Book Lives Matter

Over the last few days, I’ve been part of and witness to a number of conversations about issues of race, mostly with other white women. I have a number of friends who are in various stages of heartbreak and anger and frustration about the state of things and about how hard it can be to know what to do when you feel like you are living in a world gone mad.

It can be so hard to know what to do with the feelings of anger and despair that come up when there is another shooting, another story of a Black man killed, another circumstance when it seems like being Black is a crime and the punishment is public execution.

Others have written eloquently about what white people can do when confronted with evidence of the fact that, yes, structural racism and the violence it creates is still a problem. There is so much work yet to be done. There are big things we need to do better as a country, conversations that we need to have on both national and personal levels.

But this isn’t a post about big things. I’m not feeling confident enough of myself as a person or a writer to tackle those things tonight. Instead, I make a tiny suggestion: buy a book. Specifically, buy a book featuring Black characters and give it to a child you love.

I think of buying a book as making a tiny statement that we want these stories to be part of our kids lives, especially white kids. Books create worlds, books introduce children to characters that the might love for the rest of their lives. A bookshelf is a neighborhood, a place where princesses and dump trucks and mother bunnies with abandonment issues can all rub elbows. Here are some books my family loves that can make sure your neighborhood has some diversity:


Feast for 10 is a simple and gentle book about a trip to the grocery store and a family dinner. Ideal for ages 2-4.


Ada Twist, Scientist is fantastic in every way. The illustrations are delightful, the story is terrific, and I am happy to read it nightly,which is currently Ev’s wish.


In full disclosure, I like this book more than my children seem too, for reasons I don’t understand. The Hello Goodbye Window is sweet and funny and I adore Chris Raschka’s illustrations.

Speaking of Chris Raschka:


Charlie Parker Played Be Bop is one of my all time favorite board books. Ever. It is so fun to read. When Miles was a baby/toddler, this was his favorite and reading it would stop tears and tantrums instantly.

Also a great book for little people:


Please Baby Please features one of the cutest babies in illustration. She is so pinchable.

Speaking of pinchable babies, I want to snuggle every single baby Helen Oxenbury has ever illustrated. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes is adorable as is her Baby Love set, which is a fantastic baby shower gift.

Oh, and I have to mention So Much. I love So Much.


For older kids, the Captain Underpants series of books features two protagonists, one white and one Black, and many many many jokes about farts and boogers. Right up my 8 year old’s alley.


My son is also a big fan of the I Survived series.


I Survived The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 is a good one for kids who like history mixed with a little adventure.

Please note that I get no money if you buy any of these books. These are just some of the best loved ones in our house. I’d love to hear if you have others you’d add to the list.


Sleeping Arrangements

Technically, I don’t have to be up for 15 more minutes.

Technically, each of my children has their own bed in their own bedroom and my husband and I have our cozy converted attic room.

Technically, we are not now, nor have we every been, a family that co-sleeps. Technically.

(standard non-judgey disclaimer– I don’t care if you do co-sleep. You do you and all that)

But there is a thunderstorm this morning and it is the first day of school and so nobody is where they are supposed to be. Miles is sleeping on the couch in the living room, for reasons I don’t know. Ev was up in our bed, woken by the thunderstorm and then annoyed that WE were crowding HER in OUR bed. Mr. Monkey then went downstairs to sleep in her twin bed but she soon followed after him, wanting both her water cup and to ensure that he got as little restful sleep as possible. When I last saw them, they were both snuggled up in her little bed, one of them happily.

If I can step outside of my own tiredness this morning, I can feel a little tenderness about the fact that Ev still feels like being near us is a thing that keeps her safe. She is, of course, just as safe from this early morning summer thunderstorm in her room as she is laying next to us. But she doesn’t feel that yet. At four, she has a list of fears that include thunder, the next door neighbor’s outdoor cat, and almost every dog on our block, except for the very elderly Bucky who hobbles down the block by his owner’s side and is as gentle as can be. Facing all of these fears is something Ev only does with one of us next to her, preferably holding her.

Sometimes she seems so big and then the thunder cracks or a dog barks and I remember that she is still a little person in a big world that she can’t control. And that makes it just a little easier to forgive the feet in my kidneys at 5:00AM.



