• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Limbo

Ambiguity in college admissions.

February 7, 2019
 
 

The Boy is in the “limbo” stage of the college search, and it’s wearing on him. 

He has sent out all of the applications he plans to send. Deadlines have passed at many places, so even if he wanted to add more -- which he does not -- the options would be few. 

Two places have accepted him and made reasonable-ish offers, as these things go. (In other words, they’re absurd, but they’re within the absurd parameters we were told to expect.)  One accepted him and made such a paltry offer that it might as well not have. Three have accepted him but haven’t reported back anything on the financials yet. One deferred a decision until March or April, and one hasn’t responded yet at all.

That’s a lot of ambiguity, and it promises to last for another couple of months.  At my age, a couple of months of ambiguity doesn’t seem quite so terrible, especially given that he has two viable offers from no-apology places already in hand.  But at seventeen, time passes slowly, and this is a major life change. He’s feeling it.

I’ve been coaching him to reject the idea of a “dream school,” and to think of the process as more like buying a car.  You have some parameters, but within those, any number of choices would do just fine. And much of what his college experience will be is necessarily unknowable at this point.  Where would he have the roommate that becomes a lifelong friend, and where would he have the roommate he’ll never speak to? That will have a major impact on his time there, but there’s literally no way to know it.  That can be overwhelming, but it’s also sort of liberatory; not being able to know that means not being responsible for it. He’ll make great friends wherever he goes, but there’s no way to compare them. So, don’t.

He sort of concedes the point, but he was still upset that one of his favorite schools cheaped out on him so spectacularly.  Honestly, I was, too.

He’s much more conscious of the financial end of it than I was at his age.  Part of that is just by necessity, given how much costs have increased since then.  But part of it is a choice on my part. I don’t want him to coast through blithely, only to have a rude wake-up call later.  His long-term goal involves going to med school, which isn’t cheap, so there’s an argument for trying not to load up too heavily on loans in undergrad.  I’m trying to help him strike that delicate balance of ‘informed’ with ‘confident.’ Still, that much reality can be a lot to take at seventeen.

Reading the “aid” offers is an exercise in interpretation.  All three received so far have included loans in the “aid” calculation.  That would be fine, except that loans have to be paid back. He initially went to the bottom line of the “aid” offered, which is a rookie mistake, and one that I think the schools are counting on.  Aid itself comes in at least three forms: real, sorta, and not. “Real” aid is grants or scholarships. “Sorta” aid is work-study jobs and subsidized loans. They’re hardly free money, but putting off the accrual of interest until after graduation is something, and a guaranteed job on campus is not to be sneezed at.  “Not” aid refers to unsubsidized loans. Certain schools lump all three together. I’ve told him that the number that matters most is the total cost of attendance minus grants or scholarships. Certain schools -- not naming any names -- like to keep those separate, to make the discount look impressive. The net cost is what matters.

This is all the exact opposite of transparency. 

I give TB a lot of credit.  He’s a smart kid who works hard, takes tough classes, gets great grades, plans ahead, runs track and cross-country, volunteers as an EMT, and -- as far as I know -- acts like a gentleman.  He’s doing everything he’s supposed to do. And I know that when this stage passes, he’ll be fine; he’ll go where he’ll go, and he’ll find his way. But even knowing all of that, the limbo stage is no fun at all.

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