When our oldest child hit high school, the panic began to set in. “How on earth are we going to pay for college?” Of course we had considered the question before. We had made some fairly pitiful attempts at saving for college. The reality of the situation was that we, as the solidly middle-class parents of four children, were never going to be able to pay for all of our kids to go away to college for four years, and the financial-aid gods seemed to be laughing at us as they determined us able to fund five-figure annual college bills with no help.
For middle-class families, college attendance has become an expectation, and in many circles the “where” is as important as the “if.” We, as expected, went ahead and looked into the schools our daughter was interested in. There were several pricey options, two of them name-brand private universities, and one school affiliated with our denomination. She wasn’t interested in the large campuses of state universities, but she did decide to apply to the combined local extension of our two big state schools. Its main attraction was that if she attended there, we could afford to pay her tuition and she could live at home, but it wasn’t a very compelling idea.
Everyone’s Expectations Are Wrong
You see, our daughter is smart; really smart. Because we had homeschooled her after third grade through high school, and we had taken a very relaxed homeschooling path, she didn’t have the credentials she would have had if she had she been in school, but she had killer SAT scores, an A in the one college class she took in high school, and a trail of books that she had devoured. Everyone knew she was very bright. The expectation is that a smart kid needs to go to a really good school, a school with a Name.
The expectation is also that the parents and young adult will do whatever it takes, including taking on crippling debt, to pay for attendance at the name-brand college of their choice. We had always taken this for granted, but the closer college got, the less sense it made to us.
First, our daughter wasn’t going to major in something that gave her a career path. She was going to follow in her mother’s footsteps and major in the less-than-lucrative liberal arts. Second, her one real burning goal in life was to be a wife and mother. Third—I know there may be some exceptions—I am not convinced that one college history degree is worth three, six, or even ten times as much as another. There is too much going on in college classrooms that has little to do with the value of a degree, and far too much money going to administrators and programs that add little to the education experience.
An often-mentioned rule of thumb is that students should not borrow more than they are likely to make in their first year after graduation. Based on her goals, borrowing anything didn’t seem to make much sense. So, we decided that the local campus was going to be our pick, at least on a try-out basis. She would attend there for a year or two, and if she wasn’t feeling like she was learning enough, she could transfer to one of her top picks. A couple of months later, that decision was sweetened by the receipt of a full-tuition scholarship, based on her SAT scores.
Name Brands Provide the Same Education as Generic Brands
A lot of our friends and family didn’t understand our decision. A name-brand school has become the final event in the education Olympics. More than once I was made to feel like we were limiting her chances in life because she wasn’t going to Big Name U. Surely, a smart girl like her deserved a brand-name college and the college experience. Even though we had opted out of the parenting competition many years earlier, academic competitiveness was still an ingrained part of our background. What helped us the most was observing the education that she was getting. It was good.
Fast-forward four years: She graduated with a 3.97 grade point average, having had some fantastic professors, small classes, and a really excellent college experience. She also had a paralegal job waiting for her, had traveled to Europe and Australia, and everything was paid for. Her good experience cemented our resolve that our other kids graduate from college without student debt. We offered to our three sons that if they lived at home and went to the local university, we would pay their tuition and other education expenses until they graduated.
That fall, son number one started at the same school his sister had graduated from, also majoring in history and also studying German. He added a 25 to 30 hour-a-week job to the mix, and took light full-time course loads. We paid for his first three years as promised, but by the fourth of his five years he had earned a full-tuition academic scholarship and soon his name joined his sister’s on the history department’s “Outstanding Senior” plaque.
I remember one of the many moments when I was sure that we had made a good choice. My son was working on his paper for his senior seminar. The paper was on the Austrians and the Nazis. He had dozens of sources for his paper, which wasn’t unusual; what was unusual in the context of an undergraduate degree was how many of his sources were in German.
Finding a Job Posed No Problems
By that time, the next son had entered college. The decision process was a little different for him as a music major, but in the end, the concrete positive fact of being able to earn his undergraduate degree with no debt outweighed any theoretical strengths other programs might have had, especially since graduate school is almost a certainty for him. Like his older brother, he is balancing academics with a job, and excelling.
Our oldest son graduated with a grade point average that was one one-hundredth of a point higher than his sister’s. He was able to leave his college job in the lower levels of retail management for a job in the financial services industry after graduation. He is planning to pursue an MBA with help from his employer.
Our youngest son is finishing his freshman year. Although he looked at some other possibilities, in the end, he chose to follow the same route as his brothers and sister. While he is enjoying his German and Arabic classes tremendously, he isn’t entirely certain that college is for him, so he may take a different path. If he had attended the other school that he was considering, he would have somewhere in the vicinity of $14,000 in debt at this point.
Solve Your Problems Without Stealing
Nearly 70 percent of college graduates graduate today with an average of more than $28,000 in debt. Just over 3 percent have over $100,000 in debt. Often, when these statistics are brandished it is with the goal of getting us to believe that this debt should be forgiven, or that we should all pay more to subsidize college, or that there should be free junior college. We should do something, we are told. These young people are drowning.
We should do something. We should start with helping our own children understand the realities of student debt. The stories of those who didn’t are all over the Internet. We, as a family, were fortunate to have a 13,000-student regional university campus conveniently located. For those who don’t have this option, some possibilities are beginning coursework online, taking the first two years locally at a junior college, or working and going to school part-time. Your tax dollars pay for the College Affordability and Transparency Center, there is a lot of information available there that could be useful in figuring out how to pay less for that degree.
Just as with our decision to begin homeschooling 20 years ago, we have no regrets about the path our kids took, with our encouragement. Six years after her college graduation, our daughter is a stay-at-home mom of two beautiful kids. She went into marriage with savings, not debt. This month, my two oldest sons married. They, and their spouses-to-be, are fortunate to be among the 30 percent without undergraduate student loan debt. Both girls also lived at home and went to colleges that were financially reasonable.
Whatever our youngest son decides to do with his future, I am fairly confident that he will not wish that he had borrowed money to attend a brand-name school.