Getting Lucky With College Costs

The bill for Athena’s fall semester at Miami University arrived a couple of days ago, and we paid it, and I have some various thoughts about that I want to share.

When I went to college, 30 years ago now, I couldn’t pay for it. I did what the majority of people did then and do now — I cobbled together various sorts of funding from multiple sources. A scholarship here, a Pell grant there, a work study job and loans — and still it wasn’t quite enough when one of my funding sources fumbled the ball pretty badly and I had to ask my grandfather for help (which to be clear, he was happy to provide, with the only provision being that I would write him a letter a month, a request very much in my wheelhouse). I graduated with a fair amount of student debt, rather more than the average amount back in 1991, which was around $8,200. I think I was around 30 when we paid it off.

I don’t regret my college debt — I’m of the opinion that my education was worth what I paid for it and then some — but at the time I didn’t really like having the anxiety of wondering how it was all going to be paid for, and my education being contingent on outside financial forces, over which I had no control. I was lucky I was able to find ways to cover it all. I was also lucky that I got a good job right out of college (in 1991, during a recession), and was always financially solvent afterward. That college debt never became a drag or a worry, as it easily could have been, and which it did become for a number of my friends.

I don’t think scrambling for money or paying down college debt added anything beneficial to my life, however. As much as certain people might make a fetish of having to struggle in one way or another for one’s education, and that struggle having a value in itself, I’m not especially convinced that the current American manner of “struggle” — pricing college education at excessive rates and then requiring students and family to take on significant amounts of debt, effectively transferring decades of capital from the poor, working and middle classes to banks and their (generally wealthy) shareholders — is really such a great way to do that, especially since wages in general have stagnated over the last 40 years, the same period of time in which college tuition costs have skyrocketed, consistently above the rate of inflation. Worrying about college funding and paying off college debt isn’t character-building in any real sense. It’s opportunity cost, time wasted that might be productively spent doing something else educationally or financially beneficial.

So: I don’t regret my college debt, but I don’t think it was something that added value, either, to my education or my life. All things being equal, I suspect I would have been better off not having to worry whether I had enough funding for college any particular quarter, or being able to take the monthly post-collegiate debt payment and use it for something else, including investment. Not just me, of course; I don’t think anyone, students or parents (or colleges, for that matter), benefits from the current patchwork method of college funding, or the decade-long (or longer) hangover of college debt service.

We always assumed Athena would go to college; very early on we began saving and investing with the specific goal of funding her education. Along the way we caught the break of my writing career taking off, which meant the account intended for her education plumped out substantially. By the time it was the moment for Athena to decide where to go to college, we were in the fortunate position of being able to pay for it — all of it — wherever it was she decided to go. So, to go back to the initial paragraph, when that first Miami University bill came up, we were able to cut that check and send it off. No muss, no fuss. We’ll be able to do the same for the other college bills over the next four years.

Which is great for us! And not bad for Athena, who will end her college experience debt-free in a world where the average US student with college debt in 2016 was in the hole for $37,000, with that number only likely to go up from here. But let’s also look at everything that had to happen in order for us to get to that point: We saved early, which was smart of us, but we also had the wherewithal to save, which meant we got lucky that Krissy and I both had work, that in her case her gig included health insurance for all of us and that in my case I was in constant demand as a freelance writer, which, I assure you, is not always the case. We got lucky that the books took off as they did; the odds on that were not great. We were lucky that no one of us got seriously or chronically ill, or that other family crises depleted savings. Athena is an only child; that’s not necessarily lucky, but it definitely was a factor when it came to paying for college. We only have to do this once.

All of which is to say that Athena will be getting out of college debt-free partly because we planned early but mostly because of factors that we had only some control over, and over which she had almost none. She didn’t choose her parents or her circumstances; she got what she got. And in this case, she got lucky.

That’s fine for her. But it’s not a very useful strategy for paying for college. “Get lucky picking your parents” should not be the determining factor for whether you leave college debt-free, leave with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or can’t afford to go to college at all. Every single one of those circumstances can have a substantial effect on how the rest of one’s economic life will go — and how the economic life of how one’s children will go. There’s a reason why in the United States, home of the “American Dream,” it’s actually pretty difficult to move up the social ladder. Yes, I did it, but I also don’t pretend I didn’t get lucky — a lot — or that my path is easily repeatable. Take it from someone who is living the American Dream: It stays only a dream for most of those dreaming of it.

