UBA or USA: Coming to terms with the competition

I have a confession to make: We have not put money away for college savings for our kids. We have squandered it on international travel. When we should have been staying home and saving thousands to finance two university educations, we spent it instead on plane tickets to London, Lima and Rio. Now that high school graduation is nearly upon us, how do I feel about this? Pretty fine, really. Like they’ve gotten the most for the money. Like we have not allowed their childhoods and our family life to be shaped by the insane cost of college in the US.

How do I feel about them not even applying to US schools? That’s a different matter. Confession No. 2: I am envious of all my friends’ kids after the barrage of acceptance announcements I’ve received in the last few months. Georgetown, Barnard, UVA… All these kids I’ve known for the past 18 years have made the grades, high test scores, done their volunteer work, been awarded scholarships to top institutions of higher learning and will soon be leaving home for their respective dorms. Their parents glow with pride. I can’t help it, there’s nothing to be done about my competitive streak. I feel cheated. I have no announcement to make. L&F took the SAT, they got high scores. But in the end, the decision to apply for scholarships to US schools has been tabled. They will be starting at the University of Buenos Aires next year; they didn’t have to ‘get in’, take entrance exams, apply for scholarships or write fantastic essays, nor did we have to save money. It’s a free system, open to all. And they’ll be living at home.

27944I am a rubber-band ball of contradictions, I admit, but bear with me while I work this out. One wonders, if I really wanted them to follow the standard path of US college applications, why did we not prioritize the money for starters, knowing that it would be essential? I could play the Argentine husband card here, but in all honesty, I personally have an issue with the cost/quality equation when it comes to US higher education, so being married to someone who grew up in a country where it’s free and who, by all counts is a perfectly well-educated and successful adult—well, that just adds to my conviction. So this pretty much leaves me with my own competitive tendency, which, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is at least partly a product of my own glory years of imbibing US education culture. Despite my keen awareness of this, it has nevertheless reared its head and roared in the present circumstances and left me feeling cowed and small. Therefore, in an effort to put things right and relative, I submit the following questions to myself and anyone else in a position to choose:

  1. Do you believe a US undergraduate education to be the best in the world? In general, no. Most of the people I admire and respect were educated elsewhere in the world. Many have US graduate degrees, though.
  2. Do you think paid education is inherently superior to free, public education? No, I have seen the output of both, and know just as many successful people who attended free universities.
  3. Do you think leaving home to go to university is essential to one’s independence? No, not right away. I think 17/18-year-olds are often still in need of some guidance and may well achieve adult-like independence more organically with a couple more years at home.
  4. Do you think the social aspect of university life is as important as the academic, or should school only be about an academic education? I agree that the social aspect of university is an essential part of a broader education, however I don’t think the all-inclusive ‘campus’ is the only way to get that. School can easily be just about academics, especially in an urban setting, making the fees people often pay for the campus experience a bit crazy.
  5. Do you think not attending a US university is in any way an obstacle to getting a job in that country later in life if one has comparable qualifications from elsewhere? The statistics say not at all.

So this is where I’m supposed to finally embrace UBA, break out my swagger and tell you how it’s one of the top universities in Latin America, that students from other countries in the region flock here, and that it’s free, free, free. And that we happen to live in the city that is the destination of loads of US students, who come to do their studies abroad here. But it’s not gonna come to that, because I just don’t feel it. And the reason I don’t feel it is the same reason L&F don’t feel the urge to compete to get into US schools. Because it’s just not in the atmosphere around us. Transitioning from high school to public university in Argentina is really just a matter of registration, so there’s no hype attached to it, no bragging rights. It is much the same with the kids I know in different countries in Europe. The world is wide and there is never just one way. I am happy about all the amazing teenagers I know in the US who are going to off to fine universities, and I share their parents’ pride. But I am also finally coming around to the fact that the choice we have here feels like the right choice for us, at least for starters, and an equally enviable one at that.

