Ask What Matters, Not Where

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:

  1. Ask kids what they are looking forward to doing and learning in college before we ask where they are going to college (and don’t assume they are going at all.)
  2. Avoid the word “just” when talking with other parents about our kids or their peers: “She is just applying to the state schools,” “he is just going to community college,” “they are just working for right now.” When we hear another parent say “just” in these contexts, we can help by affirming that the pathway is valid…and that there is no need to say “just.”
  3. Help each other remember (when we forget) that college is just one piece of a much bigger journey of learning and growing up. We do our kids a disservice by framing college admissions as the endpoint to a successful childhood.
  4. Talk about “fit” schools rather than “good” schools. We can talk about the wide diversity of schools and that there are good “fits” for different kids in terms of campus size, academic structure and content, geography, and experiences offered. We also need to remember that there are many more “good schools” than our rankings-driven cultural narrative suggests.
  5. Can we revisit those name-brand bumper stickers and plate guards? While well intentioned as a way to demonstrate pride in our kids (and sometimes our own alma mater), they contribute to a competitive culture that highlights brand and status over fit and learning.
  6. Watch the comparisons. We can easily find ourselves comparing ourselves (and our kids) with other families – and confusing college admissions with good parenting. We should be proud that our kids have strong work ethics and integrity, and are curious, courageous, and kind human beings— regardless of where, or if or when, they attend college.

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., was the Community Education Director for Challenge Success. She oversaw 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.