While the weather continues to be absurdly changeable, there is one constant in our life at the moment: the deluge of mail coming into the house every day from colleges all over the USA.
Our youngest is a junior in high school (one more year until he graduates). This means that he will be applying to college in a few months’ time — bearing in mind that when Americans say “college,” or sometimes even “school,” they mean university, not the last two years of high school-level education.
With undergraduate tuition running at anywhere from $10,000 a year for a state-run institution, to $50,000+ for the elite private universities (and yes, that’s just tuition, not including minor details like a roof over their heads, food, books, etc.), college is seriously big business over here. No wonder, then, that the various institutions start targeting students months before the autumn application round starts.
This is just a selection of what’s arrived the past couple of days — many of them places I didn’t even know existed until the brochures arrived. Do you want a small, liberal arts college nestled in the countryside? A large institution with a reputation for serious research, in the heart of a big city? How about a massive campus that’s a world unto itself? The sheer range of options is overwhelming. And they all look wonderful! Every single one seems to tout its diverse student body, range of extracurricular clubs in the sports and the arts, challenging coursework, opportunities for summer programs/travel abroad/internships, etc.
Williams, in Massachusetts (annual tuition $48,000), sent an entire 20-page chapbook, full of glossy pictures extolling its many virtues.
There is no limit on how many places you can apply to — except the hassle of writing application essays, and the fact that every single one charges an application fee (anywhere from $45 to $90).
Many eons ago, when I was going through this in the UK, the system was simple: you got to choose up to six institutions and courses through UCCA (the University Central Council on Admissions, now called UCAS). You ranked those six in order. Maybe you’d visit a couple of the places beforehand, to make sure they really offered what you wanted, and maybe one or two would want to interview you in person before deciding if they’d offer you a place. That offer of a place was based on your expected A-level results (such as, “we’ll take you if you get two A-grades and one B-grade”). Then, you’d bite your nails waiting for the A-level exam results in late-August that would determine where you ended up.
Doubtless the system in the UK has changed in the decades since then, but I can’t imagine it’s anything like the American version?
So, all of this means that, like many middle-class suburban parents, we’ll be spending a good chunk of the summer on college visits. Something of a right-of-passage road trip for many families, when slightly shell-shocked parents find themselves tramping around endless campuses and sitting through “welcome to xyz!” presentations in halls and meeting rooms, dazedly wondering (a) when the toddler suddenly became a college-bound near-adult, and (b) how the hell they’re going to pay for all this.
We are incredibly lucky to live in a neighborhood with a really “good” school system — and part of this is the extent to which the high school kids are plugged into the world of opportunity beyond the local borders. Their grades, preliminary test results, interests, and ambitions get entered into the online system that the universities tap into, looking for prospective students. Hence, the daily mail deluge.
But, if you’re a poorer student, perhaps in a struggling inner-city or rural school system that doesn’t have access to these kinds of resources? Many of the more expensive universities now make a point of offering all of their financial aid in the form of grants, not loans — so, theoretically, a kid from a poorer family could get a free ride all the way through at, say, Princeton. But, if you’re not already “in the system” in some way, odds are, all those lovely colleges don’t even know you exist.