Grandparents as college admission guides

My wife and I have been grandparents for almost three years now. To say we are enjoying is would be akin to saying Tom Brady has Hall of Fame potential. That may have made me particularly receptive to the essay below sent me by Peter Jennings, director of college counseling at the Concord Academy, http://www.concordacademy.org/academics/ccstaff.aspx a private school in Massachusetts. But it is also a thoughtful way of looking at the college admissions process from a perspective we don’t often consider.

If you have comments to share with the blog, please post them here. Jennings said he would also be happy to receive your emails at Peter_Jennings@concordacademy.org.

By Peter Jennings

As a college counselor at an independent boarding and day school in New England, I regularly visit the local bookstore to inspect the latest college guides. The shelves are flush with advice for parents guiding their children through the college process. “Your daughter is the CEO, you are the Chairman of the Board,” suggests one. Another calls applying to college a rite of passage, best observed from the sidelines, like the sidelines of a soccer game.

Clearly, there are many approaches to parental college guidance. But what about grandparents? Often they are asked to help financially, but can their unique stature in the family be valuable in non-monetary ways? I think so.

Today’s grandparents occupy different roles in different families. But common across the world of grandparenting is the notion of unconditional love. If the stereotypes are true, grandparents praise; they do not discipline. And although they may advise or criticize their own children, their relationship with their grandchildren is founded on stories of the kids’ achievements, and stories of some of their own.

My grandmothers knew both my strengths and weaknesses, but only the strengths were mirrored back to me. I benefited from their generous praise, something every insecure college applicant needs. In a selective admissions climate, where college decisions can seem like judgments of a child’s worth, a grandparent’s expertise at cheering from the sidelines can be priceless, and I argue their presence makes a more confident applicant and perhaps a more confident essayist (after all, many essays seem to be written about a grandparent).

In a world where some parents and students find failure when standardized test scores aren’t perfect or when “A” grades are the exception, a grandparent’s praise can mitigate the pressure for perfection. Grandparents have the unique ability to understand the complexity of growing pains while highlighting the special and unique aspects of their grandchildren.

Many grandparents make ideal travel companions. They are the perfect family members to accompany a student on a college campus visit. Admissions officers feel the cold front that results when a “Don’t embarrass me, Dad” attitude pits against a “C’mon speak up, Junior,” but grandparents are granted a different grade of respect and latitude. Why travel with tension if you don’t have to?

Most grandparents appreciate appropriate boundaries—I have yet to hear the phrase “helicopter grandparent.” Erielle Davidson, a college sophomore from Natick, Massachusetts, visited a New England campus with her grandfather and found his enthusiasm “contagious.” “Grandparents are generally less caught up in the college process,” wrote Erielle, “and as a result, seem driven more towards ensuring your future happiness and less towards securing you a spot at the highest-rated school in the country.”

The model campus visit includes listening, observing, and having the confidence and freedom to ask questions. A grandparent can serve as campus co-pilot, encouraging a student to attend an information session and tour but also to spend a few moments absorbing the campus independently. Perhaps a grandparent is most helpful during the all-important debrief afterward. A grandparent’s patient ear encourages stronger student reflection than the typical parent-student static.

A parent might say, “Didn’t you like the premed program? It would be perfect for you,” while a grandparent would more likely pose a more low-key question: “What do you think?” Teenaged mouths tend to choose words more carefully (and politely) with grandparents, and adolescent ears are usually better attuned to grandparents’ reflections and observations (these soon-to-be adults aren’t likely to acknowledge parental wisdom for a decade or so).

Of course, not every grandparent is cut out for the job. And even those who have solid, positive relationships with their grandchildren need to know when to exercise restraint. Recently, that aforementioned bookstore down the street helped me find Richard Russo’s book, That Old Cape Magic. One passage in particular cautioned me about a grandparent’s advice gone awry. Griffin, the protagonist, describes his daughter Laura’s relationship with his mother, a former professor and an academic snob:

“Only when Laura was a junior in high school and thinking about where to apply to college did her grandmother begin to show much interest. She thought Laura should go to Yale, of course, and turned up her nose at the small liberal arts colleges her granddaughter was most keen on . . . ‘Dear God, not Williams,’ she told Laura. ‘Do you know the kind of people who send their progeny to Williams? Rich. Privileged. White. Republican. Or even worse, people who aspire to all that.’ Not so unlike your grandparents, she meant. ‘Their kids aren’t smart enough to get into an Ivy but have to go somewhere, so God created Williams.’

I wish I weren’t so familiar with similar stories of non-fictional grandparents. Laura, if her character is anything like the students I work with, may very well be thinking: “How will I ever survive this college process and maintain the respect of my grandmother?” (A woman who, by the way, dismissed Williams, one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the country.) When it comes to admission to top-tier colleges, today’s applicant has little control over the outcome. Grandparents need to remember that.

Laura’s grandmother was more than a little ill-informed. According to Williams College http://www.williams.edu/, 33 percent of its students represent American students of color and another 7 percent are international students. Fifty-five percent receive some sort of aid. Statistics aside, Russo’s depiction underscores the power of a grandparent’s opinion. At the very least, grandparents should understand how carefully to craft their words when it comes to the college-bound population.

In my experience, grandparents’ ideas—and often the perception of what grandparents are thinking—have enormous sway. More than once I’ve suggested Holy Cross or Trinity to a student and heard a response similar to, “X College sounds great, but there’s no way Zayde and Bubbe will let me matriculate at a college with a Christian name.”

The challenge for some grandparents is that, while college is still very much about reading, learning, and great teaching, collegiate culture and the college admissions process have shifted seismically over the last few generations. Grandparents serve as strong application allies if they digest the fact that nearly all colleges are far stronger institutions than they were a decade or two ago, and these institutions are also far more selective than they were just five years ago.(They are also far more ethnically diverse.)

This reminds me of the dad, a Princeton grad with a long family legacy there, who visited my office and looked over the shoulders of his daughter and wife at selectivity data for his alma mater. “I wish my mother were here to see this,” he said. “It would make Thanksgiving dinner far more palatable this year.” This grandparent, out of touch with the realities of current college selectivity, probably didn’t appreciate the stress she was causing by repeatedly asking, “What about Princeton?” Perhaps this is a grandparent better left at home during campus visits.

My own maternal grandmother always took great pride in the education of her grandchildren, and she generously supplemented my financial aid package. This often meant my middle-class background was less conspicuous on a campus where wealth reigned. My dad’s mother often sent written updates accompanied by her signature brownies, which rarely made it out of the post office unconsumed. Both women remained active in my education and subtly reminded me who I was and why I was in college. When graduation day arrived, I was happy to share it with my parents and siblings, but I felt truly fortunate that my grandmothers attended. Celebrating academic accomplishment was sweeter because I was surrounded by two of my most treasured teachers.

Whether grandparents get involved in the college process or not, their primary role is to remind the student that college doesn’t represent life’s pinnacle (even as the college guide section of the bookstore continues to grow). Yes, the college years are a big investment. They are an exceptional privilege. And life on a college campus may very well be the last time when students will live in an intentional community of their peers. But when compared to a fully lived life, four years spent on a college campus is just that: four years. A grandparent’s wisdom and perspective can help make that clear.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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