Is Any College Really the Best One?

For the first time in five years, I am not among the knuckle-biting families waiting for college acceptances this spring. I sure wish I'd known back then what I know now.

My husband and I have already put two sons through college, and we currently have two daughters still in college. From experience, I know that most families are sleepless and keyed up right now. The college tours are over, the applications and essays have been painstakingly completed.

Now that there's nothing to do but wait, parents everywhere are second-guessing themselves: Will my child crumble if he doesn't get into his first choice school? Should we have demanded that our child apply to schools in, say, Oklahoma, where they might be handing out more financial aid? Why didn't we spring for those SAT prep classes?

Relax! Even kids who get into their first choice schools aren't necessarily better off than those who end up with their last.

Our oldest son was a modest student. He played sports but was never a star. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Yet, he was accepted by half a dozen mid-range schools and chose a small one in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Within a year, he was scrambling to transfer -- not because he wanted better academics or a nicer dorm, but because his girlfriend was in Boston. He found a small college in Boston that accepted him, transferred, and graduated two years ago. And guess what? He is now happily working in the movie business in L.A.

Our son didn't get his job because of his academic record. He found work because he is personable and quick, and because he interned part-time with film companies while in college. He also had carpentry jobs every summer; he was able to get into prop shops as a production assistant often because his toolbox set him apart.

Son #2 was a stellar student and athlete in high school. He was accepted into his top choice college -- one of the three top independents in Maine. His reason for choosing that particular school? He loved the student center with its trickling fountains and comfy chairs. The school just "felt" right to him. He graduated with an English degree, and despite that and the rocky economy, he landed a job as a copywriter three days after graduation.

This success was not due to him making dean's list or alumni connections. No, he was hired mainly because he had built a portfolio on his own: He wrote for a local newspaper in the summer and for a web site during the school year.

Our oldest daughter was also a great student and athlete, yet she did not get into her top choice college. Nor did she get into her second. So she went, heels dragging, to her dreaded last choice: the big State University, which gave her scholarships and was so cheap by comparison to other schools that it felt like we'd won the lottery. She will graduate this May with an honors degree in Natural Resources. Along the way, she studied in Spain and did field work in Indonesia and on a local river. She also learned to scuba dive and ran her first marathon.

Will she get a job after graduation? I have no doubt that she will. I also have no doubt that, for the tuition dollars we've spent, her education was the best value by far. More importantly, she has been happy and excited by her opportunities, and mentored by professors who appreciate her. So much for a big, impersonal university, right?

Finally, our youngest daughter, who spent her junior year in high school living in Paris, wanted to attend university there. She got into her first choice school in Paris. Two years later, she decided to finish her degree at home. Again we were thrust into the application process. She succeeded in getting into her first choice -- a small, urban, Ivy league school - and is happy there. She plans to graduate next year.

Are any of these colleges better than the others? Like every college and university, they all promised the same thing: to deliver an education that propels graduates into the real world, equipped with skills to think critically, communicate effectively, work well with others, solve problems creatively, and so forth. Each of these colleges delivered, with various price tags, on their promises.

Were we just supremely lucky? Did our children choose the right schools?

Yes and no. We were lucky in that our children are smart and willing to work hard. We're also lucky that we were able to save, beg, and borrow enough money to pay for these outstanding educations.

At the same time, I've realized that all of that agony and worrying we did during the application process was pointless. Two of our children transferred colleges anyway, and one of them ended up discovering that her last choice school was the best possible fit.

In this economy, a college degree is certainly the cornerstone of professional success in most arenas. But it is also, in many ways, the tiniest pebble in the boulder-strewn field of life. What matters is that college students make the most of wherever they end up, working closely with professors, joining clubs and -- most important of all -- earning work experiences through internships, campus jobs and volunteering. College helps you learn about the world, but it's your work experience that helps you be in the world.

Someday, perhaps we'll have a higher education system that doesn't break the bank; a system that guarantees job skills as well as knowledge. Until then, parents, we all need to relax. There is no such thing as the perfect college choice.

To college students waiting for those acceptance letters around the country, I say this: Embrace every learning opportunity that comes your way, no matter which campus you end up calling home. The best college education really is all about the journey.