Whose college education is it, anyway?

Be warned…perhaps my recent birthday has made me a bit cranky as well as old(er), because there are a couple of opinionated days on the calendar here at The 3 R’s this week.

OK, it’s been awhile since I went off on one of my over-involved parents/over-entitled kids rants. (I’ll bet you haven’t missed them much, either…they were starting to wear on me a bit, too.) This post on The Juggle kicked me back into gear, though.

Quitting your job to devote yourself full-time to the college-admissions process – not your own, but your kid’s? Sometimes I really wonder where it will all end. Juggle blogger Katherine Meyer comments that

“Things seem to have changed a lot since I applied to college in the early 1990s. I was lucky that my father’s affiliation with a university gave him great benefits toward tuition costs. We spent a couple of weekends checking out schools, but otherwise I don’t think the application process interrupted my parents’ professional lives at all.”

The Juggle post references a WSJ article by Sue Shellenbarger which discusses an “appropriate” level of involvement for parents in their children’s college plans. She notes that

“There’s certainly a larger role for parents today than in the past — when I, for example, casually applied to the state university, got in and showed up at registration bearing a tuition check in three figures. Students are being advised to apply to nine to 12 colleges, up from six to eight a few years ago. And today’s high tuition bills give parents a big stake in the process.”

That last point is pretty relevant. It’s much more difficult to work one’s way through school and finish in less than six or seven years – and/or without a load of debt – than it was in the past, which can indeed serve to extend the parental-support years.

When my son was making his college plans – not all that long ago, since he only graduated with his bachelor’s degree a year ago – he had one advantage; a father who knew the system. As a college professor who had done the obligatory stint on the Admissions Committee during his pre-tenure years, he was a qualified guide to the process. His employer was also a generous financial-aid provider to the children of faculty and staff, so funding was going to be available (to the extent that, aside from about $10,000 in savings bonds, we hadn’t established any other college funds for our son ourselves; this turned out to be a huge disadvantage when he left his position at the college to return to school – medical school – himself. But our son did have a scholarship for a few years, some grant money, relatively modest student loans, and some solid experience in managing his expenses as a by-product of his college years…and boy, did I digress right there). In any case, we offered advice, paid application fees, reviewed application forms and essays, and reminded (badgered) about deadlines – but it was by no means a full-time job, and ultimately it was our son’s future in the balance, not ours. It was up to him to do the research and the work to make it happen.

We’re a few years away from getting into the process with my stepdaughter, but I don’t foresee a level of involvement there all that much higher than it was with my son. I thought that the most telling points in Shellenbarger’s article were this:

Sit down early with your teen and “set expectations as a family” about priorities and roles, says James Boyle, president of College Parents of America, an advocacy group. Is the objective to enroll at a big-name school? To prepare the teen for a career? Or to find a good fit that will foster personal growth?

Then, step back and give your child ownership (emphasis added). It’s fine to accompany teens on campus visits, backstop on deadlines and serve as a cheerleader and coach.

But watch for signs you’re adding to the stress.

and especially this:

One mother of a high schooler, a manager for a New York financial-information concern, says friends are pressuring her to devote full time to the college search (again, emphasis added). With other parents on the case 24/7, she says, “they argue that by working, I’m putting my daughter at a disadvantage in today’s hyper-competitive college-admissions game.”

The first point puts the emphasis on the college-bound teen, which is where this whole thing is supposed to be focused. The second one stresses the parents – in more ways than one – and, as seems to happen so often, shifts the focus to them instead of keeping it where it belongs, and that’s when I start gritting my teeth.

Here’s the thing: it’s your kid’s life – it’s not a do-over for yours. I’ve said before that I really believe that our job as parents is the raising of future adults, and it’s a process; you can’t do everything for them until they’re 18 or 21, and then set them loose thinking they’re ready for Life. (At the same time, you can’t refuse to let them loose at all, either.) The high-school and college years are meant to be transitional, a time of gradual shifting in control and autonomy, in which the parent becomes more of a supervisor and less of a front-line worker. However, many parents dread this and fight it – and in doing so, seem to forget their efforts to gain independence and respect from their own parents when they were adolescents. Here’s the other thing: parenting is the ultimate “it’s not about you” situation. The problem seems to be that sometimes parents aren’t exactly clear about when the things they really feel they’re doing “for the kids” may not be quite so altruistic…

One thing in Shellenbarger’s article that I noted with some sense of hope is that there are kids who are willing to assert themselves and put the brakes on their parents’ excessive involvement with the college-admissions process. It’s good to know that they’re developing a sense of boundaries after all.

