Here we are — the three of us, our little but precious family, quietly cruising at 35,000 feet comfortably and rapidly heading toward the next chapter of our daughter's life: her first day at college.

I'm happy because I've lived long enough to experience and share this poignant moment. Our daughter has worked hard for her success and is proud, happy and a little scared at the same time, which is one reason her mother and I are sitting on either side of her. She appreciates our quiet reassurance.

I'm happy because we began planning financially for this event long ago, even if we haven't planned to the same degree emotionally. Together with our daughter's generous scholarships and grants, there is little or no financial strain, so we can savor this fleeting transition time together and share in her sense of accomplishment.

I'm happy because our daughter has been open to options for college other than exclusively California alternatives. She is determined to become a nurse, minor in music, and graduate in four years from a liberal arts college. The average size of classes at her new school is 21 and 10 in lab classes, and she was admitted directly into their nursing program with honors. For this opportunity, I'm truly happy for her.

The deep sense of sadness comes not only from "losing" our little girl, who is now a young woman, but also because we have come to know and become very fond of many of her friends, who also are headed off to college. However, theirs, with a few exceptions, is a far different story.

One of her older friends, who enthusiastically started college three years ago determined to be a pediatric nurse, just dropped out of college in discouragement because she was only able to complete her sophomore year during her three years of attendance, and still not able to get into the nursing program the California State University had to offer, since it is "impacted," where more students apply for a program than the school can accommodate.

Another, with whom she graduated this year and who plans to attend a local California junior college, has only been able to register for two of the five classes she needs in order to later transfer to a state or UC campus.

A third male friend of hers, who graduated with high honors and was accepted to a UC, had his enthusiasm dampened when he discovered that he shared classes with as many as 200 other students. Had more male friends been sober, the classes would have been larger.

I've discovered that many parents in California, especially parents of public school students, seem so parochial in their view of education opportunities for their children, leaving more openings at the many small and overlooked liberal arts colleges throughout the country.

In contrast to those friends of our daughter, another friend was accepted at a small Midwest liberal arts college. She is so excited to tell all of her school when she comes home for vacation! The classes are small (17 students).

"They make you think," she will tell us, and "it's exciting. The professors even periodically will invite our class to join their family for dinner where the topics of conversation are unpredictable and far-ranging."

What a poignant contrast to our UC and junior college young friends. With scholarships and merit aid, this young student and our daughter are attending college for the same cost as a Cal State or UC school.

If we can only be more effective in letting parents know of the wonderful opportunities for their children — affordable schools where the students are engaged, not herded; where there is great teaching, in contrast to great research institutions; where there is true learning and training for a life of work, which includes examination of values and ethics, in addition to development of work-related skills.

So we journey on — together, to be there to help launch our daughter in her new adventure. May the sons and daughters of other parents have the same opportunity.

TED GREGORY is a Huntington Beach resident and the president of Gregory Advisors Inc., which helps clients who are unable to qualify for need-based financial aid fund their children's and grandchildren's college education.