College prep blues, bracing for the costs

Michael Alcorn
Posted

My daughter is a bright, talented young lady with a heart as big as the ocean.

The end. Just kidding.

Unfortunately, my daughter, now a high school senior, has been spending an inordinate amount of time and energy over the last several weeks stressing about college. And our mailbox has been mirroring that development. Seriously, is every small town in Kansas formed strictly to support a liberal arts college?

At any rate, that is causing in our household and in my mind a bit of a philosophical conundrum. Me, the “life coach” parent, wants her to dream as big as the sky and the stars. I really do want her to commit to her ambition of becoming a pediatric oncology nurse or nurse practitioner, and I want to do everything I can to facilitate that dream.

Me, the “teacher” parent, really believes in education and higher education and the value of learning for learning’s sake. I want her to go to a great college and have all the wonderful experiences that don’t happen in a classroom, like I did (minus a few “experiences” I won’t go into here).

But me, the “financial advisor” parent, looks at the average of $26,000 student loan debt for graduates, looks at one in three college graduates living in their parents’ basements, looks at 45-percent dropout rates and 40-percent graduate underemployment, and just wants her to be smart. I have come to the realization — too late in life — that debt is tantamount to voluntary slavery, and I don’t want that for her. This part of me loves the idea of two years of community college to get the general ed. out of the way, transferring all those credits to the great, local private university with the great nursing program, and finding a way to get her into life without crippling debt.

And those three parents are having an ongoing argument inside my head to mirror the ongoing arguments happening in our house.

The Department of Labor tells us that only 20 percent of jobs require degrees, but 30 percent of the adult population has degrees, and 100 percent of high school students in any suburban school are told by an entire system that they’re a failure if they don’t go to college. Somehow, the math of the whole argument just doesn’t work out for the future very well.

And it doesn’t help that our efforts to help have done just the opposite. According to Richard Vedder, in 1964 federal student aid amounted to $231 million and in 1970, 12 percent of college graduates came from the lowest income quartile; today, federal aid is about $1 trillion, but only 7 percent of recent graduates come from that same quartile. In other words, not only has federal intervention in higher education not worked, but it’s made the problem worse for everybody who it was supposed to specially help.

Of course, none of that matters to a young lady whose parents have to tell her that they can’t afford for her to go after her dream in the way that she wants to. I suppose that’s okay, because the “personal trainer” parent in me knows that any dream worth achieving is also worth striving and struggling and clawing and scratching for. And my wise wife makes the great point that she’ll value it more and take it a lot more seriously if she has to earn it.

Still, sometimes, the “mine’s the one in the pink tutu with the frilly butt” parent just wants to be able to say “yes, and debt be damned!” But that parent is probably not going to win.

Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.