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  1. I’m with you. We have a way to go until college since we started with kids a little late, but I haven’t heard about people devoting their lives to their child’s college search. Sure, they are going to need some coaxing to get things done, but they are the ones going to college. They should be doing most of the work. Sounds like you have a good plan.

  2. Mike – Well, it worked OK once. I’m mostly going to be an advisor with my stepkids’ college plans, as I see it, but hopefully the bio-parents will listen to me. 🙂

  3. I don’t know where parents get the idea that schools are more competitive than they were years ago. As a college student who got myself into school (and I pay my own tuition), I don’t see what the fuss is about. There are some kids at my school who shouldn’t even be in college, so I’m sure the admissions requirements have not gone up. Also, if kids are coached and coddled into their 20s, how will they ever function as adults?

  4. I hear that over-involvement doesn’t end (or begin) with the college application process. I hear from some people I know who are college professors that they have gotten calls from parents regarding assignment, grades, etc.

    For their twenty-something (or nearly) college student!

    I know college was a long time ago for me, but if my parents tried to insert themselves that way into my life back then? O. M. S. I would have died. Or killed them. Or changed schools. Or threatened to, at least, in that melodramatic young person way LOL.

    But I hear the same thing now from parents. I hear it about elementary school: you have to be in the classroom, you have to be there, volunteer, blah blah blah or your kid won’t get a good education.

    Listen, I harangue our public education and teaching to the test with the best of them, but I also respect our teachers and prefer to trust their expertise. I chip in when I can or when the teacher specifically asks, and take up invitations to come to class when the teacher extends them. And I do maintain a daily involvement in my kids school work, learning and education. At home.

    I just can’t keep up with the Mamanistas, and I’m not sure it’s in my kids best developmental interest that I try to.

  5. You know, it’s one thing to advocate for your child’s education when he is 9, and anything he says will be taken with a big grain of salt. It’s another thing to advocate for your child’s education when he is 19 and a legal adult! How the heck will he (or she) learn to stand up for himself if you keep doing it for him, Ms Parent?

    I also notice that nobody is advocating *men* dropping out of the workforce to help Junior’s admission chances. Hmmmm.

    And one final point, I promise, Let’s say Mr and Ms Parent work their asses to get Junior into a Good School. Are they really ready to ride herd on him for 4 years (more if he does grad school and heaven knows with this treatment he won’t be ready for the workforce)? Are they ready to do his job for him after graduation day?

    The day I get a recommendation letter from Mommy it a day I toss a resume in the circular file.

  6. As someone who works at a university, your post and the responses of your readers here are very reassuring … sometimes in a university setting it feels like the world has been taken over by the “helicopter parent” mentality!

  7. Thanks for the great comments, folks!

    Robyn – You make some very good points. I’m not sure the colleges are more competitive as far as standards, but more people are going to college now. And back in my college days, there were kids who didn’t belong there either.

    Julie P – When my ex-husband was a professor, he used to get those calls. He would tell the parents that since their child was over 18, he couldn’t tell them anything without the student’s express permission.

    It sounds like you’re doing right by your kids’ developmental interests without keeping up with the Mamanistas (love that term, BTW).

    ShortWoman – You know, they just might be…I suspect there are MAJOR boundary issues in these cases, and probably plenty of other issues as well. I don’t see how this is good for anyone. I love the fact that my 23-year-old is independently functional; that’s as it should be.

    Pam – I was too busy to “helicopter” when my son was growing up :-), and I wouldn’t have even if I could, anyway.

  8. Not being a parent, I have no experience with this other than my own as a student. I hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten in regards to parent involvement. I agree with what everyone is saying about it being detrimental to creating an independent, free thinking adult. I know there are gung-ho parents out there who are more interested in achieving their dreams for their kids instead of focusing on what the kids themselves want, but this is going much too far.

  9. Good heavens. I wasn’t so invested when my kids were in high school! I guess I was in elementary — given that I homeschooled them till grade 4 or 5. Once they started school, though, they were expected to manage their own homework and timetables. I kept in touch with the teachers, of course, but not once did I lay hands on a project, or do more than provide snack for homework time and assist with the occasional specific question.

    Doing their applications for them? When they’re 18 and 19 years old? Ye gods.

  10. Literary Feline – “I know there are gung-ho parents out there who are more interested in achieving their dreams for their kids instead of focusing on what the kids themselves want…”

    I think that observation nails it, Wendy – it goes along with MaryP comment regarding parental “investment,” and speaks to the question I asked in the title of this post. I sometimes get the sense that for some people, it’s about “having kids” – as extensions of themselves – more than about “being parents.”

    MaryP – From other discussions, I know we have similar approaches to many parenting issues, so your answer doesn’t surprise me :-). “Ye gods” is about right.