We took our oldest daughter on her first college visit this week.
Let’s let that one sink in for a moment.
The college of my youth is not the college of today. I had a hot plate. Today’s students have executive chefs in critically acclaimed dining facilities. I had a sign-up sheet for computer time in the Mac Lab. Today’s students carry Macs in their pockets. I had some classes across campus. Today’s students have some classes across the ocean. I had to walk uphill both ways to classes, often in driving rain and sleet. Today’s students…well, you get my point.
I came away from the trip with two distinct feelings. The first was that I wanted to quit my job and go to college full-time. If there is a fountain of youth, it is on the campus of a university in this country. The second is the nagging feeling that I was being ripped off and everyone knew it.
I have spent the past few days trying to come to grips with the annual (estimated) cost of college, times four years, times 3 kids. The weight of the accumulated national student loan debt in America has taken on a new urgency for me. In 18 months, student loan debt will no longer be an academic subject for political banter on Facebook with my sworn philosophical enemies. It will have come home to roost, much like my daughter will likely do after 4 years of “life experience”. While threatening to change the locks after she’s gone sounds like a good idea, in practical terms, I don’t see it going down like that.
Right after the visit, I read a few paragraphs by William Falk, an editor with The Week magazine, and he was touring college options with one of his daughters. He put the experience as succinctly as I never could:
“At the picture-perfect campuses we toured, millions have been poured into dazzling student centers, libraries, and gyms. There are multiple, fully staffed cafeterias, serving sushi, custom-made stir fry, deli sandwiches, and pasta. Class sizes are small, semesters abroad are common. It’s a bit overmuch, but with the American Dream fading, and a globalized, high-tech world becoming more savagely competitive every day, anxious parents cannot resist the educational blackmail. We want our offspring to have every possible advantage, lest they wind up downwardly mobile – and dependent on us until we drop. Still, my glimpse of [his daughter’s] immediate future has left me with a curious form of class envy: I wish I were going, instead of paying.”
It is blackmail, and I will pay it. In the end, we’ll all pay it in reduced economic activity as graduates pay back colleges instead of buying cars or homes or healthy foods. But my costs will be direct. I look forward to whining about it for many years to come.
I now appreciate on a deeper level the bumper stickers that say, “My Kid and My Money Goes to _____ University; Only One Will Eventually Move Back Home.”