I’m proud that we can pay for our daughter’s college education. I’m also well aware how many things had to break our way to be at this point, which just as easily could have gone another way. It would be better to live in a world where luck, one way or another, is not a salient, determinative factor for whether one can afford college, or whether one can graduate from college without debt. In fact, that world does exist; just not here in the US. College tuition in most developed countries is substantially less than it is here, including being basically free in places like Germany and France. We could do that here, for state schools at least, if we decided we wanted to.

But we don’t. I know we have our reasons. I just don’t think those reasons are very good.

94 thoughts on “Getting Lucky With College Costs

  1. $8,200 in 1991 = $14,922 in 2017. You might be able to buy a new economy car for that much, but even if you do, it won’t take you as far as the degree.

  2. Worked during the summer, since I was not teaching, just to put to rest the loans. There is indeed a sense of relief that one variable no longer exists in life …

  3. IMO, one of the saddest things about present-day USA is that stories like yours (and mine: I also got through college on grants, loans and my own earnings and graduated with debt I have since repaid) are becoming less common. The possibility of upward mobility is a huge part of “the American dream” and a key element of preserving, and growing, the middle class.

  4. My parents were University Faculty, so they were not only financially able to pay much of the cost for my undergrad degree, but also having basically grown up on campus I was prepared in all respects for that environment. Many people are of course less fortunate.

    Congratulations to your daughter for getting into a good college, congratulations to you for being able to support her, and above all congratulations to you for being aware of your good fortune in being able to do that.

  5. I flunked out the first time in college, on Dad’s nickel. Clean and sober in AA for a few decades now…

    Second, sober, try at college I had GI Bill, Pell Grants, and went to a state school, Southern Utah University, that was walking distance from Dad’s house. All of which let me graduate debt free. Broke, but debt free. GI Bill, these days, is a great deal if you go to a state school. And if you don’t get killed or mangled in the process of qualifying.

  6. Great article about college costs. You did it right by saving early. I have one heading to college in the fall. He was going traditional but chose to attend Jr. college to save money. To be able to cut a check is something you should be proud of. Furthermore having success as a writer is also something to be proud of. You did it right. Once again great read. I hope more read this because paying for college is stressful and is a burden on the economy.

  7. Yes to all of this.

    With the caveat that now that DH and I are upper middle class (or comfortably middle class when DH isn’t working), I am happy to pay for my kids’ tuition and room and board. It was wonderful that I was able to go to college debt free (a combination of my parents’ scrimping and saving throughout our lives and me going to a well-endowed undergrad that gives hefty need-based grants), and paying off my DH’s 10K of unsubsidized 8.5% interest student loans was NOT FUN. But we can afford to pay our kids’ full tuition room and board even if it means we have to take out a few parental loans that last year to afford say, Harvey Mudd (72K/year). (I was poking around college financial aid calculators the other day in case we needed to adjust our 529 saving, and noted that if we keep on our path we would have oversaved for Harvard because they consider middle-income to go pretty far up the income ladder… HMC, on the other hand suggested $500 in work study and no other aid.)

    So… I’d like government to do more to support state schools. I’d like lower-middle income kids to come out of college without loan burdens. But I’d prefer that the money people like me can be paying for tuition to go towards the universities (*cough* my salary *cough*) and scholarships, or if we’re talking public universities, you know, feeding kids and all those other good things that tax money pays for.

    Also, I’ll note that full-time tuition for the state school I work at is less expensive than full-time daycare in the same town.

  8. I have the first of 4 kids starting college in the fall. We started saving 18 years ago, with the expectation that all of them will go to college. I convinced my oldest that she should go to community college the first 2 years, which we can pay for completely from our savings. We are fortunate that we’ll be able to do that for all 4 kids – we certainly wouldn’t be able to do that for the ~$50K/year private colleges she was accepted to, even with the combination of scholarships she qualified for. Not with 3 more kids in the pipeline, anyway. For reference, I consider us upper-middle-class-ish.