There is almost a generation between my husband and I, so when we talk about our respective childhoods, we don’t have many things in common. He went to school with a metal Bonanza lunch box, I carried a plastic Rainbow Bright. The shows I watched in reruns when I was home sick for a day (Happy Days, The Brady Bunch) were the hit prime time shows of his childhood. Our childhoods were different in other ways too. He grew up on military bases in Germany and California and Panama and Kansas. I lived in the same house almost my whole life. He remembers racing through the rainforests of Panama with his brothers. I remember picking cactus out of my fingertips in the desert of Arizona.

While our childhoods were very different, we did share one major thing in common– we spent most of it in Kidland.

Kidland is a state of play, of course, and not an actual physical place. Kidland is where children play when adults aren’t hovering over them. It is where they make their own rules, settle their own fights, and create their own adventures.

Ideally, it is like all of the best parts of Lord of the Flies with a lot less bleeding.

For my twin sister and I, Kidland was our backyard where we built our own exceedingly rickety treehouse and had a jungle gym that was the only safe place from the lava or shark infested ocean beneath us. Kidland was riding our bikes down through the washes (dry riverbeds that could fill in minutes in a summer rain shower) and sneaking into our neighbors backyard to feed apples and carrots to their horse.

Kidland wasn’t just about the freedom to roam on our bikes, although that was a big part of it, it was more about playing without the expectation that grown-ups knew or cared about what we were doing. It quite literally would never have crossed my mind to ask my mother to come play too.

Now that I’m a parent, I struggle sometimes with how much freedom to roam to give my kids. I’m not quite a free range parent but I also don’t feel like I have to be able to see my kids every second that they are out of the house. We live in a city and there is traffic nearby but our neighborhood is also pretty safe. Sometimes I worry more about being judged by other parents than I do about my kids getting abducted or something. But mostly I worry that the kids won’t get to spend enough time in Kidland. A small part of me has sometimes wondered if kids still know how to play like that.

Last night, I sat on the porch with a book and listened as my kids and a small pack of neighborhood kids played an elaborate game involving two of the monstrously overgrown zucchinis from my garden. These zucchini, heavy and fat and about half the length of a baseball bat, became babies that needed immediate medical attention. The winter sleds came out of the garage and were attached to a tricycle and an ambulance was born. A little girl from down the street became a surgeon, with an operating room under that tree that the kids can’t climb because the city trims the lower branches back. There were other things going on too that I couldn’t quite figure out. A jump rope was involved and the birdie from the badminton set as well as the cones from the backyard soccer set. Not once, not even when someone was being bossy or when someone else tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and lightly skinned her knee, did any of the kids call for a parent. They certainly didn’t need us.

The play lasted for over an hour, until I had to call my kids in. They usually come in for the night fairly easily but last night they had a hard time pulling themselves out of Kidland. I ended up playing out the maternal stereotype: standing out on the front steps yelling for my children by name: first, middle, and last. It took almost 15 minutes to get them inside, even though the mosquitos were biting and the promise of delicious hotdogs on the table for dinner had been made.

Dinner and bedtime ended up being kind of a shit show, actually, but at least I ended the day secure in the knowledge that even in the helicopter parent era, Kidland can still exist.




Every other night, when it is my turn to put M.(age 8) to bed, the following things happen: I read him a chapter or two of whatever our current book is (right now it is the second in a series called The Cupcake Crusader, which is thoroughly average and not half as clever as I think the author thinks it is, but M. is amused by it), then he walks on my upper back (this feels relaxing after a day spend hunched over my  computer at work), and then the best part happens. The best part is when we lie down on the floor together (because he sleeps on the floor and not his perfectly good bed for reasons I do not understand) and he curls into the crook of my arm and we talk about our days. He tells me one good thing and one bad thing about his day and then asks me how work was or wants me to tell him a story about when he was a baby.

We talk and I hold all 50 pounds of him close to me. His hair smells like the park and when it is time for me to go, he tells me he loves me and asks me to check on him again in a little while. Tonight when I went back to check on him he was sound asleep, clutching his knitting needles in each hand. It was both adorable and alarming as fall asleep hold a size 11 knitting needle seems like the kind of thing that can easily result in having to wear an eye patch for the rest of your life.

