Ask a Canadian: The hype around college

If you have school aged children and have lived here for any length of time, you’ll probably have figured out that college - i.e. how your children prep, what their goals are and which one(s) your children attend - is serious business.  Very serious.  There is an industry built around school tutoring, entry preparation(the SAT, which stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test or the ACT, which stands for American College Testing), entrance essay writing, “meaningful” summer activities, college tours and so on.  And colleges and universities here do their marketing and branding well: the allure of a good UC (University of California), Ivy league, or small liberal arts school can be irresistable.  And, with over 5,300 higher education institutions finding the right one can be a challenge. 

And yet, College can be expensive - up to $60,000 annually at an elite private school $15,000 for a UC school or other State school.  Now not everybody pays full tag, but if you’re working in the Valley and earning good money (which you need to to live here), you’re child is unlikely to get a free ride.  College debt gets right up there with that big mortgage you took out to buy that small bungalow on the Peninsula.

For educated folks here in the U.S., a college degree is considered essential for success, less because it opens doors or guarantees finding a good job, but more because not having one excludes you from those things.  It is a calling card, your alma mater provides a network, it is a signal that you have achieved something valuable - this for both parent and child.

For a parent, getting your kid through college, writing that last tuition cheque makes you feel like you’ve done your job, your child is launched.  Mission accomplished.  The reality is usually somewhat different - we found most college graduates in our peer group who graduated from college were just beginning to figure out who they were and what potential their life had.

The cool thing is, America is a huge, diverse place and one that, more than anywhere else in the world, rewards innovation, difference and risk taking with spots for your child depending on what these factors look like for her.  There is an amazing variety of types, sizes and locations of colleges and universities - so much so it can be a little overwhelming.  You should be able to find a path for a child that matches their smarts and personality and your risk appetite and pocketbook.

You can take on this very American college challenge a number of ways, including what I detail below.

Go All In

Meet this process head on, like you’ve done with many other highly competitive situations. And this process can be insanely competitive.  Get help with standardized test preparation, have your child study hard and generate solid grades and build a resume of meaningful volunteer activities, sports and leadership experiences.  Her college counselor will help you and your child identify target schools.

And get ready to write some big tuition cheques. Money helps with all this: you need to be ready to write some big cheques long before your child is enrolled in that amazing liberal arts school that wowed her on her college tour.

Play the Margins

You may not have the stomach (or bank account) for the first option, or your child may not be fired up enough or mature enough or have the grades needed to head through the highly competitive college entrance factory.  The cool thing is that there are lots of amazing alternate routes to and through college.  Two years of local junior (Community) college will give your child access to the UC (University of California) system and is very economical.  CS (California State) universities are about the price of Canadian schools and some are less competitive to get into.  You should be able to find a school down here with work study options (like co-op programs in Canada) that will enable your child to learn and earn through the college process, defraying some of your expenses.

You or your child may take on student loans for the first two options: it is wise to think long and hard about this.

Plan on Canada

There is a lot to be said about having your child go to college north of the border.  Tuition is reasonable (especially when you convert the Hudson Bay Peso to Greenbacks), Canadian schools are solid, and the whole environment is dialed down a couple of notches from what we do stateside.

Name recognition can be an issue; other than McGill, U of T, Waterloo and UBC, most Americans don’t know a lot about Canadian Universities but this should not be a deal killer.

Go Alternative

One of the great things about America is that it both provides paths for those that walk to the beat of a different drummer and (often) a way for them to make a life on that path.  Your child may need time to mature to find herself: a gap year is a possibility (there are now organizations that set these up).  She might volunteer for a year doing the thing she loves.  Some kids join the Coast Guard or the military.  Others go straight to work with an employer that will pay for college.

You need to be comfortable with who you are and where your child might head to follow this path but it can be peculiarly rewarding.

A Couple of Final Thoughts...

Many folks going to college take on significant amounts of debt to do so; you should think long and hard about this.  From a simple financial point of view, incurring $250 K in debt to become a teacher or a manager at Blue Bottle, may not be a good call.

And remember, despite all the hype and the pressure you and your child may feel, this is only college.  Most young adults take time to mature, to figure things out.  College is just one piece of this process.  It’s a big world out there and there are lots of fine places for your child to land.

Hugh Morgan grew up in Calgary and has lived in the Bay Area for 27 years.  He’d be delighted to answer any questions you have about life in the Golden state: you can reach him at hugh.r.morgan@gmail.com.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies or positions of the Digital Moose Lounge.