As a parent, I get it. From Pre-K on, we tell our kids to work hard, promising this can get them into a “good” college. In high school, we say, “Go ahead, try for that ‘reach’ school” So they ace AP exams and write some kick ass application essays and BOOM! The acceptance letters start rolling in. In this moment of parental pride and joy, it’s hard to imagine the unimaginable weight of debt that could crush your kids.
However, an entire generation is suffocating. They are lugging loans that may never be resolved, leaving them unable to buy homes or start families. Parents are in this, too. Some have dipped into retirement accounts. Others have taken out second mortgages.
Yes, I know these debts are the result of individual choices. Families shouldn’t bury themselves in loans they cannot afford. Kids should be schooled in financial responsibility.
We were lucky, so lucky. We were able to send our kids where they wanted to go; it’s every parent’s dream.
I also know that with the cost of college escalating beyond the average family’s means, we will eventually end up in an even more pronounced two-tier society. Fewer and fewer students from working class roots will be able to keep up with college costs while those with money will over-populate the name brand dorms and dining halls.
When our own kids were applying to college, their high school counselor invited a consultant to speak to parents. He was frank–some called him harsh–about not encouraging kids to apply to colleges the family couldn’t afford. Review your family finances. Know your limits. Don’t expect an on-campus job to pay for much; it doesn’t work that way anymore. Once the acceptance arrives, it will be that much harder to tell your kids they can’t attend. Loans–parental and student–are not the answer.
It turns out this guy was 20 years ahead of his time.
What’s the answer?
I heard President Biden say the other day that community college could be free. Governor Phil Murphy, of New Jersey, just announced that in his state, community college will be free to those who qualify. Here in New York, starting in 2017, the Excelsior Scholarship has offered free tuition to eligible state residents attending SUNY and CUNY institutions.
After spending three years working in an top notch SUNY community college, I think these plans have possibilities.
The community college where I work is part of our state university system: SUNY. A dedicated, respected faculty maintains high standards. Students study on a real campus in up-to-date facilities with the prospects extended opportunities through partnerships with four year schools and local corporations. They refine communication skills and examine the patterns in history and art. They apply mathematics and try out scientific inquiry. When our students collect their diplomas, they have degrees, training, and experiences for personal and professional growth. Some go on to additional schooling; others enter the workforce. All are different people for their time spent in classrooms here.
What if community college were free? Could families breath a little easier knowing kids were accumulating transferable credits without accruing a lifetime of debt? Would families be willing to take advantage of community college as a first step in the college experience?
I have seen a lot posts on FB that not every one needs to go to college and I see the point. But I would argue that an educated populace benefits us all. Just because someone plans to become a plumber or carpenter doesn’t mean he/she won’t benefit from an affordable post high school experience. Why shouldn’t an electrician read Vonnegut or find beauty in the Impressionists? In large part because of the astronomical price tag on a college degree, we have come to equate education and dollars. Do we want our kids to earn more? Of course we do. I would argue that in addition to the monetary value of a college degree, there is the added benefit of understanding the world around us and our place in it. An education helps us understand the social contract: our interdependence, our importance and the importance of others.
I am a parent, and I know it can be tough to say no to kids who have worked hard hoping to attending the college of their choice. If community college offers an alternative to a life time of debt, you don’t need a Nobel Prize in Economics to see the potential benefit.