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Where To Draw The Line In a “Sink or Swim” World

“I didn’t go to college because I was busy working. And I always had this ‘sink or swim’ feeling in my life.” – Lori Loughlin, actress, mother, and one of the parents at the center of the college admissions cheating scandal

My mother could have written those words. A ninth-grade high school dropout, she considered entry into college to be the end-all, be-all for me. But she also said things like, “College isn’t everything,” when I hung up the newest poster or brochure from Boston University, Harvard, Princeton or Northwestern. I’m not sure if it was to keep my expectations in check or because she was bitter about her own limited options.

Now that I’m a parent, I kind of get where she was coming from. I tell my kids, “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re happy.” I also know that a good formal education can still open doors. Getting into the “right” college (however one defines it) can lead to success in the real world, and success can lead to financial security. That is something my mother never had.

“I want you to have more choices than I did,” my mother told me when I applied to eight colleges, using money from my part-time job at a bakery to pay for the application fees. She was functionally illiterate. She could read recipes and school forms, but she struggled with anything beyond a fourth-grade reading level. How did she get by? She obtained a forged high school diploma in order to apply for a job working as a grocery store cashier. She wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed but matter-of-fact: this was what she felt she had to do to survive.

Loughlin’s words struck a chord with me because I recognize that sink or swim feeling.

I saw it in my mother, and I felt it as a 20-year-old college dropout. I see it in friends who are struggling to make ends meet while pushing their kids to work harder, get better grades, take on more extracurriculars, and achieve goals they can’t even fathom for themselves.

Still, what my mother did to get a job isn’t anywhere close to what Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and the dozens of other wealthy and well-connected parents did to secure their children’s admittance to prestigious universities.

Or is it?

I keep going over and over it. Is it as black and white as I want to believe? What would my mother have done, given the opportunity and resources, to secure me a place at the school of my choice? To know that, no matter what it took, my life wouldn’t be “sink or swim” as hers had been?

It took me twelve years and five colleges to get my bachelor’s degree. I was forty before I finished my master’s degree. Getting those degrees was important to me for reasons that have nothing to do with how much money I would make someday. It took so long because I didn’t want the crippling student loan debt so many of my friends still have.

My kids are just entering their tweens and I’m still years from thinking about what colleges they might attend.

We will be supportive of whatever post-high school choices they make, but my mother’s voice is still in the back of my head saying, “Get your education and do better than I did.”

With this in mind, we started college funds for our children when they were born. They’re already far ahead of where I was at their age, but it’s still not nearly enough to cover the costs.

What am I willing to do to make sure my kids never feel that “sink or swim” feeling? In my early twenties, I worked a series of retail jobs until I got to management and a livable wage. There is nothing shameful about working retail or food service, or attending trade school, or any other path that gets you to a modicum of security. There is nothing wrong with working hard for your education.

But:  Like many others, I want more for my kids. Just like my mother wanted more for me. Just like the rich and privileged want for their kids. I don’t defend what these parents did. I don’t excuse it. Not for a minute. I don’t feel sorry for them, even if I can understand what might motivate them in the first place.

The fact is, the college admissions system is hopelessly broken and as long as people can buy their way to a degree, they will. With called-in favors. With side door entries and legacy agreements. With nepotism and the large donations. The privileged will always find a way to take care of their own. And while we might criticize and condemn, I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t do whatever they could to help their children succeed. Legally, of course.

We all have a line we will not cross. Your line might be different from mine. I can do more for my kids than my mother could do for me. Does that mean I should? Do I have an obligation to do everything in my power, up to the line of breaking the law, to help my children succeed in life?

Our original interview with Lori Laughlin:

I can say I would never offer a bribe, cheat on a standardized test, or forge a document, because I can’t imagine ever feeling like I needed to. But then I think of my mother and the choices she made that didn’t seem like choices to her at all. Where would I draw the line to make sure my kids swim instead of sink? I honestly don’t know.

Kristina Wright

Kristina Wright is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Your Teen Magazine.