In case you are wondering, he is currently knitting leg warmers that he hopes to sell to his friends for $10 a pair. I’m not sure how to break it to him that his friends may not want a pair of artisanal handcrafted leg warmers made by someone who only knows how to knit squares and rectangles.

I look at his brown hand and dirty fingernails clutching the knitting needles and I am overwhelmed by a desire to scoop him up like a baby. Instead I tuck him, remove all of the things that might poke his eye out while he sleeps, and try not to go all I’ll Love You Forever on him.

I started my parenting career with step-sons who were 10 and 13 when their dad and I got married. In some obvious ways, this was challenging. Even though I had pretty ideal circumstances — my husband’s ex-wife is a lovely person, the divorce was half a decade old before I came into the picture, the boys were fundamentally good kids– there is no denying being a step-parent is hard. Watching my husband parent teenagers was hard. I’ve often joked that because I started with teenagers, toddlers didn’t scare me. Terrible twos? Easy breezy. Have you met 15? 15 SUCKS.

I sometimes look at M. and feel like I’ve already seen the future. He is so loving and so sweet to me right now and I want to soak it all up because I can’t help but feel like there is an invisible clock counting down the days (hopefully years) until he because a teenager and goes through the totally normal and totally heartbreaking process of developing an independent identity by becoming, excuse my technical jargon, a hormone addled know-it-all little shit.

I want to bottle up his love, his sweetness, his curiosity and the fact that he wants nothing more than to end his day by snuggling with me and save it for the long winters of parenting a teenager.

I can’t do that, of course, so I can just take comfort in knowing that this post will embarrass the crap out of him someday and by that point I’ll have been parenting a teenager long enough to find that deeply satisfying.

I love you, little Bobo.



I had a birthday last week. I turned 38 with very little in the way of pomp or circumstance, which is probably as it should be. 38 seems like a very boring age to turn. My husband and kids gave me some presents and we had take-out for dinner and I enjoyed the usual flood of Facebook greetings.

Since then, I’ve been thinking off and on about what, if anything, will be different about my life at 38 versus 37. I’m hard pressed to think of anything but then I started thinking about all of the changes I’ve made in my adult life so far and I realize that I am rather terrible at predicting the future. Last year, for example, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be changing jobs and yet here I sit, two months into a new gig.

I think sometimes that I want a year of no change, a year of things holding steady. But this is my track record:

Age 21: graduated from college, moved 2000 miles for a job, got first apartment on my own

Age 22: got promoted, moved 120 miles for a job

Age 23: started graduate school

Age 24: had quarter-life crisis, quit job, took leave of absence from grad school, moved to South Korea

Age 25: came back from South Korea, started a new job, met a cute guy, moved into a crappy apartment

Age 26: got engaged, got married, became a step-mother

Age 27: got a new job

Age 28: bought a house, finished Master’s Degree

Age 29: got pregnant, had a baby

Age 30: Got a new job, moved 1500 miles for new job with six month old baby in tow

Age 31: Moved again

Age 32: New job, moved again

Age 33: Got pregnant, moved again

Age 34: had a baby

Age 35: started graduate school again

Age 36: new job, new state, moved again

Age 37: finished graduate school, new job

When I look at this list, I’m kind of exhausted. For those trying to keep track, in 17 years I’ve lived in two countries, four states, six cities, 12 apartments/houses, had nine jobs and two babies.

I’m honestly not if this is just what life looks like for most people in their 20’s and 30’s as these are prime career growth and child-having years or if I am an abnormally change prone person.

So, I’d like 38 to be a year of stability but I’m not sure such a thing exists. I would be very curious to hear from others though– do you have years where nothing much changes beyond the expected growth of children and such? I feel like these are such blurry years- I fear I’m going to look back and this time is just going to seem like a rush of major life change after major life change.

I think I’d like to read more, play more, and breathe more this year.


Small Bites

At the start of the summer, I bought a family pool pass for the local outdoor pool. We have a YMCA membership and the Y closest to us has a pool but it is small and indoors and swimming indoors in the summer just isn’t my jam. For our pool, it costs between $21-24 for our family to go swimming, depending on how many of us go. This number is insane to me, as I still think pools should cost $1 like when I was a kid, but whatever, time marches on and my childhood pool didn’t have a lazy river so I’m making my peace with it. The family pass costs $200.

