By Jane Parent
Dave’s son is a senior in high school. This fall, he applied to a handful of selective colleges for engineering programs. One school he did not apply to? Dave’s alma mater, the dream college where Dave had always hoped his son would go. “It broke my heart that I had to tell my son he couldn’t even apply there because I couldn’t afford to send him there. Telling him he could not go there was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a father.”
Like Dave, my brother has dreamed and planned since the day his son was born that he would go to his alma mater. Even though my nephew’s a great kid with so many talents, it’s starting to sink in that his dream college is going to be just out of reach. “I would empty out my bank accounts, I would give up all my retirement savings to make this happen for him,” my brother says. “It’s the first time as a father that I ever feel like I’ve failed him because I can’t do this for him.”
I’ve been there, too. And it’s really hard. My husband and I went to the same university, where my father and brothers also attended. We took our kids to football games, bought them college sweatshirts, rooted with them as “our team.” It was the fondest wish of my heart that at least one of our kids would continue the family tradition and go there.
The realization that our first son wouldn’t get in dawned on me slowly at first as a sick, anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach after I saw his sophomore year GPA, and then all at once at the first college meeting junior year in high school. We saw the hard cold admission facts up there on the auditorium projector: our son very clearly didn’t have the grades to get in. I think he knew it before we did, and I’m guessing that he also knew that I was disappointed in him.
It affected our relationship. I was sad, embarrassed, and angry that he didn’t have the grades he needed to make my dream come true, and he was depressed and miserable. It wasn’t fair of me to make him feel like a failure, but I’m sure I did.
Thankfully, my husband’s more practical attitude prevailed. We swung into college tour mode. We developed a spread sheet of schools with our son’s criteria: engineering schools, no more than four hours from home, either in or close to a big city. And then we started touring different college campuses.
And something amazing happened. We started focusing on what was important to him, instead of to me. After I let my cherished plans for my dream college fall away, I was able (1) to realize wow, there are actually some pretty great schools out there besides the one I went to, and (2) to get excited about all the opportunities and potential futures that were out there for our son.
As for our other kids, they simply didn’t have any interest in even visiting our college, much less applying or going to it. Our daughter was actively hostile, our younger son merely indifferent. Clearly, my dream college was not theirs.
So what do you do when your college dream dies? Well, here’s what I did.
- This isn’t about you. Repeat as necessary: this is about your kid, not you. You’ve already been to college. Ask what he or she wants. Don’t compare it to your college experience. After that initial jolt of disappointment, we regrouped. We made a conscious decision to focus on what each child wanted, to listen, and to watch how they responded to each campus visit. We made a list of our priorities, which helped to take the emotion out of it. Comparing cost, rankings, and job placement rates after graduation began to seem like more compelling reasons to pick a college than where your mother wants you to go—even to me.
- Go on lots of college tours. Walking around different campuses, listening to presentations, meeting students, and spending time sitting in the actual classrooms really helped crystallize what our kids wanted, and just as importantly, didn’t want in a prospective college. As for me, it helped me realize there are so many other colleges out there where our kids could thrive. By the time our oldest son applied, I was comfortable that he had several great choices and could be happy and successful at any of them.
- Have faith. I am a person of faith. I believe that God has a plan for my children’s lives. Even if I had other plans for them, it comforted me to believe that a higher power was in charge of this whole college admission craziness, and that each kid would end up where he or she is meant to be. I also believe in an inner voice that nudges you and says “Pay attention” to help you decide what’s right for you. I’ve experienced it with each of my children selecting high schools and colleges, a moment of excited recognition of “Hey, I really like this!” Wait for that moment. And then trust the college they ultimately choose, which has been educating thousands of other people’s kids for years. Most importantly, trust that your son or daughter is competent, prepared, and ready for the challenges ahead.
- Embrace their choice. Our kids chose colleges that I never would have dreamed of— and their experiences have expanded and enriched our world and our family life in ways we never could have predicted. New cities, new parts of the country, new traditions. Witnessing them set their own goals and work towards them has been one of the deepest joys of parenthood.
They aren’t having the same college experience I did, but they’re learning, achieving, and thriving. And really, isn’t that every parent’s dream?
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.