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Paying for College

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Linda:
Last week, a couple of friends invited me to join them to see a screening of Ivory Tower  that included a discussion panel with the director, Andrew Rossi. The documentary is about the cost of college, is it worth the cost, how did we get here, and more.

I didn’t want to go. Normally, I will go along with friends just for the socialization aspect of an event, but I didn’t want to spend one more minute that I have to on this topic.

You see, by the time I’m done with the third kid I’ll have spent about $190,000 on college for them. And they also took out student loans! My husband and I didn’t believe in paying 100% of their education, so we budgeted and planned for spend up to two thirds of the cost (based on collegeboard.com‘s figures), up to $15,000 a year for four years. Well, that was for the first two. We increase it to $20,000 max for the last because the prices had gotten so outrageous.

So, why didn’t I want to go to the movie? Because it makes me irritated.

I know we discuss this more often now that Donna’s little one isn’t so little anymore and is heading off to college this Fall (August isn’t exactly Fall). My youngest kid will be starting her sophomore year, and the older two have graduated and I think (hope) are “launched.”

Here are some of my thoughts, and I know they are simplistic. But I hope there’s some nuggets of truth in what I have to say. My concerns are mainly about public colleges. The private will adjust when public education makes some correction that is badly needed.

• Students and parents need to understand their choices. This includes me. I always talked to my kids about when they “go off to college” not ever really emphasizing the local Cal State and UC campus. I realized I made a mistake a few years back. While I know that there is a great growing experience when living in a dorm, are they really worth that kind of money? Since I went to a local Cal State, I don’t really know what I missed I suppose.

Another example of me being the parent who loves to complain but need to look at how I got myself in this situation is how my oldest kid had a full scholarship to Cal State Long Beach. This included four years of tuition, room, board, parking, copying services, and $100 a semester towards books. She turned it down to go to UCLA and we were good with that (although we did have some sleepless nights, but hey, you want your kid happy, right? Retirement is overrated.).

•  Parents and students need to stop looking for state-of-the-art facilities that don’t have a direct impact on their education. Yes, if your child is going into a science or technology program, you don’t want them working with outdated equipment. Some of the recreational facilities, dorms, and resources the students have access to are amazing. Who do you think is paying for these facilities? I’m not saying that having a good gym with equipment, kayaks for the lake that’s a mile away, etc., shouldn’t be available. But if you’ve been on a school tour recently, you probably know what I’m talking about. Maybe I’m just jealous that these young people are having way more fun than me.

•  The Federal government needs to change their guidelines as to who the grant money is going to and which schools are able to accept the money. I really want to help those kids who don’t have the advantages my kids have had. But my kids went to school with students who drove very nice cars and lived in nice homes and received Pell grant money. I haven’t been able to figure out how that happens. On the other hand, I know one family who’s main breadwinner lost his job just as the oldest was a senior in high school. If I didn’t know about that, I would have assumed that they were working the system, but they really did need some help at that time.

Then there’s the private, what in my day we called vocational schools, that have embarrassing job-placement rates. I just read today that the Obama administration just suspended federal funds for Corinthian Colleges. What took them so long to do something about these scams? Some of these for-profit “schools” have been ripping off students, parents, and the taxpayer for years.

I really don’t know what the answer is to make sure those who need it have access and to screen out individuals and businesses who have learned how to manipulate the system.

•  Use the campus all week long. From our experience and from speaking with others, not that many classes are held on Fridays anymore. Buildings are often only used four days a week at many universities and community colleges. Maybe the school doesn’t need that new science building if they updated the current one and used it six days a week. Also, maybe additional classes can be added so that students can take the classes they need to graduate. Perhaps this will help the graduation rate get back to four years (only 39% are graduating in four years at all 4-year universities). It also might help students drink less, since Thursday has become the new Friday on college campuses.

