Eleven miles northeast of Scranton, PA, is Peckville. It’s a town within a town really, a village in the borough of Blakely, where — as of the 2010 census (the most recent year for which data is available) — the median family income was $60,341, and 25% of residents had at least a college education.

It’s a solid middle class place, and it’s where Michele and Phil*, who both work at a nearby Lockheed Martin plant, live and raised their only child, Cole. They always planned for him to go to college, despite not having gone themselves, but they hardly suspected he’d land at an elite university.

“When Cole was in high school, we kind of knew he was going to be able to more or less have his pick,” Michele said. “But the whole Ivy League thing came out of nowhere.”

Well, maybe not nowhere. Cole, who just started his junior year Cornell and now has his eye on law school, showed a preternatural curiosity from a young age and an eagerness to learn, not to mention — his mother notes — a willingness to argue. He quickly developed a fascination with geography, politics and the office of the president, and expressed interest in following his uncle’s footsteps to the FBI.

This was a relief to Michele and Phil, both of whom always regretted not going to college themselves due to financial circumstances and family responsibilities. They didn’t want to see Cole struggle as they had at jobs they neither liked nor felt valued at. And while their eagerness could’ve turned into overeagerness and a high-pressure situation for everyone, the couple consciously chose to offer their son two things they had an abundance of: love and support. It’s a stark contrast to the crazy-stressful world of endless extracurriculars, 5.0 GPAs and private college consultants that you often hear tales of in tiny zip codes where many students — with helicopter parents — compete for spots at the same top schools.

“We always told him ‘We don’t expect you to get A’s all the time, unless that’s what you’re capable of.’”

 

“Maybe we were naive. It just never occurred to me [to be that nervous]. I always figured he could get into pretty good schools,” Michele said. “We always told him ‘We don’t expect you to get A’s all the time, unless that’s what you’re capable of.’”

Turns out, Cole was capable of getting A’s all the time, including in AP, honors and dual-enrollment classes. When it came time to apply to college, he applied to 10 schools, which his parents thought was a bit excessive, but they “went with it” anyway. He identified Cornell as his reach school, pretty certain that he wouldn’t be admitted.

To prepare for what lay ahead, Phil and Cole read books and articles online about the admissions process, while Michele served as proofreader-in-chief of Cole’s essays, a role she’d filled for her son’s entire academic life. Financial aid was a big concern, and Phil was meticulous in the financial aid applications, making sure he followed all instructions to a tee. Everything schools asked for, he submitted in full and on time.

His precision paid off, as Cole received financial aid packages at about half the schools to which he applied. The packages, which covered up to half of the full cost of school, evened the playing field, with the price tag for private universities like Cornell suddenly becoming comparable to in-state tuition at Penn State and University of Pittsburgh.

Now, halfway through Cole’s college career, Michele and Phil are still getting used to negotiating the line between their everyday life and their son’s elite education. When Cole first accepted his spot at Cornell, the whole family went to campus for a reception with professors, deans and parents — many of whom were Cornell alumni themselves. And while Michele was initially intimidated by the crowd, her fears quickly dissipated. “Everyone is very down-to-earth, very friendly,” she said. “It’s all worked out well — so far.”

As for the one piece of advice they’d give parents like them who are about to go through the college application process? “Don’t look at a school’s tuition and say ‘That’s out,’” Michele said. “You can’t assume. You don’t know what a school is going to cost until you get that financial [aid] package.”