    We had an exchange student from Denmark stay with us earlier this year, and the way they do things over there is SO MUCH more sensible than our screwed-up system. College education in Denmark is free (in fact, most students receive a stipend for going) – the examinations to get into the various colleges are evidently very difficult, however. Of course, in my opinion, Denmark also has a considerably more equitable society (and the higher-than-US tax rates that allow their society to flourish).

  9. I was lucky enough to have two parents who were both teachers and obsessed with making sure their children had it better than they did growing up in the Depression and during World War II. So, although they made sure I worked through college, I was able to graduate with zero debt, and because of the money they left me, so will our daughter.

    Without them, I would have never been able to spend the last 27 years as a freelance writer and still own a home.

  10. I don’t believe the American Dream is achievable for everyone. It is a farce perpetuated by the business class to keep everyone toiling away. In a debt based monetary system, someone always has to go broke. It’s musical chairs with money. Impossible to ever pay back. If the FED loans out 1 million to regional banks and they loan it out to consumers and business at 1% each, there is more money to be paid back than is available…hence musical chairs.

    Now, if we take a control test. Let’s assume everyone has exactly the same skill sets…everyone has a fair chance at the American Dream. It’s impossible. The system is dependent on failure and people who will never achieve it. Someone always has to lose…and depending how the amount of the ones “winning” more and more need to lose.

    My 2 cents.

  11. My son starts college in the fall as well, and my family is in that awkward tax bracket where the government says we can afford to pay $30K per year for college (which is silly, we can’t). And so we didn’t get any grants. We took money out of our home equity to set up a college fund, so we’ll be able to get our kids through school debt free as well. But it seems ridiculous when you think about how much it all costs!

  12. “I know we have our reasons. I just don’t think those reasons are very good.” You and me both. My husband and I have been saving for our two daughters to go to college since they were born, and even with monthly payments into their college funds, we’ll be lucky if we can cover half. I also graduated with a crapload of debt. I really don’t want that to happen to my kids.

  13. I graduated in 1970, $1200 in debt. Seems rather quaint now, but that was, hey, 6 months’ rent back then. But it was easier to find jobs; sometimes total crap jobs, but available jobs. By 1979 I was in California working at UC Berkeley, by the time I retired in 2010 I had seen this happen: https://junctrebellion.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/how-the-american-university-was-killed-in-five-easy-steps/ (It’s long, and I don’t agree with all of it, but basically I know it’s true ’cause I saw it done. (Kind of like Mark Twain and baptism.))

  14. My son will be finishing grad school (PhD Chemistry) later this year without any debt. Fortunately, I had savings, targeted just for such, that could cover most of my share, since his mom & I went our separate ways. Also, I worked overseas during his undergrad years, so I didn’t have any debt either from such. Considering he went to Harvey Mudd College, which you, John, should be familiar with coming from Claremont, it could have saddled him with major debt. He’s lucky and knows it.

  15. Our current system is just… asinine. It seems to be little more than a system designed to reinforce the delusional worldview that anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if they want to, and if they don’t pull those bootstraps its only because they’re lazy. I suppose it is really nothing more than the top 1% of the rich trying to indoctrinate people to believe that the rich are only rich because they are so very much better than the poor. All so we keep falling for the stupid line that if we don’t tax the rich, they’ll bless us with their wealth in the form of (insert whatever form of trickle-down nonsense is currently in fashion), all because they’ve been pounding it into our heads that they’re rich because they’re so much smarter and better than po folk. And, again, that’s just asinine.

    The way I look at it, the next cure for cancer, the inventor of AI, the person who builds the space elevator, might very well be alive right now, and growing up *dirt poor* through no fault of their own. We’re fools if we squander those kinds of advances. Not to mention, college degrees increase your average income, which increases income taxes. So, in the long run, government paid college tuition eventually pays for itself.

    But to really embrace that idea, we’d have to acknowledge just how much people get rich because of luck. Luck of birth, luck of relations, luck of being in the right place at the right time, luck of opportunism. And that goes directly against the idea that the rich are rich because they’re inherently better than the poor, an idea the rich are heavily invested in continuing in our culture. Because if we really acknowledge that rich people are rich partly because of luck, then we have no reason to worship them and hope they bless us with their trickle down, manna from oligarchy, nonsense that they preach.