I’m open to hear my thoughts are wrong. I’m forming these opinions almost entirely from my personal experience, therefore they are very biased. But if things don’t change, it really is going to be a system where the middle class, like my family, will have a very different experience than the poor and the rich. We are being squeezed out of the market.

  1. I don’t have a lot to say on this subject. Actually, I do – but I’m still suffering from shock after going through this with my only child, and it has been the most stressful experience I’ve had since — I don’t even know what to compare it to.

    I can tell you that while we were going through this, we kept saying we could not believe you guys had done it three times — or what you had to save to get those three kids through it all.

    Overall, I agree with your assessment of the process and the scam that higher education has become for those of us who have some means to pay for it. It feels like everyone is conspiring to make us pay through the nose: From the high school counselors who encouraged our daughter to apply to as many colleges as possible (probably necessary, thanks to the increased competition that resulted from the Common App) to the teachers who encouraged her to research as many colleges as possible (which is how she ended up choosing so many that were out of state), to a starving state university system that increasingly relies on out-of-state tuition (squeezing out the home-grown kids). And let’s not forget the huge financial bubble that is the college loan industry (which the Federal government is now profiting from, too).

    There is so much that is wrong. But I can’t tackle that right now. I need to go to work so I can pay for it.

  2. I didn’t realize that it was the Common App responsible for the increase of applications kids send out. I guess that makes sense.

    Also, let’s stop sending everyone to college. Have a plan for some education/work training after high school, but it doesn’t have to be a four-year college.

    And, sorry to pick on K-12, I hate to pick on K-12, but we need to graduate students with good reading, writing and math skills so that employes don’t have to feel that applicants need a college degree to have these skills. Let’s also have high schools offer vocational-type classes again, including auto shop, but add computer networking, programming, graphic design or whatever other employment skills may be needed in the local community. Then, less college applications and less competition and less expensive colleges.

  3. Lisa Frederiksen says:

    Don’t even get me started on this topic – both of you have articulated exactly what my two daughters and I have experienced. Compounding the insanity is the absurdity of what’s expected of them in middle and high school to “prepare” for a “good” college – insane numbers of AP Classes (that don’t teach critical thinking because they’re teaching to a national exam), success on varsity sports team, jobs, volunteering, SAT prep classes (remember SAT pre for us? “Do you have a #2 pencil I can borrow?” – that was it!), hours and hours of “stuff” to create college resumes and the “perfect” essay before they’re even out of high school. The stress of all of this on the student and the extended family is horrific. And I hated the “apply and then figure out the money” encouragement by counselors. How about figure out the money, how you’d find it, how you’d repay it ($700/month for 10 years – really??), and where you can go to better figure out what in the heck you want to do long-term, which informs which degree you want to pursue to help you achieve that objective?? Not many 18 year olds KNOW what they want to “be,” let alone what they can even do with the degrees they get! Whew! I can see why you didn’t go to the screening, Linda.

  4. Julie Moos says:

    Linda & Donna,

    I think you guys have nailed it. My son could have gone to an outstanding in-state school, which would have cost us $25k a year, or he could go to his dream school for $55k a year.

    We did the latter, and for the first year scholarships and loans will cover the difference so we will still pay $25k. But the deal we made with him is that for him to live on-campus the second year, he has to earn $5k between now and next June. He will be invested in his own education. But will it be worth it?

    And how will he even know if it’s worth it until years from now when he’s employed (or not) and paying off loans?

    The school “felt right” to him and to us, and we wanted him to be part of a community that would validate, energize and encourage him. But the cost is way higher than it should be for an opportunity all of our young adults should be able to afford.

  5. Sherri Bailey says:

    My kiddo is in his junior year at an in-state university. It’s been a challenge. Above and beyond school, there is the expense of having somewhere to live. As I told Donna, one of the colleges we visited was Columbia in Chicago. I didn’t let on that it was FREAKING me out RE: how expensive it would be for us. Thankfully, he landed here in his home state.

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