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School Choice: Introducing a college-bound daughter to a suitable bachelor of arts


Published March 27, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

  • Dan Salamida

In some cultures, the parents of a 16-year-old girl would plot their daughter’s future by consulting the local matchmaker. As ours began the spring semester of her junior year in high school, David and I did the academic equivalent: We paid a call to the college-guide section at our local bookstore. We were initiating the first step in a yearlong rite of passage that will end up — we hope — telling us which institution of higher learning will help usher our elder child into adulthood.

We’ve seen Sophie through lots of life changes, from solid food to dating, so college choice isn’t the first milestone to send us running to the experts. But how were we to choose from the intimidating mass of oversized directories available? My analytical husband wanted verifiable facts and figures: enrollment, test scores, percentage of faculty with doctorates. I craved more flavor: Did the the students tend toward brown rice or Jell-O shots? Which campuses have nice trees?

The Fiske Guide to Colleges seemed to satisfy us both. Colorful writing describes Marlboro College students as “crazy, dedicated, love-struck, joyful, cynical, conscious freaks who go blasting around campus in a frenzy of creative and destructive energy.” Augmenting these word pictures, sidebars list more objective variables like acceptance rate and percentage of students receiving financial aid.

In the world according to Fiske, Middlebury College’s academics earn four pen-in-hand icons, out-ranking the University of Vermont. But UVM’s “five” in social life way out-parties Middlebury’s “three.”

While we boned up at Borders, however, Sophie stayed home doing her school work, or hanging out with her boyfriend, or whatever. She seemed perfectly content with her life the way it was at the moment, and hadn’t yet shown much interest in exploring the next step.

We brought our trophy home and laid it on the coffee table, like a salt lick for a deer, then sat back and waited for her to find it. We wanted to nudge her without appearing too pushy. Days passed. When she didn’t open the book on her own, we studied it in depth ourselves, and checked off those institutions we deemed worth considering.

We weren’t the only ones trying to spark Sophie’s interest. Around Valentine’s Day, not long after their PSAT scores were released, she and her friends began receiving collegiate come-ons in the mail. Like unattached guys prowling the perimeter of a mixer, the mailings we’ve seen fit just about all types. Some schools claim only to want you to be happy, wherever you end up. Just ask, and Skidmore will gladly send you its useful “Ten Tips for a Successful College Interview.” Other schools project an air of ironic wit. “You might be distracted by the tropical beauty of Florida,” winks one letter. “If so, the University of Miami is not for you.”

Ohio Wesleyan pants with flattery: “You are inquisitive. You have imagination. You have talent.” Some colleges seem desperate to assert their uniqueness. Bennington’s three-fold card shuns the expected images of smiling students and ivy-clad buildings in favor of a da Vinci drawing of hands and Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to “The Times They Are a-Changin.” The enclosed reply card depicts an empty frame and invites, “describe yourself.”

You just know that Middle-bury College is one of a kind, because its stylish mini-book is unlike any other — except Oberlin’s, which looks as if it was conceived by the exact same PR firm. Seeing them side by side is like watching two debutantes arrive at a ball dressed in identical gowns.

Amidst all this posing and positioning, what does stand out is the no-bullshit approach. “It’s that time of year, when students begin searching for the perfect college and when colleges begin competing to recruit promising students,” acknowledges St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Even more up-front is Loyola College, also in Maryland, which begins its carefully worded letter, “Your PSAT scores suggest that your SATs will probably meet our admission guidelines… although SATs are only one factor in our evaluation.”

Sophie appreciated Loyola’s honesty. But she wasn’t tempted to fill out the reply card.

In this world of cyber-dating, it’s hardly surprising that colleges are also strutting their stuff on the Web. Every snail-mail solicitation includes the school’s Web site address, and most assign the prospective student a personal password and user name, the better to track — and pursue — whoever’s biting. The purported audience of these college home pages is kids. But so far, I’ve clicked on a lot more of them than Sophie has.

And, I must say, I find these sites mighty appealing. I’ve enjoyed a virtual tour of Brown University, lingered over the daily dinner menu at Vassar, and grooved to the ambient music accompanying a blurb describing Columbia as “nestled in and enlivened by the seriously turbo-charged city of New York.”

I want to attend every one of the faculty concerts on Oberlin’s activities calendar. And how can I not fantasize about enrolling in a class at Williams entitled “Stupidity and Intelligence”?

If I were an actual high school junior, I could do more than simply peer longingly at these pages. I could e-mail a current student, schedule an on-campus interview, even submit my application, all from the comfort of home. But I’ve been there, done that, 30 years ago, and now it’s Sophie’s turn. I can natter all I want about youth being wasted on the young. But my primary role is to point the kid in the right direction, and then try to figure out how to come up with the dowry, er, tuition.

At good private colleges, combined tuition and fees can run as high as $35,000 — the median household income in Vermont. What does this hefty price tag buy? In their promotional materials, some schools idealize the years between high school and reality as a time to explore one’s intellectual potential, develop social consciousness, find a life path.

