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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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College applications: round three

Uploaded: Apr 11, 2014
Our family has survived our third child applying to college. He plans to study at a University of California campus in close proximity to a beach, and he is thrilled to have this opportunity. I am happy and excited for him, but I am also questioning whether the end justifies the means. In the eight years that our three older kids have been sequentially applying to college, the process has become more time consuming, expensive, and opaque, as well as less accessible to students with socioeconomic or other challenges. I have been fantasizing about a different high school experience for our youngest two children, high school without the stress of applying to college.

I imagine them not obsessing over grades or selecting courses to maximize their GPA, but learning to acquire knowledge and insight. The hundreds of hours spent test prepping, taking SATs, ACTs, SAT IIs and APs, and filling out applications with endless essays could be spent doing a tantalizing array of alternative activities. They could commune with nature, read for pleasure, volunteer for a cause near and dear to them, hone a skill, or pursue creative, athletic and artistic endeavors. Rather than filling out forms listing their extracurricular activities, searching for something compelling to say in 700 words about their lives, or pondering college essay questions such as "Are you a geek or a nerd?" or "Describe a street", they could read memoirs and seek inspiration to follow their passions from folks who have lived lives of purpose.

School vacations could be spent visiting sites of historical, recreational, environmental or cultural interest, instead of attending yet another college information session extolling the unparalleled opportunities at that particular institution, whose study abroad, research and summer internships sound just about like every other college.

The other night at dinner I shared this fantasy of application-free high school years with my family. No one was particularly interested in my ranting until I stumbled upon the financial implications of foregoing college applications. I proposed that were they to decide to attend community college (no SATs, teacher references, college visits or essays required), and then transfer after two years to a four year university, we would give our kids the money that would have been spent on tutoring, test fees, application fees, airplane tickets, hotels, rental cars and the higher tuition costs. Instead of enriching the tutoring industry, the College Board testing service, the college coffers, and the airlines, our kids would have a tidy sum to put towards graduate school, starting a business, or a condo down payment, all without any sacrifice of their educational experience and future career opportunities. This offer seemed to get the attention of our youngest, but probably because she was mentally calculating how long she could live in Hawaii on this windfall.

I am glad we have a few years before having to tackle this issue again, although the discussion of college applications actuallly starts when students choose their 7th grade math lane. I hope that the college application process might be streamlined and improved, although I am unaware of any such efforts. The current system is serving other interests over that of the students. Is test prepping and application writing the best use of students' time, or should these vital years be spent on more developmentally appropriate, academic and enriching activities?

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Former PALY parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Apr 11, 2014 at 9:22 pm

So proud of you that you wrote that...I too envision a different/better future for the high school -college process. I'm glad you mentioned the socioeconomic differences because the current process alienates the people who can not compete with the financial requirements to explore and apply for college. If it doesn't change , college will soon become an environment only for the wealthy.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 11, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thank you, Former PALY parent, for reading and commenting. "Demonstrating interest" in a geographically distant campus is difficult if there are financial constraints. It doesn't seem right to have this be a consideration in admissions.

Posted by Mother of 4 , a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Apr 11, 2014 at 10:21 pm

There's always a lot of scorn at the educational idea of teaching to the test. How terrible for the student? How terrible for education?

Instead we are preparing for college applications and "teaching" comes a distant second.

Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 5:41 am

How true! Thanks, Sally!

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 8:18 am

This is fabulous and I hope people catch on. Palo Alto's dirty little secret is that while 90-something percent of the graduating class may be going off to a 4-year University, no one ever talks about how many come home after a year!

I was one of those students and knew countless others who went the same route. The community colleges have amazing professors and smaller classes than most large Universities. I truly believe some of the best learning came from my time at Foothill.

The hard part is convincing our children (along with society) that going to a community college is not a lesser goal or something to look down on. How do we go about changing that conversation?

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 10:55 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Mother of 4,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm also not convinced that kids, despite investing a lot of time and energy, are learning anything or acquiring important skills from the college application process.

Thanks, PR.!

Hi Erin,

Thanks for reading and sharing your positive experience at community college. Applying to college so dominates the high school experience now that kids who are choosing another route feel left out. There is also a huge amount of marketing by the colleges selling themselves as critical to students' future success. But just like combatting other forms of peer pressure and advertising, talking to our kids about why a different choice might be more appropriate for them can work.

Inviting alumni from our high schools back to speak who attended community college and are now attending four year universities, grad schools, or in careers, could be helpful in spreading the word that this is an appropriate and viable pathway to a meaningful and successful life.

