Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Most Irrational Decision

The Sunny Street--"College" (mp3)

Is there any decision that is more fraught with instincts, neuroses, gut feelings, family pressures, and sheer arbitrariness than deciding where to go to college?

I mean, think about it for a second. How do you even get started? Someone who knows you based on a series of superficial numbers and statistics makes some recommendations to you based on what you think you would like to study and where/how you would like to study it even though you've never done it. From that person, you get a list of schools that are "good fits" academically and in terms of a few tangible criteria like size and location.

If that. That's if you're lucky. In my day, in a public school, you walked into the all-purpose guidance counselor who said, "Ok, where do you want to go to college?" And someone like me said, "I don't know, I guess where my brother went."

And that's only one of the many family connections that might influence a college decision. I sat with a mother at a Boarding Visitors Day just last week whose older son was forced to go to Washington and Lee because his father had gone there. Even though he wanted to go to UVA.

My daughter, who attends a private school and is currently in the hunt for a college, has a skilled, knowledgeable college-only counselor, but I am not convinced that the search is any less capricious, despite her counselor's best efforts.

These are among the issues my daughter is weighing. A city or out in the middle of nowhere? Good weather? Does it have the major that she may or may not be interested in, depending on the day of the week? Should it be a school with a fun football environment? Close to home? Too close? Greek life is important or not? How is the shopping? Are any of her friends applying there, too? Is she applying because they are applying or vice-versa? Does her mother like the school or not? Is her mother pushing the school or not? How was the tour? How was the tour guide? Are the facilities state-0f-the-art or Mickey Mouse? Can she get in? What do her parents' four college-counseling friends think of the school? How would it compare to where her sister goes? How do the current students look? How do they dress? Does the dining hall have Chik-Fil-A? Are there good local places to eat as well? Does everyone stay on campus on the weekends or go home? Who else do we know who went there? What did they think of it? How much weight does the story of the girl who went last year but came home unhappy carry? What kind of traditions does the school have? Is there a coherent architectural plan? Are there Amish?

It may be one of the great mysterious miracles of life that so many people end up at a college that actually suits them. My theory, though, is that personal choice, a person working through the idiosyncratic factors that are most important to him or her, often have little impact on the success of a college experience.

Instead, once you get there, a whole new set of arbitrary factors kick in--how's your roommate, do you meet a girl or guy, what kind of bands come play on campus or nearby, are the keystone experiences of your freshman year positive or negative, are you the kind of person who sticks out a situation through tough times or who knows enough to get out of a bad situation, do you meet a girl or guy, is there a professor or a field of study you really connect with, is there a study abroad program that shapes who you will become, does your school carry a lot of "street cred," do you meet a girl or guy--that determine how you view your college years.

Me, wasn't that crazy about my college years. Didn't meet a girl. Wasn't studying something that I really wanted to. Followed the path that my father guided me onto.

Me, loved graduate school. Got a degree in what I was really interested in. Met a girl. Married her.

And while it would be easy to say that that is all it came down to, there were other factors. Primarily, I didn't really know what I wanted until I was twenty-two, or, really, when I was twenty-four.

But there is no way to know that when you are 17 and scanning lists that your counselor has handed you or looking through books or talking to friends or trying to decide based on the one hour you spend on a college campus during a trip that you take with your parents along, both of whom have their own college issues that have never been resolved, so that, as you look at a possible home for the next four years, your parents are thinking, "Man, if I could do it all over again, I would...."


Thom Anon said...

My college experience got a heckuva lot better once I started getting high.


Billy said...

Beyond having every right to dictate matters where price points are involved, I'm not sure parents can do anything remotely helpful or useful for their children during the college search process short of getting the #*@% out of the way and reminding said child you love them and want the best for them.

The more intensely parents feel they have to help their children in this process, the more they're kinda saying their kids are incompetent or not remotely ready to grow up.... right? (Or, as you suggest, involvement might correlate strongly with the number of haunted issues the parent is working through.)

Bob said...

It's hard not to be vicarious about the college experience. Any time I step on any college campus, it all comes flooding back, mostly the sense of freedom and of possibility.

jed said...

i know exactly why i went to college where i did but i am too ashamed to say...