Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Getting the college thing right

Pre-college anxiety is a fixture of teen literature and teen entertainment--and rightly so, since it builds from a background buzz beginning around sophomore year into an all-consuming siren of an obsession (for many) by the beginning of senior year. It only makes sense that authors interested in capturing teen experience and telling stories about being a teen must write about tests, applications, essays, scholarships, financial aid, and their attendant anxieties. And since the pre-college obstacle course that most teens run is only getting more complicated, it also stands to reason that how it appears in teen fiction should be more complicated, nuanced, and diverse than it was decades ago.

But I'm not really seeing that last part as much as I'd like, truth be told, and I think it's a bit of a missed opportunity. What I do see are some rather conventional--dare I say, sometimes cliche--portrayals of the college application process that ought to be refined into something more nuanced and interesting, if not more realistic. Case in point, in an ARC I read just the other day on the way back from BEA, I found a slightly disappointing example of college-scholarship-realism laziness in the form of a full-ride athletic scholarship to a NCAA Division III college. Sorry, no such thing exists. D3 schools don't give athletic scholarships of any kind. It's in the rules. I'm not saying that for something to be true in fiction, it must be true in reality, but I am saying it's disappointing for a plot to hinge on a version of reality that's less imaginatively rich than the real thing. I don't like plot points that are simply expedient.

Where I think an opportunity is most greatly missed, though, is the eggs-in-one-basket character who is stressing out over that one scholarship that is the difference between going to college and not. Is it ever this cut and dry? And even if it is, is it really the best way to portray this situation for a given character? Sure, I have no problem with a character becoming irrationally obsessed with a single scholarship, to the extent that it comes to stand for something larger than college (Varian Johnson's upcoming novel handles this well)--that's interesting--but I do have a problem with a universe where everyone in the book accepts the notion of the make-or-break scholarship. That's boring compared to what actual teens face, which is a kind of complicated combination of investment and gambling, wherein it is common for an eighteen year old to sign his name to a promissory note that will have him making monthly payments into his late 30s. Adults are generally gung-ho about teens not making sexual decisions that will affect them for decades, but they are completely complicit in pressuring teens to make certain educational and financial decisions that will affect them for just as long. The complicated decision involved in whether and how to finance college by heavy borrowing (which is what many teens end up doing) can lay bare differences of class, family worldview, and personality that were otherwise completely concealed. It's a great way in particular to learn what a family is all about. I remember well a very good friend from high school, whose path up until senior year was similar to mine in most ways, and who could have easily gone away to an expensive, loan-financed private college (as I did). She did not. Of course, it was never a question of whether she could go to college (a decade ago, at my mostly white, mostly middle-class high school, that was never the question for anyone I knew); it was a question of on what terms would she go to college. I think the notion of borrowing many tens of thousands of dollars to go to one school when she could go to another school for basically nothing (a local community college, to start, then a small local state school) was not one she and her family could support. They did not see the benefits, if there were any. It seemed more practical to them for her borrow money to buy a new car and begin a very career-oriented course of study (I probably called it a "tech school course" with ample superior sneering). At the time, I was a rather narrow-minded and opinionated little shit, and I'm sure I repeatedly strained our friendship by telling her how crazy I thought her decision was (I was, theoretically, facing the same choices, but my family was a very much a wherever-you-want-to-go-and-damn-the-cost family). Looking back now, though, I see how much complexity and anxiety there was in this decision for both of us and how heavily it weighed on our friendship by exposing real differences we rarely otherwise encountered.

YA authors have done a fantastic job in recent years of capturing the nuances and varieties of some of the other future-defining Big Decisions (sex, in particular), but college doesn't seem to be at the same level of nuance yet (though, I do remember--don't ask why--a bit in Beverly Hills 90210 where Andrea goes off on Brandon for using the word "masticate." She snaps because she's freaking out over the SATs and thinks that "masticate" is a word Brandon must have learned from some expensive SAT prep course, which she can't afford. It's one of those rare moments of class-consciousness in the show).

Anyway, I'd love to see this change. I would love to see books where this situation assumes the importance and complexity it has in real life (and this doesn't mean "issues" books that are all about college apps, anymore than writing about sex means issues books that are all about pregnancy--it's all part of the larger experience). I think it could make for some really interesting storytelling in a variety of books.


heidi said...

A teenage friend of ours recently got accepted to UCLA on "appeal." She's a straight "A" student and was accepted everywhere else she applied. After a lengthy appeal process, she was accepted into a less competitive major at UCLA and is thrilled. I was so impressed with her dedication--and agree that type of thing would make a good subplot in an upper YA.

Sam said...

Oh, yes. I recall looking for just the right "party school." Of course, in the late 70's this was not an arduous task. ;-)

What I would like to capture in writing (when the right story presents itself) is the college freshman frenzy - the mental state of so many of my peers once in college. Many people have a hard time adjusting to life outside the family, like long-time prisoners suddenly expected to function in society. I talked at least three people out of dropping out their first year. I saw another 5-7 leave.

zee said...

Amen, brother. I am still paying off those loans. Eegads, only 10 more years to go, I think.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I wonder how much of this is because YA authors' college experiences are from simpler college application times? I know in my case, five years out of college and nine years from my (admittedly unorthodox) application process, I would be afraid to write freely about the current college application experience without a heckuva lot of research into it. Perhaps daunting to many authors.