Macalester boasts that its students are “committed to high intellectual performance,” as if brains were gasoline. Less driven students are reassured that at Muhlenberg they can “take the time to taste, to sample, to explore.” Swarthmore challenges, “Is it enough to create new knowledge? Or do you want to make the world better with what you know?”

The more selective — and expensive — schools intimate access to influence and the automatic imprimatur of status. Wellesley’s letter touts “an extensive alumnae network of successful women… eager to help you achieve your career goals.” The University of Pennsylvania introduces itself as “one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious institutions.”

What are our objectives? In essence, David and I are trying to replicate in Sophie our own student selves. For four blissful years at Hampshire College, we basked in an extended adolescence, enjoying nearly all the freedom of independent adulthood while assuming almost none of its responsibilities. We stretched our brains further than we’d ever stretched them before. We spent late nights and long breakfasts cracking jokes with clever friends. We got into graduate school. We found each other.

The good life we’re living today is a direct outgrowth of those years. Would we be just as happy and productive if we’d gone somewhere else? No way to know. Given that, the best we can do is try to make available to our daughter the same range of options our parents offered us, and hope it works out as well for Sophie.

Ultimately, the choice has to be hers. But before that can happen, she needs to get engaged… in the process. The best way to pique her interest, I figured, was to give the girl some face time with her envisioned future by visiting a couple of college campuses.

David worried that these pilgrimages actually do more to muddy than to clarify one’s thinking. “What if it happens to be raining the day of your visit?” he suggested. “What if the music she hears through a dorm window happens to be by her favorite band?” Spending such a brief time in a place creates a very vivid impression based on an extremely random sample, he contended. I countered, “How can we spend $30,000 a year on a place we’ve never seen?”

Before hitting the highway, we sampled the local product. Though David has worked at UVM for 15 years and we live just a few blocks from campus, the experience proved informative. We discovered that student guides walk backwards. We heard about the intricacies of meal blocks and points. We learned that the Fleming Museum once mounted an exhibit featuring Elvis Presley’s gallstones, and that the best place to study is a certain balcony in Billings Student Center.

Towards the end of the tour, we were shown the school’s vast athletic complex — a part of campus our decidedly non-sports-oriented family had rarely seen. As we trekked from the tennis and basketball courts to the pool, past the ice rink and the spanking-new weight room, Sophie finally focused. “I’m not going anyplace with a phys-ed requirement,” she declared.

Two days later, we glided through the gothic stone gate of Vassar. We’d decided to visit this school based on its size, location and test scores, as well as what Fiske describes as its “curricular flexibility.” We had been driving through snow and rain all morning. But as we climbed out of the car, the sky cleared. “I’m going to go here because the sun’s out,” Sophie announced.

Over the next couple of hours, we made a list of equally questionable reasons to like the place. Our pizza lunch was cheap and tasty. Our witty, backwards-walking guide wore bowling shoes like Sophie’s boyfriend’s. The dorm room we saw featured a magnificent bay window. Vassar’s campus is a registered arboretum — a strike against the school, in Sophie’s book, because it means tree-climbing is not allowed.

Nevertheless, our visit did have the desired effect. As we left the campus, course catalogue in hand, Sophie chatted authoritatively about concentration requirements, field work and study abroad. Whether or not she ends up attending — or even applying to — Vassar, she was starting to imagine herself as a college student and seemed to be liking what she saw.

Her enthusiasm increased at Wesleyan, where the campus felt lively — and the weather was warmer. Sophie hated the cinder-block, graffiti-scrawled dorm. But she loved the way kids were lying flat on their backs in the middle of the sidewalk during lunch. By the time we’d worked our way through the maze of busy, well-equipped studios — painting, printmaking, sculpture, film and more — she was sold. And so was I. But what if Sophie’s school choice turns out to be a love unrequited? What if, after a beautiful courtship and honeymoon, our daughter wakes up in a lousy marriage?

My concerns crystallized during the information session we attended before heading home. Our group included the worried family of a high school senior who had turned in her applications and was waiting to hear the results. After patiently answering question after anxious question from the girl’s high-strung mother, the admissions officer finally turned to the daughter.

“Look,” he said, smiling kindly. “People get this romantic notion that there’s one perfect school for them out there, and if they don’t get into it, their whole life will be ruined. But that’s just not true. There are lots of places where you can get a great education, and I’m sure you’ll end up at one of them.”

His words were a comfort to us all. I just hope our family remembers them next April, when we’ve reached the other end of this dance we’ve just set into motion. By then, Sophie will have gone from deciding between beaus to hoping to be chosen. In matters of the mind, as of the heart, it’s easier on the ego to be pursued than to pursue. But what really counts is what happens after the chase. The bottom line in both is, if worse comes to worst, there’s always the option to transfer.