I’ve been wanting (and perhaps even NEEDING, as other bloggers might be able to understand) to write about our son’s college application journey for a long time. This isn’t just his journey, although it certainly is principally his decision to make and entirely HIS life to live. It’s also a journey for our family, and I’m convinced the “puzzle” of figuring out how to responsibly navigate the college application, acceptance, and funding process (especially that last part) is likely one of the greatest challenges we will face together as a family. I’ve hesitated in writing about this because there is so much we don’t know and so much that is yet to unfold before us as we continue to pick our pathways in the college maze. I’ve realized, however, that if I keep waiting till “things are decided” or “we’ve reached a major milestone” I may never write anything… because as Bilbo said (or more precisely, as Tolkien wrote): “The Road goes ever on and on… Down from the door where it began.” As one chapter ends, another begins. In this post, I’ll share a few highlights from our ongoing family journey: Working together to help Alex find the college of his dreams which our family can responsibly afford.

Alex is the oldest of our three kids, and he’s both incredibly smart and an extremely hard worker. We started taking him on college tours relatively early, making our first “serious” college visit back in 2011 to Northwestern when I had an opportunity to present at an educational technology conference in the Chicago area. He was in 8th grade then, and I remember the admissions folks at Northwestern giving him (and us as parents) an awkward look when he announced his current grade at the start of our admissions tour. All the other students on the tour were either juniors or seniors in high school, he was “just” in 8th grade.

I’m convinced that kids start visualizing themselves at college and even at SPECIFIC colleges early in life… so it’s very important not to wait till the closing years of high school to start seriously visiting and comparing different universities. Before that trip, we literally knew nothing about Northwestern… other than it was supposed to be a good school and was in the Chicago area. Wow was that ever an amazing place to start Alex’s college explorations. It’s an incredible school for many reasons… but also has a sticker price that could make a faint-hearted (or just extremely thrifty) parent pass out with shock. ($68,095 PER YEAR for 2015-16.)

Since that visit in 2011, Alexander has been able to visit (in person) Harvard University, MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Colorado College, The U.S. Air Force Academy, Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University, The University of OklahomaThe College of Wooster, Olin College of Engineering, The Colorado School of Mines, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He’s been on campus multiple times at Texas Tech University (where I worked for five years) as well as The University of Central Oklahoma. He also tagged along on a campus tour of Webster University in St. Louis, which was primarily for our middle daughter. This is quite a list. I am extremely thankful that we’ve had so many opportunities (mainly in the summertime, but also during fall breaks and other times) to travel together as a family. I know it makes a HUGE difference to actually visit a university and get to EXPERIENCE its feel and its culture, even if it’s for a short time and it’s in the relatively limited and controlled environment of an admissions tour. Layer in some fall weekend football games, and these trips have all combined to make some really terrific family memories.

One of the most exceptional and notable college tours we had was also back in 2011, but at Kansas State University. My parents live in Manhattan (where I grew up from 6th grade through high school graduation) and my dad arranged for us to have an overall tour of the K-State Engineering College, and specifically a tour of the nuclear engineering program. Even at 8th grade, Alexander was very interested in engineering and loved both math and science. We ended up getting a student tour of the engineering building by a chemical engineering student, and overall he spent three hours with us! It was incredibly informative, and I’m positive that had a significant impact on Alexander as he’s focused on either majoring in aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering. These are all very rigorous and challenging programs at all universities which offer those programs, and there are no guarantees… but these formative experiences were important, and I’m thankful for the admissions staff as well as students who “took us seriously” even when we were starting the college exploration process back in 8th grade.

My absolute favorite family trip which involved several college visits was our fall break trip to Boston, New Hampshire and Maine in 2012. Not only was the weather spectacular and the opportunity to spend time with friends there priceless, it was also incredibly special to be able to take all our kids to see MIT and Harvard. I think Alex actually got intimidated by the low admissions numbers at MIT, and ended up not applying there for either summer programs or for undergraduate college admission. It planted a seed within his mind, however, that I suspect may reappear down the road if he ends up pursuing a graduate degree in engineering. There is a lot of water to flow under the bridge between now and then… but as I’ve already said, the opportunity to BE at schools like this and just imagine EVEN A LITTLE BIT that you are a student there can be huge in the mind of a kid.

I’ll interject here that it’s my heartfelt desire for my own children be able to attend the college of their dreams. I was able to attend and graduate from my dream college, out of all the university possibilities that I knew about, and I was fortunate that my dream school was free to attend. (With a military commitment afterwards, of course.) The financial landscape of college costs has changed dramatically since 1988, however, when I entered the Air Force Academy, and I’ve heard lots of stories about students as well as parents who have saddled themselves with far more debt via college loans than anyone should be responsibly allowed to accept. So while I want our children to be able to attend their “dream school,” I also recognize that colleges and universities in our country are (among many other things) a BUSINESS, and it’s vital to consider what is both reasonable and responsible when it comes to college costs. All our kids are wicked smart and it would be great if they could all get full rides to attend the colleges of their dreams… but realistically, that’s probably not going to happen. This, therefore, is a central challenge of the college puzzle for teens as well as families: How do we balance college dreams with family finances as well as our financial futures?

Let’s fast forward to this academic year, and specifically to today. Based on the advice of many folks, we (Shelly and I) counseled Alex to select and apply to four or five schools, and he ended up applying to five. This is where the title of this post, “Batting 1-1 With Three More Pitches Coming” finds its context. On Christmas Eve this year, Alex received a letter that he has been accepted to The Colorado School of Mines. This is fantastic news, because Mines is a hugely competitive school to get into, and he absolutely loves it as well as Colorado. He and I had a fantastic trip there together this past September, and if the financial aspects can work out (an Air Force ROTC scholarship possibility is now in the mix) I think he’d be very excited and happy to study engineering there. So, in the “1-1” in this post title, the first 1 is the acceptance at Mines.

