Now what? (BigStock)

Last spring, after the May 1 college-decision deadline had come and gone, I bumped into a parent at the grocery store I hadn’t spoken with since elementary school. We barely knew each other anymore, but I was feeling friendly and expansive with my daughter’s complicated college process behind us. Leah had been accepted to her top choice, a small liberal arts college several states away, and the college had offered enough financial aid that we were able to say yes. Our family was floating on a collective high.

“Where is Alison going to college?” I asked brightly.

I should have known better.

Not all kids at our public high school go on to university. Some start at our local community college, while others head to the technical college and others straight into the work world. But plenty of students attend our town’s regional university and the state flagship 90 miles away, as well as private schools within a couple hundred miles. Not that many go out of state (23 in my daughter’s class of approximately 240), but enough have four-year goals that the assumption underlying parent conversations is university.

Last fall, we tossed around selective college names as easily as our private prep school counterparts even if the majority of our kids wouldn’t attend them. A frantic energy infused our fall and winter chats as kids’ application deadlines came and went. And so now, in the grocery store, my own bias flew out of my mouth.

[Parents: We need to get a grip on our own college application anxiety]

The mother’s face fell at the question. She looked embarrassed. In a near-whisper, as I leaned in to listen, she told me about her daughter’s issues with anxiety, her difficulties with her academics, and how the family was focused on getting her healthy for now. She described the girl’s plans to live at home and attend technical college, and then she asked about my own daughter’s plans. I felt bad that she was embarrassed to tell me about her daughter’s next steps. I didn’t want us to measure and compare our children’s lives according to narrow definitions of success. But it was too late. I had opened that conversation.

[Want kids to succeed? Let them take a gap year.]

My parents didn’t go to college themselves, and when it came time for me to apply, I had little guidance, and only a thin idea of how to proceed. I applied to exactly one institution: the local university some of my daughter’s friends now attend, just 17 miles from my childhood home. In my day, it was a manageable 9,000 students, it didn’t require the SAT (I never took it), and I felt I could handle it more easily than the University of Washington, of a size even then that felt beyond my coping skills. My parents were distracted with their own problems that year, and I was flying solo into my future. No one broached private school with me except my grandmother, who thought Whitman, kitty-corner across the state from my home, would be a wonderful choice for my liberal artsy leanings. She was right, but that was as far as her support went.

I would be paying my way myself, and I had just enough money saved to put myself through one year of public university, which, back in 1982, was still a possibility for student who’d worked every high school summer. Despite my family’s income falling within the free-lunch range, I didn’t receive any state or federal grants (to this day, I wonder whether we filled out the financial aid form correctly), and I was afraid to take on any loans, a fear characteristic of first-generation students, I would learn decades later. Although it was common in those days for students from my high school to apply to just one college or to not attend college at all, I felt cheated of more substantial goals. Or perhaps it was simply the college conversation I yearned for. But I lacked confidence and direction, and I didn’t know how to ask for help.

Predictably, assisting my daughter through the process turned out to be an experience I enjoyed more than I anticipated, and I got sucked into the vortex of chatter about financial aid, college searches, and whether to pay for SAT prep or not, uncannily akin to the myopia of breast-feeding, sleep philosophies, and when to start solids.

But as new college conversations start up this fall, I feel a level of discomfort on behalf of those marching toward graduation. First of all, it’s more complicated these days and way more expensive to apply for and attend college. And right among the students whose families attend college fairs, pay for test prep, and amend schedules to tour campuses reside students who can’t attend college, at least right now, for myriad reasons—grades, support, health issues, or simply not feeling ready. There are families similar to my own family, cash-strapped parents who provide emotional support but feel panicked about cost. And in their own corner, families quietly helping kids manage anxiety, depression, stress, and other hidden woes that clang warning bells.

So I’m more careful now. I ask parents “What’s next?” rather than “Where does So-and-So want to go to college?” When a young woman suffers debilitating stress, her decision to take a break is a smart one. When a student has no idea how to fund college and doesn’t want to get on the fast track to debt, he should be applauded for slowing down. When a top student makes plans for a non-college path, she needs to be supported, not doubted, for her choices.  Some families—and by extension, their seniors—are also coping with life stuff: an untimely divorce, a sudden lay-off, a cancer diagnosis, a recently recognized addiction. You just never know.

If you’re that family in flux this fall, know that taking the time to think it through and trusting in your decisions is the right thing for you. And if your child is the one heading off,  congratulations to you, too. Be proud, but be mindful (note to self). Not everyone shares the joy of the season.

Joanna Nesbit writes about education, parenting, and family travel. Find her work at www.joannanesbit.com or follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit.

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