Here’s the deal: There are over 3,000 4–year colleges and universities in the United States. There are more than 1,500 accredited 2-year institutions – which are great options for lots of kids for lots of reasons. All kinds of kids go to all kinds of schools, and go on to live all kinds of lives. I know this. And yet, as a parent of a high school senior bound for college, I sometimes find it challenging to remember that (as Frank Bruni reminds us) – where he goes is not who he’ll be (and where he goes is certainly not who I am as a parent).
Recently, I met the parents of a kid who accidentally submitted a college application to the wrong school (some school names are close, and this is surprisingly easy to do!). Fortunately, he recognized the error right away and also applied to the intended college as planned. He was accepted to both schools. As part of his final decision-making process, he visited the unintentionally-applied-to-school just to check it out. On a lark. He graduates from that school this spring. He’s had a great experience at a school he applied to by accident.
It is true that life is not a straight line, but rather a series of choices and experiences and, often, surprises that take us in new and unexpected directions. My son may start in one school and end up somewhere else (like I did so many years ago). He may discover a passion or direction that I can’t even imagine. How many of us can say that a chance meeting or happy accident or even a heartbreak or serious misstep helped to determine our careers, marriages, best friendships, favorite hobbies, all sorts of things? Where our kids go to school is one small fragment of a much larger ecosystem of their life choices and values. And really, their ability to make choices, to create and contribute, to find purpose and meaning, to recover, to explore and engage and ask critical questions, and to not shy away from suffering in the world, are the much more important things.
As my son wraps up his college application process and decides what’s next for him (for now), I’ve been thinking about how we, as parents, can help each other and our kids see that there is no one “right” or “best” pathway when it comes to college. Here are some ideas to ponder, and perhaps, try out in our peer groups and communities:
It is up to each of us to speak out and find ways to change the conversation about college admissions and post-high school trajectories. Let’s be vigilant in focusing on the bigger picture of kids’ learning, interests, and overall well-being (and how to support growth and development) – and less on the specific “where.” Let’s affirm diverse pathways and choices for our own kids and others. I know it isn’t always easy, particularly when the acceptance and rejection letters become the lead topic of conversation.
Ultimately, a narrow definition of a successful college (or life) pathway does not serve my child – nor does it serve our broader democracy and social fabric. There are so many ways to contribute to the world, inspire others, earn enough to support oneself and a family, and to be a satisfied, caring person. I believe that embracing a broader framework of “success” as kids pursue their post-high-school goals and develop as people, learners, and professionals, will serve us all.
Mary Hofstedt, Ed.M., is the Community Education Director for Challenge Success. She oversees parent education and provides interactive presentations and workshops to share research-based resources and practices for parents to support the well-being of their children. Mary has held roles in education, curriculum and program development, and non-profit leadership for over 20 years.