The Paly student newspaper publishes a map each spring with seniors' college choices. I would like to see this practice stop, or at the very least, to give meaningful context, publish that map again four years hence showing where kids actually end up. Based on the number of students my kids know who flounder at elite schools, that map in itself could promote the community college route to success.

Posted by TulsaNative, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 12:41 pm

You said it, Sally!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 1:46 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, TulsaNative, for reading and commenting!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Finding the right fit for your child/student is challenging enough even without peer and community pressures. I probably wouldn't have attended any college if I had to go through what today's high school students go through!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi LJ,
Ditto for me!

Posted by bunyip, a resident of Adobe-Meadows,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 3:57 pm

The issue starts with the parents - you\'re the ones who demand your kid goes to (add school name here) and are willing to pay for the privilege. college is a market and they will continue to up the standards and costs whilst the demand is there and being met. If 10,000 families turn to community colleges, guess what, standards are raised and the fee\'s will match. My girls college plans are to head overseas and live her life at a school in the UK, Australia, or NZ. Her high school years aren\'t consumed by college applications and stress, but growing and learning about the real world. Parents need to measure success, not by whether their brat goes to Stanford, but how decent a human being they are, how happy they are, how socially adjusted they are, their contribution to society. Not a piece of paper granted by a bloviated admissions board.

There\'s life outside them walls....

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 12, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear bunyip,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Parent pressure is certainly often a driving force in the college application process. Your daughter's plan to study overseas sounds like a great option. Sometimes as parents we do need to reassess what we really want for our kids.

Posted by Kirsten, a resident of Community Center,
on Apr 13, 2014 at 1:58 pm


Since the SAT only can prove that its test correlates to classroom success in year 1 with a 0.19 correlation (considered weak by most objective standards), I say you are on to something. Can't we eliminate some of this test stress and linked financial barriers when the GPA and class rank (with a correlation of 0.45) is much more indicative of performance in college? This change would not remove GPA pressure on students, but it would take a big chunk of stress off the plate.


Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 13, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Kirsten,
Thank you for your point about SAT testing and its limited ability to predict how well a student will perform in college.
I would welcome eliminating testing as it would remove the cost, stress, and time of test prepping and test taking, which serves no educational purpose for students. I know some colleges are no longer requiring the standardized tests, perhaps because of GPA and class rank being more important predictors of college success.
Is the revamping of the SAT an attempt to increase its predictive value for success in college in hopes of making it relevant for the application process?

Posted by Bunyip, a resident of Adobe-Meadows,
on Apr 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm

You both miss the point.. Zuckerburg is a college drop out. How predictive of college success is the SAT?

Posted by Karen, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 13, 2014 at 5:13 pm

The vast majority of four year colleges and universities in the United States have acceptance rates that indicate that they are willing to accept any student who has been reasonably diligent in high school. Here is a sample of some great options with their 2012 acceptance rates included:
Auburn University, 77%
Indiana University-Bloomington, 74%
Miami University-Oxford, 73%
University of Colorado-Boulder, 84%
University of Hawaii-Manoa, 81%
University of Kansas, 92%
University of Missouri, 81%
University of Oklahoma, 79%
University of Oregon, 74%
University of Vermont, 77%.

For juniors who feel like their standardized test scores are not the best reflection of their academic strength, many colleges now offer test-optional admission. A comprehensive list of test-optional colleges can be found at the Fair Test website.

For seniors who are not satisfied with their college options at this point, the National Association of College Admission Counselors publishes a list every year in early May detailing colleges that still have space available in their freshman class for the coming fall. In the last admission cycle, there were fantastic options like Hampshire and St. Mary's College of Maryland on the list, which is available to the public for free on the NACAC website.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 13, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Karen,
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Point well taken. There are a large number of US colleges and universities that do not require students to sacrifice their high school experience to gain admission.
In 2009, I knew of local students who were anecdotally "reasonably diligent" and were rejected at three of these institutions listed. Is there a trend in the last few years of very selective schools becoming even more selective but less selective schools becoming less selective?

Posted by frugal, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Apr 13, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Hey Karen-

Great options? [portion removed] Colorado is 53.1K per year and Oregon is 45.3K. [portion removed]

Why should California's students be priced out of University of California schools by Chancellors looking to extend revenue opportunities in the form of accepting more lucrative out of state candidates?

Why should students HAVE TO look at Vermont when the state university system here is so desired that UCLA's applicant rate has doubled in ten years?