Today, I took the kids swimming for the 12th time of the summer so buying the pass is now officially a cost saving measure. I find that very satisfying.


Speaking of swimming, we have spent several hundred dollars on swim lessons for the kiddos this summer and they have been worth EVERY SINGLE PENNY. Ev, at 4, can now jump in the pool and swim for at least 10 yards by herself and is a champ at back floating. Miles is diving off the high dive and can swim several laps. While they both require supervision at the pool, because of course, they are both at the stage where falling into a pool wouldn’t mean certain drowning.

The thing I’ve enjoyed the most about their increased skill is how much Ev LOVES the water. She reminds me so much of myself as a kid. She would be happy to go to the pool and swim for hours, every day. Miles likes doing the stuff at the pool: the diving board, the zipline, the lazy river. Ev just wants to swim to the wall and back out to me or swim down and touch the bottom for hours. I 100% believe that by next summer she could be a better swimmer than he is, which might very well drive him crazy.


Next week is likely to be one of the busiest weeks of the year for me at work. I’m sort of dreading it, but there’s nothing to be done about it. The only way out is through. I’ve been at my new job for two months now and I feel quite certain that I made a good choice to take  this position, even though my previous position was arguably easier than this one. I’m not sure that I’m actually *good* at my new job yet. The learning curve is steep. But a friend who works in HR said that the goal for your first six months in a new job is just to make sure you don’t set the building on fire. So, with that as a standard, I’m doing swell!


I planted a garden again this summer. So far I’ve been able to harvest 20 carrots (+18 from last summer), one bell pepper (+1), four tomatoes (-20), and 1,300,782, 871 zucchini. Today I had zucchini fritters for lunch and I’ll make some more zucchini bread tomorrow. If you come to my house right now you WILL be leaving with some zucchini. Next year, I’m planting ONE (1) zucchini seed and calling it a day.




Pretty Girl


My daughter has recently decided that she does not want to be pretty. She REALLY doesn’t want to be called beautiful and heaven help you if you suggest that she might want to wear a sundress or even a shirt with flowers on it. I generally dress up for work, wearing dresses several days a week, and she has taken to looking at me and saying “ugh, why do you always want to look so beautiful all the time?”

She likes to be told she looks “regular”. She doesn’t object to being called handsome, because I think she associates that word with her brother being called handsome and she worships the ground he walks on. Sometimes she’ll wear a dress if I assure her that it is a very ugly dress. She decided the dress in the picture above was ugly enough to wear because it doesn’t have any flowers on it.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this phase, if I am being honest. A part of me is sort of frustrated about it because last summer she wore dresses almost everyday so I bought a lot of dresses for this summer and there are some VERY cute dress with tags still on them in her closet that I fear she’ll never wear. I’ve never really dealt with a child who has opinions about clothes before. My son will still pretty much wear whatever I buy him and the items he has rejected are few and far between. Theoretically, I’m on board with either of my children wearing what they feel most comfortable with. Actually, and maybe this is A Thing I Need To Work On, I’m bummed that my daughter doesn’t want to wear some of the cute stuff I’ve bought her.

I think the bigger thing I wonder about with this phase is what does it mean to her to “look pretty” and why does she so strongly want to reject it? I don’t think it is a gender identity thing (she doesn’t really express a desire to be a boy)(and we’d be okay if she did) other than that she is aware of it as a word people use for her and not her brother. Maybe it is an outgrowth of her brother worship?

In some ways, I find it is sort of refreshing that she doesn’t think pretty is the most important thing to be. She is happy to tell you that she is a nice friend and smart and strong– these are all things I want her to like about herself. I don’t want her to ever worry about whether she is pretty enough or not. Too many women I know, including myself, know all too well that the pursuit of pretty enough is expensive, damaging, and exhausting.

