Parent Weekend, and History, and Math, and Attitudes


I spent the past couple of days down in Charlottesville attending my first Parent Weekend at UVA. One of the highlights of the weekend, for me, was the Candlelight Tour of The Lawn on Friday night. I love taking student-led tours; the guides are invariably funny and they enjoy sharing scandalous tidbits about the history of the university.

The first time my son and I visited the university we toured this same portion of the campus, which Thomas Jefferson designed and which consists of the Rotunda and ten pavilions aligned on either side of the large expanse of grass known as The Lawn. The above picture shows a portion of one side, with the Rotunda on the right and two of the pavilions connected by a colonnade. We learned that there are still student rooms on the lawn: 54 of them. All are occupied by fourth-year students (they don't use the words "freshman" etc. at UVA), who are selected for this honor by the student body. I was amazed to see racks of firewood outside each room. I knew these rooms, having been built in the 1820s, would all have fireplaces (53 of them are still functional), but were students still allowed to burn fires? Yes they are, and I learned the story behind the well-stocked firewood racks on Friday night.

Edgar Allen Poe attended UVA from February 1826 until December of the same year, when his step-father cut off his funds and he was forced to leave. On his final night, it being a cold December night and his being out of firewood and out of money and it being his last night, after all, so what the heck, he broke up the bed, desk, and chair in his room and burned them in the fireplace. Since that time the university has kept students who live on the lawn supplied with firewood, lest they burn the furniture on cold nights.

I had known, too, that a professor had been murdered by a student on the lawn, but I hadn't known the whole story. It wasn't about exams or grades; it was in a scuffle over the right of the students to ride horses up and down the lawn while shooting firearms, in commemoration of the earlier tradition of riding up and down the lawn while attempting to shoot the hands off the clock on the Rotunda, a tradition that ended when UVA acquired the first bullet-proof clock in the US.

So much for Parent Weekend and History. Now, about the math. There's a lot of talk these days about the college search and application process, all of it emphasizing the importance of "finding the right fit" for a student. Visit a lot of schools, they say, apply to schools in three categories: sure things, target schools, stretch schools. It's said that whatever school one chooses to attend will make attendance possible by providing financial aid.

What isn't often said is that the lion's share of the financial aid will be in the form of loans. Of course atheletes still get scholarships, and oboe players and ROTC students and sundry others, but for the vast majority of students, almost all financial aid is loans.

Students can now finish school with massive debts, especially those who go to graduate or professional school after getting a bachelor's degree. This causes problems for organizations such as those providing legal services for the poor, which want to recruit good young lawyers but can't pay enough to attract those who finish law school owing $100k. My son wants to go to law school, and I don't want his choices to be limited by the need to pay off student loans when he applies for his first job.

According to US News and World Report, UVA is tied with UC Berkeley in the number 21 spot in university rankings, and all of the schools that rank above these two are private. The highest ranked public liberal arts college is Virginia Military Institute, which is tied for 70th. Seventy. In other words, the top 69 liberal arts colleges are private schools.

Because we live in Virginia, the math is simple. I can pay for UVA out-of-pocket, but it's a stretch. I have enough savings for three years of law school, but not three years of law school plus four years of private college or university. My son didn't even visit any other schools. He sent in one of the "early decision" applications that are now the focus of so much angst. Because he graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) with a "governor's diploma" and scored 1520 on the SAT, he knew he'd get in to UVA; one third of his high school graduating class went there. There was no need to look any further.

So that covers Parent Weekend and history and math. Now for attitudes. Having lived in northern California for twelve years before moving to Virginia, I know that parents in California are proud to have their kids attend UC Berkeley. Why the analogous attitude doesn't hold here is a mystery to me. Many parents in northern Virginia seem to want their kids to go anywhere but UVA.

When I told my boss (an MIT grad) where my son was going to school, his reaction was momentary silence followed by slight embarrassment, as though he hadn't realized there was anything wrong and didn't know what to say-- exactly the response I'd have gotten if I'd said "Oh he's doing great, I finally got him into rehab."

The colleague in the office next to mine (another MIT grad) argued rudely that "young people should be ambitious" and that my son should have tried to get into a "Top Ten" school.

A friend whose daughter attends Yale tried to convince me that the added expense of an Ivy League school was no big deal-- "It's like buying a new car every year" she said. And "it's the connections you make" that are worth it. Her daughter chimed in (get your barf bags ready) "I have classes with Barbara Bush."

In September of his senior year I took my son to an Urgent Care clinic for a sports physical--he had left it to the very last minute, of course. The doctor who examined him asked what his plans were and reacted with horror to his response. "You Vee Aaaaaay? Is that aaaaaall?" she moaned. Her son was a student at Boston College and she insisted my son apply there.

For the Ivy League set, well-represented in Northern Virginia, UVA is either insufficiently exclusive (about 40% of the Virginians who apply get in) or insufficiently expensive (in-state tuition is about $5k), take your pick, and this disparaging attitude has spread like a rash to the not-so-rich and the not-so-gifted. One mother I knew whose son didn't get into TJHSST wanted to disown him until she learned that so many students from the school go to UVA. TJHSST is a tough high school. "Why do all that work," she said, "if you're just going to end up at UVA."

I have to be fair and say that there are parents who feel as I do: I love the campus and history of UVA, I'm happy to have my son here in Virginia, and I feel incredibly fortunate that our "State U" is such a good school. The mother of one of my son's classmates, whose daughter was accepted at both UVA and Yale, offered to send her to Spain for a year if she'd choose UVA. It was an offer too good to refuse.

July 2012

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