If you live with a high school senior, this is the week.

Each day’s mail brings the potential for fat envelopes or skinny ones, delivering good news or bad about admission to colleges and universities.

It’s a complicated time. As much as anyone tells you that you are not being judged, it feels like a judgment. As much as they say that it’s the student, not the school that makes the difference, it hurts if you hear that you’re not wanted.

This won’t help a family going through this right now (nothing can help you now), but to those with a little more emotional distance — say, parents of sophomores or juniors — you should know there is a lot of good news in those skinny envelopes, especially if they mean that not going to that college means not taking on a lot of debt.

The college admissions process has become the focus of anxiety for families desperately afraid that there won’t be a place for their child in a shrinking economy.

Putting the best foot forward for selective schools has become a huge business, as a whole raft of professionals help select schools, edit essays and drill students to do well on entrance exams like the SAT.

The schools feed this by sending millions of pieces of mail to students they are unlikely to accept, hoping to appear more selective and move up in magazine rankings.

So much emphasis is put on finding the “right fit,” high school students and their families start to believe that finding the right college is like getting married and that going to the “wrong” school will buy you a lifetime of regret.

And although every college advertises its sticker price, everyone encourages families to put money on the back burner during the application process, saying that the real price can’t be known until the financial aid offer is made, after the admissions decision is delivered.

What they don’t stress is that most of the aid comes in the form of loans, and graduates can expect to start their adult lives with a college debt load as big as their grandparents’ mortgage.

As a nation, we owe a collective $1 trillion in student loans — more than we owe in credit card debt. Right now, about $67 billion worth of those loans are in default, and they are treated differently from any other debts we know.

According to a Bloomberg News report this week, defaulted student loans are turned over, with the blessings of the Obama administration, to a special breed of private collectors who would make Tony Soprano look like a softy. They can garnish wages without a court order. They can take Social Security checks. There are no statutes of limitations.

This spring another class of college graduates will enter the work force during a period of high unemployment. They will soon be expected to start paying down their debt, whether they can find a job in their field or not. So will their classmates who didn’t quite make it to the finish line and enter the work force without a diploma.

Forgiveness of student debt was one of the animating reasons behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it is only bound to grow as a potent political issue as more people find their careers as underwater as a mini-mansion mortgage.

It’s easy to see how things have gotten to this point. I have read (and I have written) the disturbing and true statistic about the lifelong earning gap between high school graduates and those who complete college. A high school graduate can expect to earn $1.3 million during his lifetime. Someone with a four-year degree brings in $2.27 million. A professional degree is worth $3.65 million.

The answer is not to do what Gov. LePage did a few weeks ago, and tell middle school children that college is not for everyone. Everyone needs some post-high school education – they just don’t need a lifetime of debt to pay for a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.

A much better idea was the one LePage floated during his campaign, allowing students to opt for a five-year high school program and come out with an associate degree or two years of college credit.

The Maine Community College System can get students ready for a good-paying job, or ready to transfer to a four-year university, at a fraction of the cost. As any transfer student will tell you, for the rest of your life, no one will ask you where you started college, only where you finished.

So hang in there, senior families, and don’t worry too much about the skinny envelopes. They could bring the best news you get this year. 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]