    We’d educate everyone, knowing that folks would have the smarts to get rich, some folks would get the luck to get really rich, and we would continually cycle in a new group of wealthy people in the country. Instead, American culture has adopted the religion that the rich are special, that we can’t get rich because we’re not special, and our only hope is to leave the rich alone and hope they look kindly upon us if we but sacrifice a lamb to them now and then.

    The result of this culture is that we have become functionally indifferent to the suffering of the poor, because we’ve convinced ourselves that they can’t help themselves, that they can’t improve their own condition, that their cause is lost. Making it hard for poor people to go to college is just one of many examples of this culture of worship of the rich and indifference to the poor manifesting itself in the US.

    College should be free. We’d be a much better nation for it.

  16. I think we should steer kids to instate tuition. I think John went to the University of Chicago right? The costs for a private education are ridiculous. Administrators are jacking up prices to build new buildings in order to get rankings up to give themselves larger salaries.

    I think instead of kids going into debt, I would tell kids:
    1. Do 2 years at a junior college. Its just basic classes anyway. These basic classes are almost the same every where.
    2. Then finish out at a 4 year school. Do not go to the most expensive instate school in your state if you are going to leave with debts. Many state schools are doing the same thing as private schools and jacking up tuition as an excuse to raise administrator salaries.
    3. Ignore the rankings. Do not go into debt for some silly department or school rank. (unless maybe its Ivy league and you do something you can get a job that will pay off your debts).
    4. Do not ever buy your books in the university book store unless its some package. Try to buy them online and get them used. I know they come up with ‘new versions’ where they just rotate some questions around to make you buy $150 new books. Its a ripoff.
    5. If you want to do an arts style major you think is interesting, do a second major that has a skill to help you get a job. I double majored. All it meant is that you don’t get as many electives. You have to go to work when your done. If you really want to take some cool elective you like, get the syllabus online and check the books out of the library.
    6. If your goal is to go to law school. Google it. There are far more graduates every year than jobs. Lots of news paper articles on this. People coming out with $100k in debt and no job.
    7. You can always change careers, but you want something on your resume when you graduate you have something to put on your resume for an employer to hire you at enough money so you can support yourself.

    If you can’t afford it, its ok to go part time and work. Its not a good idea to ever go heavily into debt. 18 year olds do not understand what its like to carry that kind of debt. I know I had fun living in the dorms 20+ years ago, but its not worth doing that to go into debt. It will cripple your life.

    I got 2 masters degrees part time and around work when I was in my late 20s to early 30s. With pre-reqs it took 6.5 years (year round I had to go to summer school). Did most of my pre-reqs at the junior college and my masters at state schools. The first one was covered by tuition reimbursement by my employer. The second I was self employed and took it as a business expense (tax write off) so I saved a big chunk. I had the money to pay as I went along. I put my degrees at the bottom of my resume. The only time my MBA comes up in a tech interview is when someone asks if I want to be a manager.

  17. With this healthcare debacle going on, I’ve been meditating a lot about capitalisms limits, and the two areas that seem most obvious are healthcare and education. These two things, if provided, would bring back such remarkable return on the investment that it boggles ye proverbial mind that they’re NOT provided.

    Congrats on your good fortune financially, but also for your success as a Dad and husband. Congrats to Krissy and Athena for keeping us all proud of them, too. Awesome article.

  18. I sometimes feel guilty that my first husband and I made choices which basically precluded saving for our kids’ college. He was a youth minister and I was an educational assistant and later a teacher (had to finish my own college first). We adopted one and ended up being blessed with three kids. Paying bills was always a struggle and saving just didn’t happen. My second husband and I help the kids with their debts as much as we can. But it really shouldn’t be like this.

  19. I read an article on the web, (IIRC a reliable source but I didn’t save the link.) that said that the total US student debt is roughly the size of the reduction in state funding of state university systems over the last few decades. In other words, the student debt situation is the result of deliberate government policies that transferred public obligations into private ones.

  20. Neither of my parents completed the 8th grade, still yet High School or College. But somehow, they were convinced that their daughter was going to get an education. They were both working as mechanics in the garage Dad’s ex Father-in-law owned when I was born. When Mom was expecting me they both made a practice of putting all of the change that came to them in a day into a piggy bank. After I was born they cashed out the pig and had enough money to pay the doctor and the hospital. They took what was left and started a college savings account for me. We all saved for the next 18 years. 1/2 of any money that came my way (birthdays, baby sitting, part time work) went into the account. The folks put money in on a regular basis.