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 13, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Frugal,
My understanding is that the UCs are accepting more out of state students (who pay higher tuition) because UCs are no longer getting adequate funding from the state. Many of the UCs have become very selective to enter as a freshman, but attending community college and transferring to the UCs after two years remains more accessible and affordable.
I don't know specifics, but I would guess that many of the out of state schools on the list above would offer attractive financial aid packages to qualified students.

Posted by local, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 14, 2014 at 12:43 am


"You both miss the point.. Zuckerburg is a college drop out. How predictive of college success is the SAT?"

Thought the point being made by Kirsten was that SAT scores don't mean much.

By the way, for many "the real world" is here, not in NZ, Australia, or the UK - which have equally selective schools, and it's not exactly a walk up deal there either.

Posted by Karen, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 14, 2014 at 6:29 am

Many out-of-state public universities offer significant merit aid, in addition to need-based financial aid, in an effort to attract students. For example, the University of Alabama offers automatic merit scholarships for 2/3 of tuition for out-of-state students with at least a 3.5 high school GPA and an ACT score of 30 or 31. For an out-of-state student with an ACT score of 32 or above, Alabama provides an automatic full tuition scholarship for four years.
For students who prefer to stay in California, UC Merced accepted 65% last year, with an average high school UC GPA of 3.59 and average standardized test scores in the 60th percentile for the freshman class.
Here are more choices within California's four year public university system, along with their most recent acceptance rates:
CSU Bakersfield, 67%
CSU Chico, 74%
CSU Los Angeles, 69%
CSU Sacramento, 67%
CSU Stanislaus, 77%
Humboldt State, 81%
San Jose State, 75%
Sonoma State, 85%.
The website offers more information about acceptance rates, majors, financial aid, housing and support for first generation students.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 14, 2014 at 7:31 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks so much, Karen, for providing the specifics!

Posted by GC, a resident of Community Center,
on Apr 14, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Sally, Thank you for bringing up the topic and Karen, Erin and Frugal for making it a great discussion and sharing of knowledge. Sally, I agree about enjoying high school and developing oneself. Never took an AP class, never took any SAT prep classes. Did look at an SAT prep book for 1-3 days before retaking the SAT's. Went to an unusual school that did not give grades ... just comments. Got into first choice engineering university (and weight listed on the backups) without a lot of stress. Lucky to have a headmaster who went to bat for his students and an understanding Mom who let me stay home from school for those 1-3 days to prep for the SAT.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 15, 2014 at 7:58 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, GC, for reading and commenting. It is challenging for us to relate to the pressures our kids feel about the college application process when it was so different for us!

Posted by Miriam Palm, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 17, 2014 at 7:48 pm

I graduated from Paly in 1962 and studied for the next two years at Foothill while living at home. Saved a ton of money and got just as good an education taking lower division basic classes. I transferred to Whitman and finished there in two years.
My husband, a Montana native, did the same at CSM, and graduated from Stanford.
My brother, seven years younger, followed my lead and graduated from UC Davis, returning to Stanford for his PhD.
All of us are very grateful for the excellent education we received thanks to the JC system.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 17, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Miriam Palm, for sharing your family's positive experiences with the community college system.
My son recently graduated from a UC. He tells me that according to published University statistics, his classmates that transferred from community colleges graduate, on average, with higher GPAs than the four year attendees. The students who started at community college are now doing very well with graduate school acceptances at their first choice institutions!

Posted by JM, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Apr 24, 2014 at 2:40 am

A number of thoughts on your circumstance.

I have two sons, both of whom ended up at Foothill for a few years. Both are bright, but have had different challenges. Son #1 has learning and social disabilities, and so we did some college touring (built around family vacations, and with no flying involved), looking for an appropriate school for him. Son #2 came along on those trips, of course, but he was a few years younger.

In terms of tutoring, test prep, etc., we did not pay anything for any of that, with either child. We weren't insisting on the most exclusive colleges, believing that there are many good college choices out there, and both kids would have resisted intensive prep anyway. (Plus we parents are kind of turned off philosophically by that whole idea.) Both sons avoided the SAT (due to the writing requirement) but both scored 32 or higher on the ACT with no test prep except a few tips from me. Both also took at least one AP exam.

