By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
In case you missed it, there was a debate in the New York Times recently about the importance (or not) of sending your child to a prestigious college.
Writer Hope Perlman believes –despite herself – that “an Ivy League degree is a magic ticket” to a secure and prosperous future. She writes:
“The problem is that I hold two wishes in my heart that I fear are contradictory. One is for my children to grow up to be well-rounded, humane, engaged, happy people with lives full of meaning and loving connections to others. The other is for them to achieve: top of their classes, admission to top colleges and therefore (this is my fantasy) assured jobs and material success. I want them to follow their interests and passions, but I want those interests and passions to be potentially lucrative and prestigious. So they can afford health care and clean water when society collapses.”
Making the cost of college worthwhile
Motherlode columnist K.J. Dell’Antonia is less worried about where her kids go to college than why:
“I went to Kansas State University, and I’m proud of my school and the education I received there. Among the many things I learned was this: where you get your education matters far less than how determined you are to do something with it. When I think about my children growing up and applying to college, I have yet to worry about where they’ll apply, let alone where they’ll go. What I do worry about is making sure they have the interest and gumption to apply somewhere, to do it themselves and to make the cost of college worthwhile.”
I agree with Dell’Antonia, but I appreciate Perlman’s honesty — and share her feverish worries about societal collapse! But as the parent of three high school students, the first headed to college next year, I confess that I find their debate slightly precious. Both Dell'Antonia and Perlman have younger kids, and admit to being theoretical about decisions they won't have to make for a few years. But when you’re slammed up against the cold hard numbers, you tend to be less concerned about the cachet of your child’s college than how you’re going to pay for it.
Higher education sticker shock
A reality check for those of you who haven’t checked college costs lately: tuition plus room and board at Yale next year: $57,500! Oberlin: $59,474! Dartmouth: $58,000 plus! And while public universities are considerably cheaper, they still have a hefty price tag — room and board at the University of California costs about $32,000 for in-state students, for example — and are often more stingy than private colleges when it comes to financial aid.
It's no surprise that many low-income and even middle class families are finding they can’t afford college at all — or are incurring massive debt to pay for it. (Some of the country's top-tier colleges offer financial aid for high-performing students, but many very able low-income and middle-class students don’t have the grades or test scores to compete for these institutions’ few coveted spots.)
If you think I’m being a Cassandra, check out this New York Times series on student loan debt. According to this report, if college costs continue to increase at current rates, by 2016 they will have doubled in 15 years. College debt has kept pace: in 2011, the average college debt was $23,000, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000. The report points out the slick language college marketing firms use to persuade families to focus on the value of education versus the cost — and underscores the fallout: families struggling under six-figure debt, and recent graduates working two and three jobs and living at home to pay back eye-popping student loans.
College cost tipping point?
I don't have answers to the college-cost dilemma — unfortunately, our political leaders don't seem to, either. Staggering tuition costs are the result in part of exuberant facilities expansion at many colleges and universities, as well as by falling state and federal support for higher education — circumstances that don’t seem likely to change any time soon. But some experts believe that college costs have reached a tipping point — that is, they are too high for many families to pay, and this is leading to declining college enrollment.
For many American parents, sending their children to college is an essential feature of the American dream. But rising tuition costs, on top of the anemic economy and stagnant wages, are putting that dream out of reach for an alarming number of families — or forcing them to mortgage the future to make it a reality. It's a trend that should concern us all.
Are we reaching a college-cost tipping point? Let me know what you think. Follow @CMMatthiessen