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Life Notes: College Selection
Where you go, and what it really means
By Sally Friedman

It’s the time of year when hearts are soaring or, maybe, breaking. It’s college acceptance – or rejection – time.   

One never forgets. On an April day many decades ago, I got the good news from the school of my dreams, the University of Pennsylvania. First I wept in gratitude, then with trepidation. I called my three best friends, also applicants. Two also got the fat envelope from Penn. One did not. We were all 18 years old and positive that our very destinies hinged on those envelopes. The friend who didn’t get into Penn went off to a state college.          

I’ve had a good life. So have the other Penn alumnae. But the state college grad has had a spectacular life and career. By most standards, her resume reads far better than ours. 

So, does college really matter in the end? Does the incredible sum of money we poured out to three prestigious institutions of higher learning for our daughters really make a difference in their lives? I’ve thought about that a lot, especially during our broke years when paying three tuitions in quick succession was daunting. And I’ve come up with this conclusion: college does matter – but not nearly as much as we think it does when we’re 17 or 18. 

I’ve always been proud of my Penn degree. And I know it opened doors to my first teaching job, a position I desperately needed as the bride of a newly minted lawyer who earned even less that the $4,300 I’d be making. Way back then, the hiring officer of a new school district confided that he’d chosen me over a candidate from an excellent state college who was clearly more seasoned and qualified. 

“We’re a new system, and we want the prestige of an Ivy League degree,” that gentleman had told me solemnly. It frankly made me feel queasy. It also felt wrong. 

After I used that degree for one year, it gathered dust during the more than 10 years I stayed home with my daughters and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” approximately 9,000 times. 

Frankly, that degree never really surfaced again. In freelance writing, my longtime career, editors cared about whether I could write coherently and meet deadlines, not where I went to college. When it came time to start the college search with our daughters, I tried to tame their aspirations. 

But Jill, our oldest, lusted after one New England college so intensely that she thought she would surely perish if she wasn’t accepted. She was. And our “public” kid was thrust into a world of preppies from Exeter and Andover. 

Jill didn’t go into banking or become a museum curator. Nor did she become a shepherd, as one of the members of her graduating class did. Instead, her college geared Jill for a life of public service. She lives it and loves it to this day. 

Amy chose her mother’s alma mater, and happily, Penn chose her back. She loved every minute of her four years there. She established a friends’ network that is powerful in both her personal and professional life. Could she have the same fulfillment had she gone elsewhere? I strongly believe that she could have.    

Our youngest daughter also had the good fortune to be accepted at the college to which she applied early. When she got that acceptance, Nancy was positive it was a mistake. She almost chickened out, but in the end, the intimidation factor ceased, and her four years at a hallowed hall of ivy turned out to be wonderful. Post-college, the alumni network helped her get a foothold in the big world out there. 

In each daughter’s case, college was a formative, molding, life-altering experience. I honestly think each of them could have done that on any number of campuses. 

It was my late grandmother, an eastern European immigrant, who often reminded me that you really couldn’t trust a person whose head was buried in the books all day. 

“What’s important,” she would say in her accented English, “is to be a good person and to be happy.” Her education? Steerage on her voyage to America and making a life in a new country. 

So as those letters – or, I assume, some emails today – arrive and begin, “We welcome you…” or the dreaded “We so regret..,” here’s hoping that the message is clear: college matters. But not nearly as much as what you make of it, wherever you land. 

April 2018
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