Friday, December 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Colleges

Kate, my daughter, is a very smart, level-headed young lady. She has always been a black-and-white, by-the-book, follow-the-rules type kid — the polar opposite of her brother, Andy, but that's another blog.

So when it was time to select a college, she did her homework. She wanted a school that was on the smaller size. A school that was in an urban area, but not necessarily a large urban area. She wanted a school with a good pre-med program ... a good Spanish program ... and a safe campus. And she wanted a school with a good swim team.

To that end, she went on half-a-dozen college visits, many of them paid visits on behalf of the swim team. In the end, it came down to two different schools: The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, and Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Each school was giving her academic scholarships. And UNC was giving her athletic scholarships, too. Factoring in all the options — including the money — the Colorado school won out. So thirteen months ago, she accepted UNC's offer and that was the plan ever since.

In August, we made the trek to Colorado. Kate, Lisa and I in the van, loaded top to bottom with dorm-room stuff. We spent the better part of a week in Greeley, setting Kate up in her room, going through orientation and so on.

But some things that happened there gave us pause.

The swim coach, for instance, could never find the time to meet us. And because she was a swimmer, Kate had to register with an "athletic advisor." This young man spent an hour with Kate, arguing with her that the classes she wanted to take were "too hard" and that she should consider taking fewer classes — and easier classes — to help boost the swim team's GPA. That didn't sit well with Kate ... or with us.

But after a tearful farewell, we parent got back in the van and headed home. 

Roughly 10 days later, on a Saturday, we got a long, very unhappy email from Kate. She said she had made a terrible mistake and UNC was not the school for her. She knew it was too late to do anything about it, but wanted to let us know that she would stick out the year, but that she would not be returning.

Her reasons? For one thing, her three roommates wanted to do little else but party. Kate was placed on an all-athletes floor where the students were essentially given carte blanche. When the three male baseball players living next door came over to introduce themselves, the first thing they said was "you guys all smoke pot and drink, right?" One by one, Kate's three roommates said sure, of course, absolutely. Kate just looked at them and said "no way." That's Kate.

In one of the first team meetings with the swim team, the head swim coach told the girls that she knew they would drink and party ... and that was OK, as long as they didn't come to practice with a hangover. Oh, and her advice for partying? "If the cops come, drop your drink and run." Seriously? A D-1 head coach essentially condoning drinking and partying? Again, that is SO not Kate.

Because of a scheduling snafu, she was never able to eat lunch. She has class from 11 to 2 each day, and the dining halls weren't open beyond that for lunch. So she was supposed to go to morning workout ... eat breakfast ... go to three classes ... then go to afternoon workout with no lunch. The dining hall people told her that it was her problem.

Anyway, long and unpleasant story short, Lisa and I decided that Saturday that it was silly to make Kate spend a year in college being miserable. So we called her ... talked at length ... then packed up (along with one of Kate's dear high school friends in tow) and drove straight through from Vancouver to Greeley, a super-fun 19+ hours.

As you can imagine, the swim coach was none too thrilled about this. Although ironically, in talking about drinking on campus, she mentioned to us that "out of control drinking" was one of the reasons she lost her previous coaching jobs. Hmm. Dorm cleaned out, admissions withdrawn and coach unpleasantness, we were officially done with UNC.

Spent much of the 19 hour drive home on the cell phone to the folks at Whitworth. What a difference. Yes, they could admit Kate. Yes, she would still get all of her scholarship money — even more, in fact. The snag was housing. This was their biggest class ever and they were actually 100% full up. Between the wonderful admissions counselor and the amazing swim coach, they made it happen. Kate was allowed to live in an apartment off campus — the first and only time they've allowed a freshman to do that. Whitworth staff — from the president and the director of housing, to admissions, financial aid and the advisors — bent over backwards to help us out in any way they could.

Again, long story short, we went from withdrawing at UNC to driving Kate to Whitworth in the span of five days. She had an apartment very near school. Our plan was to make it so that she would never be there along for the first week. As lucky would have it, we didn't get that far. Five days after she moved in, a dorm room became available. We're not 100% sure why, but our hunch is that Kate's advisor made it happen. He was horrified that an 18-year old freshman girl was living off campus in an apartment by herself. He even went so far as to line up classmates to escort Kate to and from campus! So we drove back to Spokane and moved Kate from the apartment to the dorm. Our prayers had been answered.

Yes, Whitworth is more expensive than UNC. But in the grand scheme of things, what's another loan or two. The bottom line for us is that the fit is right. Kate is where she belongs. She loves her dorm. She loves her swim team. She loves her teachers and classmates and the campus. And she loves that it's a close-knit Christian school with all that entails. Equally important for her is what it doesn't entail ... the big partying scene and the dumbing-down of student athletes.

No two universities are the same. And finding the right fit for your student is paramount. As trite as it may sound, don't let your checkbook be the key determining factor. That's a lesson we learned the hard way!

P.S. — To our friends, family, co-workers and clients who send support during this miserable few weeks, we say THANK YOU! Hopefully this gives you a little more detail of the craziness going on this past August and September!

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