My brilliant son was in his senior year of high school, excited for his next adventure – attending college out of town. Since he was a freshman, I’d been talking to both our sons about the need to engage in extracurricular activities and volunteering for solid college and scholarship applications. Occasionally, I’d see and mention an opportunity that might fit for the oldest; our youngest son gravitated toward these things naturally. The older child, on the cusp of these things becoming a reality, had earned all A’s thus far, in advanced/honors classes, and participated in cross country and track all four years. While incredibly proud of his accomplishments, I had a more realistic view of his competition for top universities.
In the fall of his last year as a Panther, my husband and I began urging our oldest child to apply for scholarships. I’d perused just some of those available online, and suggested where my son might start. Weekly or biweekly, I’d check in with him to see how many he’d done and if he’d heard back from anyone. As the fall season passed, the kid became more and more angry when we asked about his progress. Over that same period of time, my husband and I got more and more tense, because we knew for certain that he needed scholarships to get where he wanted to go, a top public university in-state or one private school across the border in a neighboring state. One day early on, he casually threw out Stanford as a consideration. Not sure if he was serious, I asked, “Stanford?” When he confirmed, I assured him he was not a candidate for Cardinal. I explained to his quizzical countenance that his peers heading to Palo Alto had impressive applications including all kinds of activities in and out of school as well as being highly accomplished in music, sports, the arts, etc. This obviously gave him pause.
Some time in December, I went into my son’s room and asked him how confident he was about the application and scholarship processes. He assured me he knew what he was doing. I clarified that he didn’t need or want guidance from his dad or me, and he agreed wholeheartedly. The strife occurring with any mention of procuring funds prevented a meaningful review of same anyway.
From that point forward, I embraced this opportunity to employ and trust everything I’d learned about raising an independent, accountable, young man, from the parenting class curriculums for which I’d received teacher training before I had children, to the now 18 years of experience under my belt. My son was taking responsibility for his college career. I also explained this choice to my husband. “But he’s not doing it! He doesn’t get it. We have to be on him.” My response, “How is that working for us? Is it having any influence besides causing negative interactions?”
My husband did his best holding back – until Easter brunch. With all four of us together at the table, he brought up the topic and my son immediately got defensive and fired up. Voices raised, frustration exploded, and our oldest son punched a hole in the wall on his way to his bedroom. This was a first in our family, in our home. Our younger son and I sat stunned. I was most concerned about my husband’s reaction. Would this escalate? No. The three of us ate silently and eventually the fourth rejoined.
Hallelujah! Acceptance letters came from his three top choices and one of the local schools, he’d thrown in just for the heck of it. The biggest university instate offered nothing in the way of scholarship. The second one instate did offer him a couple thousand dollars per year as long as academic requirements were met. The third packet that arrived was from the private school; they were proud to offer him the Presidential Scholarship of $72,000 – spread out over four years!
With May 1 looming large, the reality check finally came down. Oh, I knew this was going to be so painful, but he had insisted on doing this without our “interference” and, now, the bulk of my parenting skills would be required to let the chips fall where they may. The financials broke down like this: instate schools’ aid both required my husband and I to borrow tens of thousands of dollars which had to be paid back after one year; and we’d need to do this each year. I had to explain why this was not an option, not even a little bit. We turned to the private school information. Even with the generous offer of $76,000 over four years, we would still need to come up with $20,000 per year!
The next few minutes are etched in my memory. I asked if he’d gotten some or any of the online scholarships, knowing full well he hadn’t. I would’ve heard if he had. He said no, didn’t get one, but said it wouldn’t have helped anyway because they were all so small. “Right. That’s why you have to get a lot of them.” His response, “I did, like, the ones you showed me. I was supposed to apply to all those on the website?” Sigh. As the fact that he wasn’t in a position to attend any of the three soaked in, he shrugged and said, “Well, looks like I’m going to (insert name of local university.) I requested a look at the financial aid package for that school. “Well, I don’t have that one. The app for that isn’t due until July 1.” “Honey, your dad and I cannot commit until we see the numbers.” “But letter of intent is due.” It was my turn to shrug. He erupted, “What do you mean? There’s nothing else, nowhere else to go!” I stayed quiet for a minute and quietly replied, “Yes, there is somewhere else to go.” The realization sunk in and he looked incredulous. “What? Are you talking about the community college? No fucking way! Community college?” I explained that this was a completely viable option; he could go there for two years and transfer; universities are always looking for transfers to make up for the students who enroll as freshman but don’t stay. “Then what the fuck was all this work for? It’s all for nothing if I’m just going to community college. I could’ve gone there without being a valedictorian!” Reassurance that hard work is its own reward fell on deaf ears. I reminded him that his very successful aunt and uncle both started with two-year degrees from that same institution.
He moved his bedroom to the basement, something he’d not done earlier because he planned to be moving. He had great workspace, shelving, and file cabinets, and he got colored light bulbs. When he earned top rank in his graduating class in math, we attended a countywide banquet where certificates would be given to all and one student in each academic subject would be granted a scholarship. Top finalists’ accolades were delivered and my son finally saw what I had been trying to tell him for years. There were kids who had spent summers studying at John Hopkins or at a music conservatory and people who pursued many interests simultaneously. All of the scholarship recipients had formidable resumés. Overall, when student names were announced, the university they would be attending was, too. My son was one of just a handful who were going to the local community college.
It was so difficult to watch this whole thing play out and to see the pain experienced by this wonderful young man as he saw his future plans fall apart. He was very relieved to know that his incredibly accomplished uncle, in particular, had attended community college. It seemed to make everything okay.
He moved out just after turning 21 and has now graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from (insert name of local 4-year school.) When I asked him recently how his paid internship was going, he told me, “Good. I’m exceeding expectations.” He certainly is.
p.s. After writing, I just remembered this: As reality came crashing down, in exasperation he asked, “What was the plan? Did you guys even have a plan?” Took a moment, kinda knocked me back, and then I replied, “We moved into this school district, regularly in the top ten for academics in the state, and did whatever it took financially for me to stay home with you guys. We told you that you would need scholarships.”
This is my thinking about kids taking responsibility – When my sons turned 15 and started talking about driving, we told them they needed to enroll in classes and then manage getting the learner’s permit and, eventually, the license. We explained that they were responsible enough to drive when they were able to complete the process. I feel the same way about college. My older son says he’s really glad things worked out the way they did; he worked his ass off and graduated with no debt.