Repeat after me: It's about kids, not parents
Let's start by acknowledging that there's no such thing as a universal college experience. Going away to school is different from living at home and attending community college, which is not the same as getting your degree through night classes and online correspondence courses.
Yet a prevailing image of "college-bound" remains the family minivan stuffed to the brim with the sum of an incoming freshman's worldly possessions. It's a rite of passage typically preceded and followed by a fair amount of anxiety, most of it originating with the parents.
As an observer of college trends and the mother of a soon-to-be college sophomore, I have a few tips to pass along to parents. I'll start at the beginning and work my way up to moving day, which for many families is fast approaching.
First and foremost, remember that college is a step in life's journey, not the ultimate destination. It is not necessary to base every family decision, including preschool selection, on how it will affect a university application. There are thousands of colleges out there, and almost all of them offer great experiences.
College costs are out of control, and that's a subject for a separate column or two, but you can save some money before you get there. You really don't need to schedule 20 campus visits, for example. After the first three or four they all start to seem alike. I'd also suggest skipping the $300 essay writing lessons; most schools work on that in senior English classes. And while I've talked to people who found ACT or SAT prep courses to be productive, paying to take the test half a dozen times seems like an expensive exercise in wishful thinking.
By this time the class of 2011 has pretty much made its college choices, and the class of 2012 is a long way from deadline, so I'll skip over the decision itself, except to advise parents against steering a student toward a particular campus because it's located somewhere you think would be a cool place to visit.
Thanks to the Internet and social networking, it is now possible to learn quite a bit about one's assigned roommate before heading to campus. In some ways this is unfortunate. I know a girl who was dumped by a prospective roommate on the basis of a Google search and a few email conversations.
Nearly every kid is going to Google his or her roommate and look for high school activities and the like. But that doesn't mean the parent has to follow suit. And spying on the roomie's house on an Internet map site is probably crossing the line.
While it's advisable for parents to take a back seat throughout most of the admissions and enrollment process, packing is one area in which it pays to be assertive. My son was pretty sure he could sail through a Chicago winter in a hoodie. I was the one who got the coat and boots into the car. He thanked me later.
On the other hand, there's no need to go overboard. Stores these days are stocked with college dorm specials, mostly items the kids will never use. Shoe racks, for instance. And intricate containers in which to store supplies. Hint: If your student mostly used the floor for storage at home, things won't be any different at school.
You'll probably find on move-in day that schools are intent on corralling parents into receptions and the like, to give students their space. They have their reasons. Parents, aim for a dignified departure. If you're driving home, I'd suggest listening to a captivating audiobook. Things can get mighty quiet in the car.
The thing we have to keep in mind throughout the process is this: It's about the kids, not the parents. Left to their own devices, most students will do just fine.
Having done my part in the quest for parental reassurance, I shall now return to mulling over my newest fear: That in three short years my son will become one of the 85 percent of college grads who move back in with their parents.