It occurs to me as I am writing this that perhaps my fear isn’t some much that it is weird that my daughter doesn’t want to be pretty as much as it is that she’ll think of herself as the opposite of pretty. Feeling ugly, being certain that you are ugly…well, welcome to my brain in junior high and high school and college. Feeling unpretty felt pretty crappy to me and whether or not looks should matter, I can tell you that it mattered A LOT when it came to my mental health in those years.

I can’t help but look at my girl and think she is beautiful, inside and out. She is strong and funny and silly and tenderhearted (and willful and sassy and with a streak of stubborn) and, yes, she is pretty too.

Just don’t tell her that.

Saving For and Paying For College

At the end of my last post on college planning, I asked if there were any reader questions about college stuff I could answer and a few people asked about the best ways of saving for college. Because I am a nerd, I find this to be a fascinating question and one that as I started thinking about answering it, a bit more complicated than one might expect. In the interest of simplicity let’s create a scenario: Jane is a 17 year old going to a state university as a full-time student and is planning to live on campus. The tuition at her state university is $10,000 and her room and board is $5000. She has a backup choice of a private college where the tuition is $30,000 and room and board is $6000. So, how is Jane going to pay for college?

First, Jane and her family are going to fill out the FAFSA during the spring of her senior year, the sooner the better. When she fills out the FAFSA, Jane will indicate that she wants to get financial aid information from both State U and Private College. Once she submits the FAFSA, the following things happen:

  • Jane’s file gets processed so that her expected family contribution (EFC) can be determined. Her EFC is based on the following info and is the exact same for both schools:
    • her parent(s) adjusted gross income
    • parental cash on hand (savings and checking)
    • net-worth of parental investments (excluding home value and qualified retirement accounts like 401K and IRAs)
    • net worth of business or farm assets
    • student adjusted gross income
    • student cash and savings
    • student investment assets
  • When it comes to coming up with the EFC, there are a few things that are important to know:
    • The formula assumes that SOME but not ALL of a parent’s cash and assets are going to go toward college expenses. The ratio is about 6% (per year).
    • The formula also assumes that some but not all of the student’s cash and assets will go toward college expenses and expects that MORE of the student’s money is available for use, about 20% per year
    • The EFC is for the family, so if you have more than one child in college at a time, the EFC is what IN TOTAL the family would be expected to contribute for both students. This is when having more than one kid in college at a time is helpful.
    • The EFC formula is determined by law and applies to all colleges/universities. It is also not a secret. Go here and look at the worksheets if you really want to get a glimpse of what your EFC might be in the future, if you aren’t doing a FAFSA.
    • The EFC doesn’t factor in consumer debt or make allowances for regional cost of living differences.
    • You can have an EFC of $0 but you can’t have a negative number.
  • Let’s assume that Jane’s family has an EFC of $3000. REALLY IMPORTANT NOTE: This does not mean that Jane’s family actually has $3000 available at the moment nor does it mean that either school will send Jane’s parents a bill for $3000. This is just a number used to fill in the next part of the formula.
  • State U and Private College will both use Jane’s EFC to determine her level of financial need. Financial need is determined by taking the school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) minus Jane’s EFC. A few  many words about the COA:
    • COA includes the following factors: tuition, fees, room and board, estimated costs of books, supplies, living expenses, child care (if applicable), and costs related to having a disability (if applicable).
    • The COA is also NOT A BILL. A good chunk of the factors in the COA are not billed by the school (supplies, living expenses, etc) and different students will spend very different amounts on those things in real life. But the COA uses an estimate that they hope will apply to most students. For State U, for example, the cost of tuition and room and board might be $15,000 but the COA for financial aid purposes might be something like $21,000
    • Don’t let the COA freak you out too much. It isn’t a real number.
  • Once the math on Jane has been done it might look something like this:
    • State U: $21,000- $3000= $17,000 in financial need
    • Private College: $42,000- $3000= $39,000 in financial need
  • Now that Jane’s level of need is determined, each school will figure out how to meet that financial need through a combination of grants and loans. Jane will get something called an award letter from each school that will break it down something like this:
    • award
    • The amount of money in those categories is going to be different for each school. State U might not have a grant program but Private College will (think of private colleges as being like Kohls. There is always a sale. Hardly anyone is paying the full sticker price)
    • Now, Jane and her parents can make the decision about which school is more affordable for her but they’ll want to ask some important questions about that dollar amount in the total award line:
      • How much of that money is loan versus grant?
      • Does Jane want to do work study? She doesn’t get that $2000 if she doesn’t get a campus job
      • Are the college grants and scholarships renewable? For how long? What are the criteria for renewal? I hate to say it, but the models are built on the fact that some students won’t maintain the GPA needed for renewal but will be so attached that they’ll stay at the school anyways
      • How much of those loans do we want to take out. Just because the loan is offered doesn’t mean it has to be accepted
  • It is either helpful or maddening to think of a college classroom like an airplane: almost nobody paid the same amount for their seat.
  • Once Jane chooses her school and accepts what aid she wants, only then does the bill arrive. If Jane chooses State U and her financial aid award was for $16,000 and she accepted the whole award (loans and all), she is not going to get a bill. Her tuition and room and board will be paid out of her financial aid award and she might even get $1000 back in cash because of the COA calculations. Or, let’s say she got offered a grant of $2,000 and decides to only accept that. She could end up with a bill of $12,000. Basically, Jane and her family will get to make some choices about how much they want to pay now and how much Jane will need to pay back later. This is comforting for some and confusing for others. Parents often want to know “what exactly will this cost us” and the answer is “well….depends….”
  • If you owe a lump sum, you’ll almost always have the option to set up a payment plan so you don’t have to write one large and painful check. Instead, you can write several smaller, painful checks.