    Then wonder of wonders I got a Voc. Rehab. grant that paid for my state university undergrad tuition and fees. We had to pay for books and room and board. Lived at home the first two years, so that was a savings. Had enough left to cover my MLIS a few years later with no debt. I am so thankful that my parents planned ahead and were lucky, and that my Uncle Sam was in a generous frame of mind. Also that the huge piece of bad luck (my hearing loss) actually was not all bad.

  21. As far as your comments about free state schools go, New York is doing that, for some students at some state schools. When my wife and I went to college (granted, 45 years ago), our total cost to attend Hunter College (part of CUNY) was $54 per semester. That’s it. And my wife’s mother was a teacher, so she was reimbursed for the cost of books by her union. We both worked, during school and in the summers, and we were both living at home with our (respective) parents and commuting by subway, but still. Can’t argue with that, or the quality of the education (IMHO).

    But yes, absolutely, the system here is insane. Millions for football stadia rather than education.

  22. John,

    I agree the main points that you are making that higher education costs are rising too fast, but be wary of average student loan debt. Student loan debt has a very skewed distribution, so median is a much nicer “typical” value. Unfortunately medians take more work to calculate, and are less reported, but here are a couple of links:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2013/09/24/five-myths-about-college-debt/
    https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-typical-household-with-student-loan-debt/

    College sticker price versus net price is another complication. Sticker prices have typically risen fast than net prices over the past 30 years.
    http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/09/30/444446022/what-youll-actually-pay-at-1-550-colleges
    https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-net-price-over-time-full-time-students-sector

  23. I really wish college (at all levels) was free. It pays for itself in so many ways. I don’t have any kids myself, but please raise my taxes to pay for it. We would be a better society.

  24. I think that one reason we aren’t seeing are movement on reducing state college costs is that for people, oh older that OGH (like me), college WAS affordable for the most part. In the late 70s/early 80s undergrad tuition at the University of Washington was $229/quarter. Sure, min wage was $3/hour but do the math. If you worked 15-20 hours per week you could make tuition in about a month and working that much isn’t a huge burden. When I calculated this last, the current undergrad tuition at th UW now would take the full quarter to pay at our min wage (which is high, we started the $15/hour min wage movement in Seattle). So unlike when I was in college, you have to work 3x as many hours just to make tuition to say nothing of increased room and board, etc.

    The problem is that a lot of policymakers are my age or so (50s) and, I think, remembering the days when pulling a few shifts waiting tables etc really could cover college at a state school. They don’t realize that those days are pretty much gone.

  25. When I completed my undergrad back in 1985, I was able to sign up for six credit hours one summer session, and pay tuition and fees with a check for $72. I made that in less than two weeks of part-time work at close to minimum wage. I wrote a check every semester, paying the entire bill in full, all paid by a–mostly–part-time job, and graduated with zero debt.

    Tell me kids can do that today and I’ll believe we have a great system in this country. The truth is, kids *can’t* do that today. Not on a part-time *or* a full-time job. This is nuts. I’ve never understood why we are no longer able to pay for the things that we used to do with ease as a country.

    Anyone who says to a student “work your way through school–it builds character!” knows neither the reality, nor the history of the situation.

  26. My spouse and I have no children, and have been fortunate in investing and savings. In our wills, we have left money to our undergraduate schools to set up a “random” scholarship. Some student who has not yet obtained a BA will randomly receive in-state tuition sufficient to complete the units necessary to receive a BA. No other requirement other than to maintain and acceptable GPA. We both graduated debt-free in the years when State schools were genuinely supported by the State. Now, it seems tuition is adjusted to meet the expected available amount people will pay for their education.
    \

  27. Jeff M. — I thought it was at all (or almost all) public schools in the state? I know that all the community colleges on long island are in the deal, and most of CUNY is too. The only school I’m not sure about is FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology, a fashion design/manufacture, interior design, etc., school), which is part of the CUNY system), but I’ve checked extensively.