Although there were no tutors, many (MANY!) parent hours were involved in helping #1 with his various difficulties, as well as interfacing with teachers and Special Ed staff at JLS and Gunn. By the time he was finishing high school, it was clear that going anywhere away from home would not be an option, and in the end he dropped out of Foothill just a few classes shy of an A.A. in Computer Science, because his medications, while helping with some social problems, negatively affected his cognitive abilities. At least the community college system offered him a chance to get some higher education at low cost while living at home (where he still is).

Son #2 was younger than most of his high-school cohort (a November baby, when Dec. 4 was the cutoff) and was immature even for his age. He would only put in what he considered to be the minimal effort required to pass his classes, except the ones he really loved (like AP Comp Sci, AP Econ, and a few others). His writing skills were, to put it charitably, unhoned. He also made no effort to research colleges, and gave "I dunno" answers to where he thought he might like to go. When the time came to apply, he only bothered to apply to Cal Poly (one of the schools we toured) and to one inexpensive out-of-state tech school we had also toured. (Even though he had taken the required classes for UC eligibility, we all knew he wouldn't make the cut to get into a UC with his grades.) He got into the out-of-state school, but not into Cal Poly.

It turned out to be a terrible fit. All his high-school friends were at colleges in California, and got together regularly, and he could not be with them, or come home when he wanted, and he was unhappy. His college also turned out to be a school that has fairly lax standards for acceptance, but brutally winnows out its freshman class via high-stakes finals, and he was among the 50% of the freshman class who flunked out. (We found out later that this happens regularly.)

So he came home, to restart at Foothill. We were very glad to have Foothill as a fallback (and really glad we hadn't tried to send Son #1 to that out-of-state school!!!). He had some instructors and classes he really loved (especially one Physics class and instructor), and some he hated, which is par for the course just about anywhere.

One issue we did have at Foothill was with availability of classes. It took him three years to get two years' worth of courses, because he'd find that if he tried a class and it turned out to be way too hard, or way too elementary (more common), or just not what he'd expected and wanted, and he then dropped it, everything else was full, so he ended up with only a partial course load for several quarters. (Son #1 almost always took only one or two courses at a time, but that was intentional.) In those three years, Son #2 did do some maturing, grew more proactive and thoughtful about what he wanted to do with his future, pulled his grades up, and developed his writing skills.

So when the time came to transfer, he had a pretty clear idea about where he'd like to apply. (They were all within a few hours of home ? surprise, surprise!) He applied to three UCs, Cal Poly, and San Jose State. (We didn't have the means for a private school, not due to low income, but to very high medical expenses for Son #1). He wrote a dynamite essay for the UCs, without any paid coaches, without extreme parental nagging, and with just a few editing suggestions from parents. He got into UC Santa Cruz and SJ State (and maybe not the others due to those horrid grades from that first college).

He's now expecting to graduate in June from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Computer Science (and without ever visiting the beach, though he's done a lot of hiking in the surrounding hills). He's working his butt off, pulling all-nighters, and loving it, now that most of the gen-ed courses he hated are out of the way, and he's doing stuff he loves. He even took 20 units last Fall term and got all As. He's handling his own affairs there very independently, and starting to worry about the job-hunting process.

For our two kids, Foothill was the right place, for two entirely different reasons, but it may or may not be right for your two remaining kids. As I see it, there are three main options, within each of which expenses can vary:
(1) Go to college somewhere far from home.
(2) Go "away" to school, living on or near campus, but in relatively close proximity to home.
(3) Live at home and go to school somewhere nearby, probably a community college or CSU.

My sons worked out best with options (2) and (3), but in my case, even though I was even a full year younger than my high-school classmates and not terribly mature, option (1) ended up being best for me, though I didn't know that when I made the choice. Adequate financial aid enabled me to choose to attend a wonderful, small, nurturing liberal-arts school 1000 miles from home, and in retrospect, to get away from a family situation that would have made doing college work at home extremely difficult (a severely autistic sister living at home).

So I think it really depends on the kid, on what they want out of college. What living experience do they want? Is their heart really set on a particular school or program or part of the country, or are they really unsure where they want to go and/or what they want to major in? Are they just dying to move out of their family home and become more independent, or do they do better when Mom and Dad are providing a backstop for them? (Those two things are not mutually exclusive!) And, of course, family finances are a consideration unless the kid is so incredibly accomplished that they get tons of grant money from some school(s) or a National Merit scholarship or something.

The high-quality community colleges we are fortunate to have access to, especially Foothill and De Anza, are great options to have, and I think you are doing well to encourage your kids to consider them. I hope they have the maturity to thoughtfully consider your proposed alternative, even if in the end they decide against it.

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