So, that is a bit on paying for college. Let’s talk about saving for college now.

When it comes to saving, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • there is no perfect formula for guessing how much money your kid’s college will cost. So much depends on where they go (community college vs state school vs private) and how long it takes them to earn a degree.
  • you MUST (MUST!) prioritize retirement savings over college savings. I’ve seen parents put all their money toward their child’s future educational expenses before they max out their own retirement savings and this is just such a bad idea on several levels.
  • There are some things you may want to do beginning when your child is still in high school to lower your EFC:
    • consider using savings to pay down debt. Since your debt level isn’t calculated in your EFC and savings is, this might be a good time to get rid of consumer debt.
    • Max out your retirement accounts instead of building liquid savings (assuming you are generally financially stable)
    • Encourage elderly family members not to die and leave you an inheritance until AFTER your kid is in college. Now is not the time to come into a chunk of change, unless you want to use it to pay for college. So don’t sell that Picasso in the basement either.
  • Many families invest in 529 plans. These are tax protected accounts set up to benefit the named beneficiary. A few things to keep in mind:
    • Anyone over the age of 18 can open an account and designate the person it is for. An adult thinking about grad school in the future can open one for themselves. A grandparent can open one for a grandkid. A parent can open one for their child.
    • There are various 529 options offered in various states. You need to do a little research but you are NOT limited to the one in your state
    • 529 plans are to be used for paying educational expenses at a variety of types of post-secondary institutions. You don’t have to know where your kid is going when you open up the account.
    • There are risks to the 529:
      • many 529 plans are invested in mutual funds. If the stock market tanks than yes, you could lose some of your investment
      • Not all plans are created equal when it comes to fees and expenses. Some will offer insurance policies so you don’t lose your money if the market tanks when your kid is in 10th grade. Some don’t. You really do need to comparison shop. This is where it might make sense to meet with a financial advisor and pay the $150 for some unbiased advice.
      • If your kid opts not to go to college or if their college expenses are less than what you have saved you may face a 10% penalty plus taxes for pulling the money out of the account.
  • If you are putting money into a savings account for college expenses, you are probably better off saving it in the parent’s name versus the child’s if your goal is to lower your EFC.
  • Some states allow you to pre-pay tuition. So you can pay in today’s dollars for your child to go to a selected school in 10 years, when the cost of tuition has likely increased. The risk here is clear: what if your kid doesn’t want to go to that school and/or can’t get in?

The bottom line is that if you are financially stable and you aren’t carrying lots of consumer debt or paying off your own student loans and you want to save for college, you’ll want to consider a 529 plan or a savings account or perhaps CDs, depending on your tolerance for risk.