The second 1 in the title, however, is for a college which did not accept Alexander’s application, and that amazing school is the Olin College of Engineering. I really should have written a post about how incredibly impressed and even overwhelmed I was in visiting Olin this past October.

Olin is absolutely a DREAM SCHOOL for STEM studies and engineering students. Re-imagined as a college and designed from scratch by visionaries who wanted to create the ideal undergraduate engineering experience, I can’t imagine a more perfect school for a student like Alexander who loves engineering and wants to go to school with highly motivated, creative and smart peers.

I surprised myself at how strongly I responded to the admissions tour at Olin and the experience of being on campus, learning from staff and students. My response was, “I don’t care how much this costs. If you get admitted here, we will find a way to pay so you can come.” That sounds like quite fiscally irresponsible talk from a dad who’d here-to-fore been staying words like “responsible” and “thrifty” when it comes to college costs. The “Olin Effect” is real, however, and it cast its spell on me in a big way.

It was, therefore, with a heavy heart that I received the news today via a text message from my wife, from Alexander, that he was not accepted at Olin for their 2015-16 class. They actually invite a select group of candidates (around 250-300, I think) to campus for “Candidates Weekends,” which involve applying students participating in a variety of activities and challenges with faculty and current students. This allows both to get a better feel for each other, and determine if Olin is “a fit.” Out of all those invited candidates, only about 85 actually end up attending Olin in the new freshman class. It’s a steep cut, to say the least… made more so by the fact that Olin maintains a 50% male, 50% female ratio, which is unheard of at every other engineering institution worldwide (as far as I know). Alexander would really love the chance to study in the northeast, and that wish still may come to pass. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that he’ll be on campus in Needham, Massachusetts, this fall, however.

This is the point in my story where my faith strongly enters into the picture, and provided me with some clear words to share with Alexander after I got home from work tonight and we said a prayer together. When I washed out of pilot training after 52 hours (about a fourth of the way through the program) and ended up being medically discharged from the Air Force, after a saga of events I would never wish on anyone else, I was understandably devastated. If anyone said these words to me, I don’t remember them at that time or at any time during my closing weeks in UPT or separation time from the Air Force. These were, therefore, words I could passionately share with my son tonight as we both felt the sadness and disappointment of not being accepted at Olin:

Have no doubt, my son, that God has great plans for you. We do not know exactly why this door has closed, but we do know for certain that God will open other doors for you that will be both good and challenging.

The words of a father at times like this might be inconsequential, but I doubt it. It’s both exciting and stressful to be living through these times of applying and waiting together with Alexander. One of our school college counselors, Josh Bottomly, wisely advised senior parents in a presentation last fall to be careful that ALL their discussions with their senior do NOT focus around and on college applications. There is so much more to school and a senior year than JUST applying to college! There is much joy to be experienced and tasted in the journey, and I appreciated that exhortation as we all do seem quite focused on these “college questions” and thinking about the “possible futures” which could ensue depending on which college(s) say yes.

We’re still waiting on three schools and the US Air Force. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)The College of Wooster, and The University of Oklahoma have not told Alex yes or no yet. We will know the outcome of his Air Force ROTC scholarship by mid-March. And even then, the road will continue to go on and on…

I neglected to mention one of the surprising things I learned about Alexander’s college preferences, on one of our trips together this fall to visit schools. Way back in 2009, Alexander had an opportunity to travel with me to Washington D.C. I attended and presented at the NECC conference, and he attended a week-long government study program hosted at a 4H Center. He told me that was the time when he decided he wanted to try and go to school in the east. I’m not sure if he’ll study as an undergraduate student in the east or the northeast, but I do know that experiences with travel early in life were significant in shaping his own identity as well as his personal aspirations for who he is and who he wants to become.

If you’ve stayed with me to the end of this rambling post, thank you. I’m writing this as much for myself, as I process these stress-filled and tumultuous college application days, as I’m writing for others. I am sure there are multiple “lessons learned” which could be repackaged in an advice column for parents working with their own children within the college application and decision-making process.

I’ll close with these thoughts. As human beings, we are SO MUCH MORE than “what we do.” As I learned from Michael Wesch in 2011, identity is much more about the messages which are REFLECTED BACK at us from those who surround us, than the outward messages we try to project to the world and others around us. Wherever we go to school or college, we’re so much more and we’re created for so much more than that. As a follower of Jesus, I believe we are called and commissioned to do vital, important work that matters every day… and this is true in all things large and small. The choices we make matter, but we have to remember we don’t and can’t “understand it all!” I’m thankful to be alive this day, and to have the opportunities this day presents to live life and face its choices with our family.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I know if we choose to follow the Lord, we’ll follow the right path. May God bless you and all those with whom you have contact this day!

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On this day..

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  • What a journey! I especially liked the LOTR references. So glad Alex was accepted at Colo School of Mines. With all the efforts you all put towards college, I think he will do extremely well!

  • Angela Stockman

    My daughter is a freshman at RIT this year. You’ve brought back many memories of the rollercoaster that is highschool and the ups and downs of the application process. One year from now, you will be in such a very different place. It will be just as wonderfully complicated as this place is, only different. How lucky we are to parent such great kids….and how lucky he is to have you. Good luck and enjoy.

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