the common situation in which the child procrastinates choosing and applying to college just because it’s a long, difficult task.

Parent: Everyone is already applying to college. You’ve hardly even done any research on where you want to apply.

Child: Leave me alone. I’m on it.

Parent: The deadlines are coming up.

Child: I’m on it!

Parent: At least can we spend a little time together searching Cappex to find well-suited colleges?

Child: Whatever.

For now, we’ll assume that by reviewing Cappex, the Princeton Review’s Best 385 Colleges, the college counselor’s input, etc., the child has selected the colleges to apply to.

Parent: Have you done your essays yet?

Child: Have you filled out the financial aid forms yet?

Parent: I’m working on it. Your deadline is sooner. Do you know what you want to write your essay about?

Child: I hear that if you write about some adversity you overcame, that works.

Parent: Rather than pandering to that, writing your essay can be a tool for better understanding yourself. Most essays reduce to one question: “What’s something important about who you are that isn’t obvious from the rest of your application?”

Child: I don’t know. I’m like most kids.

Parent: Everyone is different. What’s something you’ve done that came out well and in which you enjoyed the process?

Child: Well, I guess building that rocket, even though one time it started a fire in the backyard.

Parent: Great. You were very persistent, trying experiment after experiment to see how high you could make a rocket fly. That would be an essay topic that would reveal something important about you and that you could write honestly about without pandering, yet would increase your admissibility. Would you write a first draft of that, and if you like, I’ll review it with you?

Child: I’ll see.

The takeaway

As parents face the uncertainty, the peer pressure, the parent-child arguments, and the looming empty nest syndrome, anxiety can reign. Although many of this article’s ideas are not standard and thus probably increase stress in the short-term, if you fair-mindedly consider them, I believe your child and you will, in the long run, be the better for it. 

Gene Upshaw Player Assistance Trust Fund

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