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College talk: Not just where you go, but how you get there

By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: May 1, 2020

Traditionally, May 1 is National Decision Day for high school seniors picking colleges. COVID-19 has delayed some universities’ schedules; however, parents will inevitably begin engaging in vaguely competitive “college talk.” Beware: These seemingly innocent conversation starters are an invitation into a quagmire of double entendre. For example:

Parent #1: “What college will your son/daughter attend in the fall?”

Parent #2: “He/She will attend XYZ University.”

Parent #1: “Oh, that’s swell.”

Hidden beneath this simple exchange is an underground strata of complex connotations and secret intent.

How do I know this? Each of our three children experienced the college pick process between 2014 and 2018. I logged thousands of miles in our minivan to visit schools, go on tours, stay in lousy hotels and eat complimentary cookies. Between the three kids, they took dozens of entrance exams, completed 28 applications, wrote countless essay revisions and chewed scores of fingernails while waiting on acceptance letters.

After the decisions were made, we were expected to report the news to our friends. For most of 2014 to 2018, we lived on base, and many of our friends were empty nesters about to retire from active-duty service like us. There is much to be learned by observing this unique breed of parent.

They don’t collect twigs, preen their feathers or engage in elaborate mating rituals. But empty nesters have “been there, done that” when it comes to parenting. Interacting with these seasoned veterans around backyard fire pits and at the dog park taught me that those college pick talks are not what they seem.

I learned the hard way that, when people ask, “What college did Little Suzie decide on?” they really want to know, “Did she get any rejection letters?” And when you answer, “She’s going to State,” they are tabulating all prior conversations in an attempt to figure out the schools that gave Suzie the stiff-arm.

In order to diffuse their natural curiosity, it’s best to be frank. Tell them which schools declined to accept your child’s application. Do not be tempted to add, “We’re actually happy that Little Johnny didn’t get into Old Ivy, it just wasn’t the right fit for him.” The listener will only hear, “Little Johnny’s ‘Ds’ in Chemistry came back to bite him, and besides, those ivy leaguers are stuck up anyway.”

Although it is considered gauche for civilian friends to discuss money matters, talking about personal finances is quite common in the military community. Thanks to clearly defined rank structures, we military folks know each others’ pay grades. As soon as they find out that your child’s college costs 50 grand a year, they’ll wonder how you’re paying for it because they know your salary.

You may wish to remain silent, and let them speculate that your child was offered a scholarship for some hidden talent like didgeridoo or curling. In a vacuum of information, your friends might think that you’ve got some long-lost rich uncle who graced you with a trust fund, but this might be hard to believe if you drive a used minivan and buy buns from the day old rack at the commissary.

Unless you tell your friends up front that you are paying for college with the GI Bill, loans, your Thrift Savings Plans or your 529 plans, they’ll think that you’re planning to take the night shift at the local 7-Eleven and move the family into a cardboard box over a heating grate in order to afford the tuition bills.

As long as you deliver the news of your child’s decision without pretense, you will be met with understanding. Honesty is clearly the best policy to stop wondering minds from wandering to the absurd.

Our children? Hayden went to Rensselaer Polytechnic; we used the GI Bill to pay for it. Anna went to Syracuse University on a decent financial aid package. And Lilly spent a year at pricey Hobart before transferring to more affordable University of Rhode Island. All three kids took $5,000 annual federal loans to help us afford tuition bills.

And yes, it’s been really swell.

Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: themeatandpotatoesoflife.com
Email: meatandpotatoesoflife@googlemail.com