What I Wish People Knew About Going to College

Recently my favorite blogger Swistle had been writing about the college search process as her oldest son has starting looking at schools. It has been fascinating for me to read about how parents approach this process as I am usually on the other side, trying to figure out what will entice a student to be interested in the college I work for.

For almost 20 years, I’ve worked in higher education. I’ve worked for big universities (35,000+ students), small private colleges (1400 students), community colleges, and for one very uncomfortable week, a for-profit school. I started as an admissions counselor and am now a college vice president for student affairs, which means I oversee everything from admissions to financial aid to advising/counseling– basically if it has to do with a college and doesn’t involve the classroom, that’s my gig.

I often blog about my experiences with parenting or body image stuff. These are areas where I’m still trying to figure things out. I decided tonight that maybe it would be fun to write about something I actually do know a lot about: the college search process. So, I’m going to do that but with the major caveat that these are MY opinions and not those of any current or former employers (whose names I’m not gonna mention anyways). Behold my subjective list of things I wish all families knew about getting into college/university (I’m just going to say college for the rest of this, but assume universities are included):

  1. There is no such thing as a perfect college: There are literally thousands of post-secondary institutions in the US. The range in size from under 100 students to almost 50,000. While there are clear differences between the student experience at a small private liberal arts (SPLAC) college and a big public university, there isn’t nearly as much difference from one big public to another. They are far more similar than they are different. I 100% believe that people who have a great experience at a particular school could probably also have had a great experience at another. College often ends up being defined by the relationships you make there, far more than anything that is structural to the school itself. Even students who think they’ve found the perfect school are often wrong. Nearly 1/3 college will transfer at some point in their experience. So, what’s the take away? RELAX. Focus on choosing the right TYPE of college for your kid (small vs big, public vs private) and know that there is a chance they’ll want to transfer eventually anyways.
  2. Extracurricular activities aren’t actually that important: Okay, so here is the truth. The VAST majority of colleges aren’t that selective for admissions. If your kid wants to go to Harvard, then yes, extra curriculars matter. But if you are looking at a public university or a less selective SPLAC, whether you get admitted or not is really about the academic record: does the kid have a GPA of 2.5 or higher? Did they take 4 years of math and English? Done. When I worked at a large public university, I was also involved in the scholarship awarding process and guess what– that was also a total numbers game. GPA + ACT/SAT scores + Number of AP classes= scholarship.  So, yes, your kid should do extracurriculars in high school, IF they enjoy them. But don’t do it as a way to play the college game unless they are driven to go to the 10% of colleges that are selective for admissions.
  3. The truth about scholarships: There is this pervasive myth that drives me crazy when it comes to colleges and it is “there are so many scholarships out there.” The truth about scholarships is that there are many out there but the majority of students aren’t going to be competitive or eligible for them. There are two kinds of scholarships: ones provided by the school and external awards. The school based ones vary from school to school in terms of the criteria for awarding and whether or not they are need or merit based (need in terms of financial aid versus academic merit). Some schools will automatically review all students for eligibility, some require a separate app. This is a thing to put on your “questions to ask list”. For external awards, some of them will have incredibly specific criteria (the tall scholarship is one of my personal faves) and some will be very general. Is it worth applying for them? Depends. An average student (GPA 3.0-3.5 or below) is probably not going to see a lot of return on investment for doing lots of scholarship apps unless they are in a very specific pool for a very specific scholarship.
  4. There is a good chance nobody will read your kid’s application: Most admissions decisions at larger schools are made by computers, not people. When I was an admissions counselor, I would get over 10,000 applications from my territory. I actually reviewed about 250-400 per year. I reviewed the very very top for scholarships and the handful that were *JUST* on the cusp of being admissible by the computer. The rest I never saw. A computer algorithm made the admissions decision for me.
  5. Financial Aid: Every US citizen is eligible to apply for financial aid via the Free Application For Financial Aid (FAFSA). There are three types of aid that get awarded via FAFSA: Pell Grants, loans, and work-study. Pell grants don’t have to be paid back and are awarded to students with a low EFC (expected family contribution). Loans include subsidized and unsubsidized student loans and parent loans. Work-study is basically money a student could earn, if they took on a campus job. Everyone gets something but middle class and higher families may find that they only qualify for parent and unsubsidized loans. You still need to fill out the FAFSA as many schools will look at that info to determine scholarship eligibility.
