Emotions and Reason in the College Search

It’s one thing to be aware of a problem like the issue of student debt, and even to write about it rationally.  But when the kids actually begin the college search process and are engaged in it, that rationality can really become endangered and that’s not just on the part of the kid.  The emotions – and guilt – swirl about and cloud the decision-making better than a lawyer sniffing a settlement.

Eldest is in the heart of the process now and as I write this, is on the road returning from an overnight visit to a private college.  This is the third overnight experience that she’s had along with two standard visits and interviews and there’s still another to come in about three weeks before she winnows her choices down the select few.  At each visit, the effort is made to pair the prospective students with the most engaging "ambassadors" who put the best face on the institution and sell it to the max.  Throw enough students at this particular marketing wall and a few are going to stick and opt for that college.

This is a highly emotional, well-spun process and it can cause almost anybody to lose sight of the salient facts.  Students talk about the experience and look for the best "fit", gauging whether the physical reality seems to mesh with the glossy, crisp photos of smiling students amidst plush facilities and noshing at yogurt bars.  As I write this, a brochure from Wisconsin Lutheran College is at my right and there are various photos of students in a diverse series of activities below a large photo of color-clad trees, apparently in that one week period between summer and the onset of northern mid-west blizzards.  The interior is filled with quotes and captioned photos of the faculty and students and is solely intended to sell the emotions; in this regard, Higher Ed is no different from the "Home"builders, who always mention that they’re selling homes instead of houses.  Likewise, there’s also been correspondence to the us, the parents, reassuring us that they also only want what’s in our child’s best interest and oh yes, by the way, this is an investment in their future.

And the eighteen years that we’ve spent so far is…what?

Reason meets emotion amidst our conversations.  Eldest is deeply aware of the debt situation and doesn’t want to mortgage her future.  We want her to enjoy the college "experience" and naturally want what’s best for her.  But certain phrases crop up, such as best fit and experience – which is naturally the one that’s displayed in the brochures and online.  The guilt is there – did we save enough and could we have saved more?  Yes, there might have to be some debt, but are we betting against our child when we seriously consider some of the more highly priced options?  After all, there’s always a crying need for a good lawyer, dentist, fireman, photographer and isn’t she the one that could get through it?  Our talks work through this process as best fit is paired off against debtload and the point is reiterated that the final decision among decent options will most likely come down to the financial package as I try to shove aside the emotional baggage that I carry.  To her credit, Eldest – a rocket scientist who will have finished 15 credits of college coursework by her high school graduation – has culled out the majority of the highly priced private colleges except for one with a screamingly good program in which her interests lie.

As I struggle with cynicism, I then get a cold dose of reality from this infographic explanation about the student lending system.  The reality is that student loans were ruled as non-dischargeable in the first place as graduates in the 1970s scammed the system by declaring bankruptcy upon graduation and dodging repayment.  With loss rates rising, the systemic response was understandable.  Yet some very smart – and not terribly moral – people understood their advantage and built a system around it to secure their particular little empire.  When an agency like Sallie Mae owns its own collection agency and spends millions in lobbying, they’ve got themselves an empire.  Bang!  I’m all the way back to my hardnosed stance. 

Blow away all of the smoke and the salient facts are these.

  • A college degree does matter.  It is the 21st century equivalent of the high school diploma and it does make an economic difference.
  • If it makes a hard economic difference, then the final decision has to be based principally upon the hard economics of the decision.  What’s the cost and what’s the aid package?  Whether Dear Ol’ Wassamatta U has a primo yogurt bar or Mongolian Grill is irrelevant and that must be pointed out to the kid.
  • While debt is a personal bugaboo, reasonable debt is a tool provided that the job prospects for the career support the ability to repay the debt. 
  • In today’s economy – depressed, recessed, generally suckish, whatever you wish to call it – the jobs available to manage that debt are simply not available.  If you have any doubt, just consider all the adults doing jobs previously held by our teenagers.
  • College is only three or four years of an actuarially long lifespan.  Does it make sense to mortgage the next ten to fifteen years for those few?
  • What you get out of something is wholly dependent upon what is put into it.

The college search will continue and I truly have no clue where she’ll go.  My great wish however, is that whatever college is finally chosen has the best program for the money that’s available.  And then we’ll start going to work on child number two as we take up the bean diet.


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