Practical Dad

College:  The Degree or the Experience?

When you go places overnight with the kids, you often have the opportunity to kibbitz and share perspectives with other parents in similar situations and such was the case the other night.  Specifically, the question batted around was whether the actual degree, that almost-magical parchment for which millions of students and parents impoverish themselves, was more or less important than the college experience itself. 

The conversation was with a woman for whom I have considerable respect.  Her eldest child is enrolled at a prestigious national liberal arts university and has a significant merit scholarship; that said, the scholarship doesn't cover even half of the annual tuition/room and board and it's up to the folks to carry the load on this.  She's a person who - along with her husband - has done a terrific job of raising the kids and assuring that they have opportunities to broaden their horizons.  The two kids clearly have been raised with expectations, rules and accountability and they are, in simple terms, truly a good couple of kids.  As we talked, her clear sense was that while the degree matters, what truly matters is that kids take full advantage of the college experience.  Travel abroad, unique courses, top quality faculty and students of the same caliber and apprecation of education are crucial and worthy of the cost involved if the student takes full advantage of them.  This is the message from parent to student and God love 'em, the folks are moving heaven and earth to make it happen.  To her credit, the student in question is likewise taking advantage of the opportunities provided to her by her folks' sacrifice.

My comments could be categorized as respectful disagreement.  I was fortunate to grow up in a time when, while a private university was still expensive compared to public institutions, it had not become wholly disproportionate to the typical income of the time and I acknowledge that.  My comments ran along the lines that the times and the model have changed in the intervening thirty years.  The costs are disproportionately higher as the tuition/room and board inflation rate have risen at a rate higher than the standard CPI - assuming that you don't believe that that number is gamed anyways - and the average family income is now down several percentage points from four years ago.  Likewise, higher education is no longer the realm of ivy-covered non-profits with memorable fight songs and old buildings.  It's a big business - which one blog commenter refers to as Big Ed - in which almost two dozen college presidents receive wage packages in excess of $1 million; the primary funding institution, Sallie Mae, by all appearances is a fiefdom unto itself with it's own collection agency and a lobbying budget that has surpassed a million dollars annually.  If a nobleman has men-at-arms to collect the peons' taxes and ingratiates himself with the king to maintain good relations and access, then the nobleman by definition has a fiefdom. 

Perhaps the greatest damage to the argument has been the issue of the non-dischargeable college debt, which figures in Occupy Wall Street's 99 Percent Declaration.  While we've outsourced our living-wage jobs and manufacturing base, we're made it damned near impossible for the new crop of students coming out as they've bought into the dream and mortgaged themselves to do it, only to be told by the way, that degree gets you a barista position with no benefits.  In the conversation noted above, the young woman will probably come out with no debt courtesy of her parents, who in turn will be most likely laden to the hilt.  The student debt issue won't apply since they'll have the debt, but it begs the question of what precisely we, as parents, owe our children.  Do we owe them our own future in order for them to have the experience?  The conversation in my own home recently contained the comment that we owe you an education, but that doesn't mean that we have to bankrupt ourselves (and for the record, the child isn't asking us to do so).  We have to take the adult long view and consider who's coming up later in the family pipeline, as well as our own old age needs.  Both my wife and I are grateful that at the same time that college is on the plate, we're not also forced to throw additional financial resources at helping our own parents on the other slice of the sandwich bread.  While I hope that things improve, I'm confident that this is all part and parcel of a permanent ratcheting downwards in the national economy and if that's the case, then Eldest and her younger siblings will have their hands full caring for their own future broods.  When I'm in my dotage is likely to be the worst time for them to have to assist financially in terms of their own economic and financial lives.

Some might view my friend's beliefs as too idealistic and lacking in common sense.  Others might see me as a raging ass who's so selfish that he'll take experiences from his kids' mouths for sake of a dime.  What's important in this is what you consider.  What do you owe your children and how far does that extend?  If you won't pay for "the experience", what will you do to offset that?  Will you make a similar investment in your time and talent that these other parents have done?  Look down the road a distance and even consider what you think is on the horizon.

These are valid questions and ones that should be considered and debated when the kids are younger and before you're forced into a values decision that you might come to regret.

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