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I Don’t Know Where My Son Is Applying To College: Why That’s (Kind Of) OK With Me

When my oldest son was applying to college five years ago, he kept me posted every step of the way. Mostly because he kept asking for my debit card to pay various application fees. I also read many, many – many! – drafts of his essay, to the point where we still quote excerpts to each other.

His younger brother, who is applying this year, is taking a different tack. I know nothing.

“So who’s paying his application fees?” friends ask.

He’s paying them himself. There goes that sneak peek.

The few tidbits I’ve picked up so far are that:

  • All Ivy League universities are off the table. (His brother attends an Ivy League school. Ergo, by the transitive property of equality, they are unacceptable.)
  • Even though this is a kid who has been working professionally as a computer program since he was 12 years old (which is how he can afford to pay his own application fees) and who purchased The Feynman Lectures on Physics to read for fun, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is out, too. (His father went there, ergo, see above.)

So where is he applying?

I have no idea. 

And that’s (kind of) OK with me. Here’s why:

This is a boy who has always marched to the beat of his own drummer. The one who, when an AP exam conflicted with a scheduled dance performance, chose the latter and reminded me, “It’s the learning that matters, not the grade.”

The one who dropped out of Stuyvesant High School, because they weren’t letting him take the classes he wanted to take at the speed he wanted to take them. 

When I gave into his pleas to homeschool himself, my primary condition was that he would also do ALL of the work himself: Fill out paperwork, file the homeschooling plan, register for AP exams, put his transcript together, and sign up to take his high school equivalency test – all without me being required to lift a finger.

So if I managed to be so hands-off with his homeschooling, why am I so anxious that he opted to apply to college all on his own?

Maybe it’s because I am bombarded daily with not just ads for SAT prep courses and college advisers, but also with social media posts from fellow parents begging for the names of great ACT and various subject tutors, essay writing specialists, suggestions on what extracurriculars their children should be taking, what impressive community service they should be doing, and debating the merits of this school versus that one, one program versus another. 

Should I be doing something more for him? Should I be doing… anything? 

The only edict my husband and I gave our son was how much we were willing to pay for his college education. (Not more than we are currently paying for his brother’s.) And the advice that he apply for scholarships and merit aid. Lots and lots of scholarships and merit aid. (We already went through the heartbreak when he was accepted to college at age fourteen, but the school offered so little aid that we had to turn them down. Same rules apply this time around. We are not taking out any student loans. No university is worth the sticker price they charge.)

Beyond that, he could go wherever he liked.

Partially, that’s because, working in the education field – my husband is a teacher, I do… this — we believe college to be less important than high school, and high school to be less important than elementary school. The early grades are where you first learn to learn. It’s where you develop study habits and a work ethic. What you achieve in Kindergarten through 8th grade depends on your teachers and your school. What you achieve after that is up to you.

As I wrote back in July 2021:

“How’s homeschooling going?” I am asked regularly by those who know I allowed my middle child to leave Stuyvesant High School this past November, two months into his Junior year. (I was actually stopped on the street by a woman who pointed at me and told her kid, “That’s the mom who let her son drop out of school!”)

“I have no idea,” I answer honestly.

I have no idea what my son has been studying for the past two years in his room. But I do know some of what he has learned. He has learned to:

  • Manage his own schedule
  • Direct his own learning
  • Deal with the endless NYC and NY state bureaucracy, as he detailed here
  • Set goals, draw up a plan to meet them, and carry that plan out, making adjustments along the way, as necessary

All of those are much more vital life skills for an eighteen year old than any AP class or extracurricular activity/community service done solely for resume enhancing purposes.

I think.

I could be wrong.

This could still be a complete disaster. (I am a Soviet Jewish immigrant. I have no doubts that, at any moment, anything could still turn into a complete disaster.)

None of his homeschooling credits could be accepted anywhere. He could not get into any colleges. He could receive no financial aid. He could, as his father feared, end up a Black highschool dropout without a college degree and only a GED for his trouble. They don’t tend to fare well in the outside world.

And yet, I have to believe that all the practical skills which he learned after leaving Stuyvesant won’t allow that to happen.

That even if he meets unexpected obstacles, he will have the ability, the experience – and the confidence — to overcome them.

That where he ends up going to college ultimately matters a great deal less than who he is as a person, what he knows, and what he can do. (“It’s the learning that matters, not the grade.”)

Or I could be wrong.

I’ve always been a “life experience is more important than classroom memorization” kind of person. My son used those precise words against me when making the argument for homeschooling.

Didn’t I want to practice what I preached?

Uhm… yes?

Uhm… no?

I do want my kids to be independent, I do want them to be self-directed, I do want them to forge their own paths, and I do want them to make their own mistakes and to learn from them.

But is this how I want them to do it?

He’s only eighteen. Shouldn’t I be guiding him? Offering him the benefit of my life experience? A teen-ager’s frontal cortex is a notorious work in progress! (It doesn’t matter how smart teens are or how well they scored on the SAT or ACT. Good judgment isn’t something they can excel in, at least not yet. The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.)

Yeah, I know all the research. Yeah, I know what the parenting message boards say.

Yeah… I’m still going to let him do it his way.

If everything goes according to plan — great!

If everything falls apart — it will be a valuable lesson learned.

If a decision he made Junior year of high school ends up ruining his entire life… now, see, I don’t believe that. I’m a Soviet-Jewish immigrant. I believe that in America there are always second chances. It’s why my family came here in the first place. (My African-American husband is a bit less sanguine on the matter, but even he ultimately agreed that there might be more than one path to success. Not to mention multiple definitions of what success means. Am I supposed to care about how much money my son ends up making? I really can’t motivate myself to care about how much money my son ends up making. As long as he can support himself by doing what he loves to do… I’m a writer, that’s my definition of success.)

Of course, we could both still be wrong….

Feel free to tell us how and why in great detail, in the Comments!

What do you think?

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