Chapter 1: Take a Deep Breath:The Ground Rules for Parents
Relax: It's Only College
Ever since your child's prekindergarten teacher praised their newfound ability to hold on to a crayon without stuffing it up a nostril, the march toward college seemed an inevitable progression. As high school approached, this progression probably became a preoccupation. You and your offspring have both dreaded and dreamed of this monumental episode. It seems as if everything hinges on what college they'll attend, doesn't it? But calm down: It's only college.
That's right. Only.
Come on, parents, you know the truth, though you've not yet shared it with your sons and daughters. College is the cheese-and-cracker plate of life--a fine, satisfying appetizer, but hardly the most savory or memorable part of the banquet that lies ahead. In terms of sheer proportion, the time one spends at college will comprise four years out of, say, eighty--roughly 5 percent of one's earthly existence (and that's not counting spring breaks, winter breaks, and summers off). This pales beside the amount of time each of your kids will spend pursuing a career or living with their spouse, let alone the time spent sitting in traffic, counting carbohydrates, and watching Friends in syndication.
I know what you're thinking: No one succeeds without college--and by this you mean financial success. I can't blame you for your pecuniary concerns. College is an expensive investment. It had better pay off. No one wants to spend their golden years doling out a weekly allowance to un- or underemployed offspring. But consider the facts: Although college graduates do earn more, studies show that what one studies has far more economic impact than where. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study showed that graduates of so-called selective schools boast no earnings edge. And, at last count, the four wealthiest Americans (all self-made) numbered three college dropouts and a graduate of the University of Nebraska.
While there's no denying that going to college is a good thing, it also doesn't hurt to bear in mind that plenty of illustrious people throughout history never even attended college. This list includes Andrew Carnegie, Ben Franklin, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Ernest Hemingway (which is too bad, because Ernest would have enjoyed a good keg party). Nine U.S. presidents either never attended or never finished college--among them George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abe Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Harry S. Truman.
The long list of ultrasuccessful men and women who never graduated college is rife with innovators, entrepreneurs, and people who, in general, accomplished what they did by thinking outside the box. This group includes David Geffen, Ralph Lauren, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Hanks, Walter Cronkite, Rush Limbaugh, Steve Martin, Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, Dell Computer founder Michael Dell, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, MTV founder Bob Pittman, and Debra Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies. Oh, add Senator John Glenn, who dropped out of Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio.
Are you still convinced that your child's future success hangs entirely upon receiving a fat envelope from a first-choice school? If so, let me quote H. L. Mencken, who famously contended that the thinking process "has little to do with logic and is not much conditioned by overt facts." But what did he know? He didn't go to college, either.
It's What You Learn, Not Where
In 2000, male and female college grads earned 60 percent and 95 percent more, respectively, than high school graduates, according to the U.S. Department of Education. For families headed by two people with bachelor's degrees, the effect on lifetime income is $1,600,000. But, existing research shows that it's not so much which college one attends but what one does with their education.
Where CEOs Didn't Go
Between World War II and the 1980s, major companies shopped the Ivies for future chief executive officers. Twenty-first-century corporate reality is a different one.
A study by the Wharton School found that in 1980, 14 percent of CEOs of Fortune 100 companies received degrees from an Ivy League school. By 2001, that number was 10 percent. The percentage of CEOs with degrees from public universities soared from 32 percent in 1980 to 48 percent in 2001.
In 2005, Hewlett-Packard filled the job at the top with Mark Hurd, who attended Baylor University on a tennis scholarship. Disney picked a graduate of Denison University in Granville, Ohio. David Edmondson, a grad of Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College of San Dimas, California, took the helm at RadioShack.
Why the trend shift? Those in the know say companies want CEOs who have a good relationship with the rank and file. Some attribute it, in part, to "reverse snobbery" by non-Ivies doing the hiring.
Stress Is a Killjoy
Everyone knows a family that approached their upcoming Disney World vacation with the precision planning of the joint chiefs of staff. Weeks, months, even years before their getaway, they pored over maps and guidebooks, concocting a "maximum rides, minimum lines" strategy.
Their guidebooks advised them to veer toward entrances on the left, because the tendency of most people is to go right. But, when they arrived at the theme park, the family found most of the other visitors had read the same guidebooks. So everyone started going to the left. Except for those who went to the right, because they figured they would outsmart the people who'd read the guidebooks. Except for those who went to the left, because they figured they'd outsmart the people who were trying to outsmart the first bunch. Despite it all, there were lines everywhere because that's just the way it is at Disney World--and because, no matter how hard you try, there is simply no controlling the uncontrollable. At the end of the day, however, this family was none the wiser about the ways of the World. What's more, they were so cranky and confounded they forgot to have any fun.
Are you sensing an analogy coming up here? Good, because here it is: Successful college planning is like planning a successful theme-park foray. Don't waste time either following the crowd or trying to beat it. Then your experience can be a rewarding one for all.
Look at it this way: Your child is about to go to college, and that's fantastic. They're lucky. Of course success without college is possible, but how nice it is to have the option. The college years can be a fulfilling, memorable time of life. As you know, twenty years from now, they'd do anything to live the experience over again.
You're lucky, too. You have the good fortune to launch your child into the wide world while helping to provide them with a wonderful opportunity to learn, to live among their peers, and to experience for themselves some of that good old college fun that you remember so well.
Some aspects of the college-admissions process are going to be frustrating. The paperwork will be onerous. The odds of getting into certain schools will be humbling. The admissions system will strike you--correctly--as messy and arbitrary. Competitive pressures and a superabundance of advice will be such that at times you won't know whether to go left or go right. These realities are all genuine stressors (i.e., they are factors that have the potential to provoke anxiety). Nevertheless, you have the power to control the level of stress at which you react. Your kids can tap into that same power, and you can help them to do so.
This sense of self-empowerment, of proactively opting for a sense of calm over a sense of calamity, will be your greatest ally as the college-admissions drama unfolds. With the right attitude, with the ability to hang on to your sense of humor, you and your family will find your way.
It's best to approach college admissions from the start with a mind-set that anticipates challenges and is ready to meet setbacks with resilience. Prepare yourself to be flexible, to improvise as need be, and to stay open to new, exciting possibilities. Sure, you can give in to Disney World-like mania, imagining you can control the uncontrollable. But if that's your approach, know that by the time your kid's freshman orientation rolls around, neither you nor they will have much sense of fun, adventure, or appreciation left. No, make that right. No, left.
Excerpted from Getting in Without Freaking Out by Arlene Matthews. Copyright © 2006 by Arlene Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.