Higher Education: Do you have a choice?

June 17, 2012

Sometimes we don’t really give great consideration to the major issues of our time until they touch us or someone close to us in a profound way. That’s the case for me concerning our system of higher education. For me and my Honor Student child, the realization of the cost of college has proved to be a devastating conclusion to a stellar high school career. Yes, the Williamsport Area School District has indeed provided my child with a first-class education. But, at a time when a student who has excelled in every aspect of education and extracurricular endeavors should be celebrating and excitedly anticipating her college years, my daughter’s experience has been the opposite. At 18 years old, she’s been crushed by the reality of the haves and has “not so much.”

My daughter has been accepted into five honors programs at prestigious colleges and universities in the northeastern United States and has been informed that she will not be attending the institution of her choice because the cost is too high. A natural response would be something like, “A child such as you have described would certainly be eligible for scholarships.” And you would be correct. Unfortunately, when a university has a yearly cost of $55,000 or $60,000, a $20,000 scholarship, although generous, leaves an astronomical burden on a family, and a family like mine—with a middle-class living—is priced out of the running. So here we are at the apex of what will still be a bright future, with a young woman who has learned a harsh but very real lesson about education, class and that elusive concept of fairness.

In recent years I have had scores of conversations with excited parents about their child’s prospects for college—people telling me that their child was attending this school or that and in turn asking where my daughter was applying. No one ever told me that they had to mortgage their house or cash in their retirement or that they simply would not be able to send their child to the school of their choice. Is the truth not acceptable in polite conversation or is there a secret that I am not privy to?

New York City, my child’s dream, will not at this time be her destination; she will not be attending her first choice or even her second choice. However, in the end, we will work it out, because we have no choice. We are in that growing group of people who are fortunate enough to not live in poverty, but are far from wealth or affluence; there are no grandparents of means, no inheritances, and no government grants. We are not poor, we are a modest working family with two parents who fall somewhere in between. After tears and prayers comes the realization that we are, however, the lucky ones—our child did not drop out of school, she did not falter in her education or her dreams, she has had wonderful teachers and thoughtful mentors. I have come to understand that it is simply a lesson, a detour, an exercise in the truth of our society. Sadly, we tell our children to aim high and dream big; she did and was awakened with a harsh bucket of reality. I do believe in the end my daughter will somehow be better for the experience. I wish she felt that way now so that she could enjoy her final weeks of high school without the shadow of a broken dream.

My charge now is to ensure that I leave my child with the understanding that she is not a second-class citizen, that not having does not equate to undeserving. That she is even more wonderful for meeting the challenge and excelling in spite of it. I am also challenged with being kind to myself and not allowing myself to feel inadequate or like a failure because we do not possess the resources or because I did not understand the rules. I have to believe that I did not let my child down; it is far better to help her understand that not only will she rise above but she will with certainty soar.

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