  6. EFC: Let’s talk about this a little more. Your EFC is determined by a couple of factors: family income (as reported to the IRS), family size, and certain assets (investment and savings accounts are looked at, home equity and retirement accounts are not). Your EFC doesn’t include any considerations for how much debt you have, what your monthly expenses are, or how much money you WANT to contribute to your kid’s college expenses. It is an imperfect system in some ways (yes, it does sort of punish those who have saved more versus those with no assets) but it is what we have. Private colleges often look at the EFC and the total financial aid award and determine if there are ways to bridge the gap between those numbers for strong applicants.
  7. Loans: I’m of the school of thought that loans are, for most families, a necessary evil. In many ways, taking out a student loan is a pragmatic decision. People with college degrees earn, on average, nearly a million dollars more over the course of their working life than someone with just a high school degree. So, is taking on $25,o00 in debt worth it? Most people say yes. That being said, there are big exceptions to my general belief that loans aren’t the end of the world:
    1. Parent loans are no bueno: If you have a student college age, you are probably approaching the age when saving for retirement needs to be a priority. If you have to take out a parent loan, the college you are looking at is too expensive for you.
    2. Private loans: If you don’t get enough money in federal loans to make attending a school doable and you begin to consider private loans, look again at my first point and choose a more affordable school. Private loans are how students finish a bachelor’s degree with over $100,000 in debt.
    3. Be mindful of major: When I worked at the SPLAC, I often cringed at the number of students going into majors like social work and elementary education who were attending a college that cost over $40,000 a year. I am ALL FOR people going into the helping professions but am deeply concerned by students who will exit with loan debt that is higher than the median salary range for their field.
  8. Consider what you think the point of college is: Is college a place to get training for a job? A place to make a transition into adulthood? A place to make future connections (e.g. spouses and networking)? Getting the “college experience”? The stepping stone to graduate or professional school? The answers to these questions are SUPER important. If getting a degree to be more employable is the goal, there are affordable ways to do that: start at the community college and then transfer to a local public university and live at home. If you are driven by the desire for your kid to have “the college experience”, you are probably going to pay more for that.
  9. Students need to have skin in the game: Students who don’t pay for college are students who feel no sense of urgency to finish. Make them responsible for at least part of the costs. A good approach here is to have students make small loan payments every month while they are in school. This helps not only keep the loan from building quite as high (especially those that accrue interest while the student is in school) but also reminds the student that they are paying for this experience so they maintain a sense of urgency about finishing.
  10. Not every kid should go to college right away: In the course of my career I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve seen who are only at college because it is the thing you are “supposed” to do. College isn’t 13th grade. The amount of freedom offered makes it very easy for an unmotivated kid to slip through the cracks. We, as a country, really should embrace the gap year concept. Some students would do much better to wait a year or two and then starting college. A year or two of working at the kind of job an 18 year old gets without a college degree can be a great motivator to think seriously about what they want to get out of college.
  11. Community colleges are a valid choice: Community colleges are a terrific choice for a lot of students. I wish that more middle class families were open to the idea of them, either for transfer or for vocational degrees. There are GREAT career options open in technical and vocational fields and many people don’t consider them for no other reason than snobbery.

I realize, now that I’ve started this, that I could write probably many blog posts about this. But in the interest of this not being ridiculously long, I’ll wrap it up here and do that annoying thing of ending a post with a question: what do you want to know about getting a kid (or adult, really) into college? Or about succeeding in college?

Short Timer

I start a new job in 12 days.

I still need to clean out my desk at my current job and to start reading through the large pile of prep materials provided to me by my new boss.

My current office is a mess as I try my best to sort through what things I need to save for the person who comes after me and what needs to be shredded/recycled/ trashed. I also need to figure out how to get boxes of books to my car, which is in a parking garage across the street.

I have five working days left in this job and I am spending all of this last, precious day in a meeting where I just discovered that, despite the fact that the meeting is going from 10am-3pm, they are not providing us with lunch.

This is obviously unacceptable. And on a Friday, no less!

It is only my life-long desire to not get into trouble that is keeping me from ditching the meeting entirely.