    The limitations on it are:

    1. Family max income — something around $125k/year, iirc. I don’t know if it goes up with multiple kids, or if that’s a future plan, or what.
    2. It only covers tuition — so if you’re really poor, you don’t need it, because all the existing state and federal programs will cover tuition plus some other things, rather than just tuition. But if you’re middle-class this’ll take you from owing a lot in student loans to only owing fees and books and maybe room/board in loans.
    3. The student must stay on schedule to graduate in an appropriate amount of time (some majors allow 5 years, but most are 4 years) and cannot end up on academic probation or otherwise have grade problems.
    4. The student must commit to living and working in NY state for a certain (small) number of years after graduation — somewhere between 3 and 5 iirc. If one works elsewhere, then there is no penalty charge per se, but the grants commute to loans, so if you get your dream job paying your dream salary in california, say, you just have more student loans to pay back. Which adjusts the cost-benefit analysis of which job to take on graduation, if you’re lucky enough to be in a position to make that choice (have multiple job opportunities). This restriction is only because if NY is going to put money into someone’s education, they should put some money back into the state economy, which is TOTALLY fair. If this program were to become nationwide, the state restriction would be removed, but there might be a federal restriction instead (work/live in the US for x years).

    It’s still not perfect, but it’s A LOT better than anything else out there, at least in the US. And once again, I’m so glad I live in NY, where we keep the ACA/Obamacare program whether or not the feds keep it (NY implemented a state version that will take over if the feds overturn it), where our governor gets involved when public transit becomes problematic — he’s taking on the amtrak/lirr issues right now — and also makes sure his comptroller/whatever the position is called has his people check the books for state public transit programs and utilities and other things that are not supposed to be for profit but otherwise would find creative ways to hide profit were someone not actually checking the books, etc.

    I’ve heard that there may be a push for him to run for president in 2020. If he does, I’ll be very much in support of his candidacy — he’s done so much good for NY. Also, when he implements something that he’s been told will be a good idea, and then it doesn’t work, he’ll roll it back. When he was first elected, he pushed for teacher tenure to be more tied to exam scores etc., it didn’t work very well (I don’t remember why, but stuff was going wrong), and he rolled it back significantly/changed it to make it suit reality rather than insisting that because it worked on paper/in computer models that it worked in reality as it was.

  28. @ Robin: Bless you for doing that. Also thank you so much for saying the requirement is an acceptable GPA. I work in fundraising at a public university and we sometimes get scholarships that don’t get given out because of the number of requirements (middle child, born in this small town, and has this major all combined for one scholarship). That is an incredible gift you are giving to someone.

    I work for a state university doing fundraising. A lot of what I fundraise for is student scholarship funds because its what my units need most. The high cost of tuition and student loan debt is the crisis of my generation. It impacts so much!

    The particular institution I work at is raising tuition this year by 5% for the first time in a decade. The overall spending per student hasn’t risen. It’s that they have seen a 60% drop in government funding over the last decade. When the rector came to talk to one of my units’ fundraising boards, what he mentioned was that the rising cost of healthcare and supporting large populations in prisons means that there is less government money available for education. He is a former congressman and is married to a state senator so I assume he knows of which he speaks. Higher education absolutely does not get enough support from the government but the unfortunate truth is that the government also is tasked with making sure that Alzheimer’s patients don’t die in the streets and that we don’t starve our prisoners. Working to solve other societal ills (such as the high cost of healthcare in general and the absurd number of incarcerated people in our country) would help the situation immensely.

    I think unfortunately, because it is so difficult to earn a good living without a college degree, we will continue to see tuition costs rise because the market will bear those costs and because there are so many other pressing demands on our governments’ resources.

  29. Yes to everything you said, but with a significant caveat: when you’re given the opportunity to try, as you were, you have to be willing to work at it to succeed. Luck is getting the opportunity, not what you did once you had that opportunity. That took brains, talent, and probably a fair bit of sweat. The real problem is that many people (particularly the working poor) are never given that opportunity to try, and that, to me, is one of the great tragedies of the American experience: the failure to invest in your own future.