11 comments on “UBA or USA: Coming to terms with the competition

  1. Allison Burgess says:

    Love your posts!


  2. Cecilia Galarza says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for this insightful analysis. It helps a lot on my own evaluation!!!


  3. Wendy Zappelli says:

    Thank Sarah. I am many of the same concerns and worries and feel many of the same presurres that you have and continue to feel and I really enjoy Reading your blogs and they help me put into words my internal conflicts about education and living abroad iwth my children. Thanks and keep it up,.I also share your blogs with my mother who has all of these concerns and questions and unknowns and more about her daughter and grandchildren living abroad.


    • otherfence65 says:

      Thanks, Wendy. Honestly, that’s the reason I started the blog, because I have often felt so on my own in grappling with this stuff, with no real points of reference, especially when they were younger. So if any of my ramblings are helpful to anybody else, I am so glad to contribute!


  4. jenngeist says:

    This is so wonderfully articulated Sarah! I know we have had conversations about this- so it will come as no surprise that I agree 100% on the absurdity of the costs and competition to get into college in the US. Like you, I know people from a VERY wide variety educational backgrounds and there appears to be no correlation between what one paid for school and their relative success, much less happiness! What I love about this post is your attention to the “atmosphere” around you and doing what feels right. In the end, being tuned into that seems to be what is most important. Thanks for your honest writing Sarah- makes me miss you like crazy!


  5. Juniper says:

    I agree with much of what you have written Sarah. I stayed home and went to community college allowing me to further build relationships with my parents as a young adult and to save money. They also gave me complete freedom and respected me as an adult while I lived there which for me was crucial to the health of our relationship – we still remain close to this day. I then transferred in as a junior to UC Berkeley and felt much more able to navigate the large school system and social scene having had a few more years at home. While Berkeley is a US “powerhouse” school, and has opened a few doors for me, the real reason I have gone on to receive different job opportunities, grants, and am now in a PhD program is due to the extensive volunteer work and research I have done both as an undergraduate student and after. What I have seen that sets “good” schools apart from others, is the access to a network of people in high positions (your friends and colleagues will help connect you to opportunities later) and that the schools hold your hand to provide you with research opportunities, internships, and extracurricular experiences. If L&F jump in with the intention to advocate highly for themselves and seek out opportunities and internships, they will get an excellent education and great contacts. I know many people who have gone to top US schools, and did nothing but get a degree that they never really use again. The reality is well-written, good communicators with diverse experiences will often get the job over those who just have a pedigree. However, the most important stuff to do in college is to make many wonderful mistakes, fall in and out of love, and build lifelong friendships! Finding the balance to all of this comes with a huge learning curve.


  6. Thanks for this thoughtful and candid post. Particularly meaningful to me was your last statement, that you are also in an enviable position here. As someone for whom sending their son to UBA is not really a viable option, having that available does seem enviable, both because of cost and proximity to home. My son will leave us and go far away, as I did when I was his age too. I don’t romanticize this independence so quickly because I think it can leave a young person feeling very alone while navigating many new situations. I don’t want my son to feel as alone as I did. Yet it’s hard to be readily available to him from a continent away.

    I just returned from the US college tour. It’s crazy. There is heavy pressure for kids to be more than kids. They have to demonstrate achievement. It’s the intellectual version of being good looking or sexy. Not all adolescents will be involved in community service, or sports, or student government. But they are being judged by accomplishments in these areas. Being reserved or shy, devoting free time to daydreaming, or having an after school family responsibility for childcare or a job at McDonalds, will likely not help a prestigious intuition recognizing your smarts.

    Who wouldn’t want an alternative?


    • otherfence65 says:

      Thanks so much for contributing this, Danielle. I think a large part of this decision, as you mentioned, has to do with the distance as well. Living for so long in a culture where sending one’s kids off at this age is not the norm has made the whole tabling of the issue a lot easier. I feel fortunate in that.


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