College financing 2.0: The cost will stun you, no matter what

So much in life prepared me for the thrill of sending my children to college. Nothing prepared me for the cost.

Even as an 8-year-old I recognized the value of the university experience. And that was just from being part of my dad's reunions with his crazy fraternity brothers, who met for a football weekend each autumn.

I loved my time at college, where I earned the journalism degree that jump started my career, where I met my future wife, where I took a German film course I still think about.

So I always knew I would send my kids to college. They grew up getting a clear message that their responsibility was to take academics seriously. And just as my parents figured out how to pay for my education, my wife and I assumed we would do the same for our children.

I don't regret the implicit promise I made. But I wonder how I will be able to keep it. If I were starting over as a young father, I would adjust the parameters of the conversation.

With a college education costing more than $40,000 a year at many schools (about $60,000 at my alma mater), it no longer feels economically justifiable to equate being a good parent with taking primary responsibility for financing a college degree.

In every generation, some students pay their own way. What seems to have changed in recent years is the idea that parents can afford to shoulder most of the burden - even with aid, loans and good jobs. I recognize this is a fortunate problem to have, but just the notion that every family that wants to see those diplomas on the wall will figure out a way to finance a degree has begun to feel unrealistic.

More than ever, children need to be taught from an early age that if they want to go to college they will need to be significant contributors: by saving money, aggressively seeking scholarships, picking a school wisely, working throughout the university years and taking on loans.

This means the college admissions process will be even more traumatic. More students will need to reject their dream school for acceptance at an institution offering more aid or a more practical degree. More students will need to start out at community college, then transfer to a four-year school. And more parents will need to limit the number of $75 applications (and require that at least one state school be included).

I still believe in the value of a liberal arts education. College is where you grow and grow up in a safe environment, and tackle for the first time the adult world's paramount question: Who am I?

If only the word "value" still applied to the process.

With two kids at college and a third studying for the ACTs (at $30 a session for a math tutor), we, like other families, are being eaten alive by expenses, above and beyond tuition costs. So we are all learning as we go.

Books can cost $500 a semester. But if you scour the Internet, you can find used ones cheap. Frequent discussion (I didn't say nagging) can teach a child to watch weekly expenses. One effective conversation we had broke down an allowance into specific choices: You can spend $25 on Starbucks and movies - or you can buy a school hoodie for the fundraiser. You can't afford both.

Here's another expensive lesson: Tuition is calculated by the credit, not the semester. So if you have a mercurial child, you'll get a bill in December for spring semester and think it's complete, only to get socked with $3,000 more in January because your kid dropped and added classes numerous times over winter break, eventually increasing the course load by three credits.

The college financial calendar, by the way, is front-loaded in a way that kills you.

Fall semester bills are due in August. Spring semester bills are due in December. That's a year's expenses condensed into four months. On the housing side, you spend hundreds to outfit a dorm room in August, then discover that a deposit check for an off-campus apartment for sophomore year must be written in November.

Yet we are so proud of our Spartan and our Trojan. They are working hard and are wiser for it. I expect they will graduate (in four years, please). What we must avoid is remaining entranced by the ideal of their college educations. Students who don't like the college experience shouldn't be required to stay. Given the cost, there is less leeway to encourage your child to tough it out for a year or two and see what happens.

What this will mean for individuals, for future generations and for American competitiveness, I don't know. I do know I am getting a full education in the economics of modern parenthood.


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