    I got through university by having parents who could afford to split the costs with me, by working hard at summer jobs to pay my half of the cost (roughly), by giving up luxuries like beer when I didn’t have the money for them, and towards the end, by earning a scholarship. (Academic merit, combined with the fact that two much smarter guys neglected to apply for the scholarship that I won.) A strong recommendation to all parents and would-be university students reading this: do a lot of work looking for scholarships and bursaries (free money based on need or other criteria, rather than loans). Nearly 40 years ago when I applied for university, I never knew that more than 50% of all scholarships were NOT awarded because nobody had applied for them. That was Canada, but the same situation is likely to exist in the U.S. In addition to highly competitive scholarships for academic performance, there are a great many scholarships awarded for other reasons. For example, the Firstname Lastname Memorial Scholarship may be awarded for nothing more than belonging to a particular religious, gender, economic, ethnic, or other group. Last time I checked, about 10 years back, this statement was still true. So get thee to the appropriate office at your prospective university and get thee looking for scholarships you might qualify for.

    Also, do your homework and ask around; some universities were founded by people with a social agenda, and because they have huge endowments from former alumni, they go to heroic efforts to ensure that everyone who qualifies academically can afford to attend. For instance, Swarthmore College offers huge amounts of assistance to students. An alumnus told me a few years back that 100% of the tuition could be supplied as a grant, for need, and a quick Google suggests 50% of tuition is still quite doable. I’m sure Swarthmore’s not alone in this.

    Also, consider looking outside the U.S. In Canada, for example, our top universities are every bit as good as their best American counterparts, and many of them don’t charge much more than an unremarkable state school in the U.S. would charge, even after allowing for the foreign student surcharge for non-Canadian taxpayers. Better still, see if you qualify for a foreign university in a country where there is no tuition at all, or perhaps a very small fee by American standards; learning abroad is the proverbial pearl without price, and not taking advantage of such an opportunity is one of my greatest regrets. Do a little Googling to find possibilities. For instance: https://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/studying-abroad/where-can-you-study-abroad-free

  30. @Joe Smith: “The system is dependent on failure and people who will never achieve it. Someone always has to lose…”

    To the extent that this is true, it’s a bad system.

    If a system is set up around “winning” and “losing”, then yes, someone has to lose. But if the focus is on *succeeding* rather than winning, then no, nobody has to lose. My success doesn’t depend on someone else’s failure, and in fact my success is indirectly connected to lots of other people succeeding, too.

    In fact, to me, that seems like the basis for a healthy society.

  31. @ Jim C
    True, the Danish system is picky about who goes to college, but students get a stipend that will keep body and soul together. But this should be seen as part of an education system that does not direct everyone to college, but funnels less academically inclined kids to vocational ed and paid apprenticeships. Nevertheless, owing to Danes’ great reverence for education, there are established education pathways for people to go from trades to professions: e.g. from electrician to electrical engineer, again with state support. And most Danes take courses on various topics as a regular part of life. I believe this is an outgrowth of Danes extraordinary effort to use education as a way to pull their country out of the awful problems it faced at the end of the Napoleonic wars.
    In contrast, I read that Michelle and Barack Obama, with debt for both college and top-flight law schools, didn’t pay it off until they were in the White House, largely owing to the success of Dreams from My Father. This system seems likely to waste a lot of talent.

  32. I always expected that after I retired from my Postal Service career, I’d be able to go back to college at least part-time. When I took retirement in 2008, I took a look at what tuition and costs had risen to since the mid-1970s, and compared them to how much discretionary income I had. Eh, nope.

    (My oldest brother went the part-time route to get his degree back in the 70’s. It took him twelve years, mostly working as a manager for a sandwich shop during those years, but he got the degree and moved on to MUCH better jobs in engineering and quality control. I don’t think a sandwich shop manager would be able to afford following the same route these days, even part-time.)

  33. My BS took me 7.5 years and nearly $5,000 in debt. My parents had NO IDEA how much college would cost (they grew up in the days where you could pay for it with a part time job) and weren’t in a position to have saved enough anyway.

    Now I teach at a community college where we struggle with funding. Our costs (esp health care) go up and state funding goes down. Many of our students are immigrants, veterans and working poor yet their funding (and our funding!) are based on getting the degree in 3 years maximum (it’s a “two year” degree) and going full time. That’s just not practical for most of our students who are already working hard to feed themselves and keep a roof over their head.

    So what do we do? We have an on-campus food bank. We have a list of homeless shelters in the area. We’re trying to move towards cheaper or alternative textbooks (that’s a big scam, for another rant).

    I don’t have children. Please raise my taxes to help fund education for all Americans (and decent wages for teachers).

  34. Joe: “Someone always has to lose”

    Oh good grief. Of course not.

    “If the FED loans out 1 million to regional banks and they loan it out to consumers and business at 1% each, there is more money to be paid back than is available…hence musical chairs.”

    That’s gold-bug nonsense.

  35. My daughter graduates in a month with a BA in Psychology and a minor in Chinese. She is moving home, and we’re happy to have her back. Part of it is guilt – we didn’t save enough to cover everything, though it looks like she’ll get out with just under 30K in loans, all federal, so she can (fingers crossed) do Income Based Repayment. Part of it is she’s an awesome human being and we like having her around – we missed her. (She is also an only child.) But we’d like her to not have to worry about rent and food while she’s getting started in her career and beginning to dig out from loans. And in her field, she will have to go back for the Master’s within the next five years or so – so she needs to save for that too.

    We’re middle class now, but we took the long road to get there, so savings were hard, we’re behind on retirement, and we’d very much like it to be a little easier for her.

  36. In-state tuition made a big difference managing my college finances. Virginia (the state of) has fine institutions of higher learning where there’s a big difference in tuition bills for in-state residents vs. out of state. Graduating in the 1980s, my costs at UVA came to @ $8K per year. I, too, cobbled together scholarships with support from my parents, plus worked hard every summer and over Christmas to earn $. (My father thought I would appreciate college education more if I contributed to it, wise Papa!)

    Returning to Virginia for grad school @ William & Mary, I made in-state tuition by ONE WEEK. Receiving an incorrect tuition bill was a shocker – my out-of-state (& international) classmates paid 3 times what I did for our two year program; most left with over $75K in student debt. Students in similar programs at private colleges came away with over $100K in student debt.That’s a huge load.

    I agree something needs to be done given huge discrepancies between what we earned in our help-us-get-through-college-jobs (that DID help us pay our way back in the day) vs. what students are able to earn now & high tuition costs (that keep rising.)

    Congratulations, John, for the gift you and your wife are giving your daughter to begin life after college debt free.

  37. I find the US system… astonishing. Here in Australia, there are costs, but students are made a loan *by the government*. The amount is capped for different subjects, and as a result – that’s what those subjects cost, everywhere. The debt then becomes a tax liability, which you need to repay when your income reaches a certain level (Has been 52K, I think it’s going down to 45K). Repayments start at a low level (somewhere between 1-3%) increase in your tax liability, going up to (and I’m guesstimating here) 10% for over 100K. The debt is indexed to inflation, but there is no commercial interest.

    The result? You carry the debt, but it doesn’t break you. Take time off for kids? Volunteering? Long term travel? That’s fine, it’ll be waiting for you when you’re making money, and there’s no pressure in the mean time. Also, the debt doesn’t blossom in these off years – the real cost of the loan is constant across time.

    I’m in my late 30s; have 5 degrees, 4 of which are graduate including a law degree and a PhD – 14 years post secondary all up. I’ve worked abroad (volunteering) for 5 years. I’ve worked FT in Australia for perhaps 2 years, during which I made small repayments on my debt. I carry about 42K debt (35K of which is the law degree, and the graduate diploma required for practice). The PhD was entirely fee free (all research degrees are).

    Now, 42K is more than the median/average debt in the US. But the adverse effect on me of this debt? It doesn’t effect my credit rating. I will not have to repay it when I have no income. I think the repayment rate for these loans in AU is in the mid 90s – substantially higher than the commercial regimes in Canada or the USA.

    The debt itself isn’t the problem (though those older than me, who went through fee free think it’s outrageous). It’s the way the debt totally distorts every future activity you can do. I’m *fine* with the debt I carry (and as I’ll be starting an well paid job in a few months, I’ll be able to make significant inroads into it without a problem). It’s not perfect: for example, the repayment hits young people and those growing their families etc, when that 50$ a week might take a very big difference to their lives. But otherwise?

    It’s a really damn good system. Yep, debt free and *high* entry standards are a better combination, but if you’re going to have a fee system there are ways to do it to make it far less damaging and painful than the monstrosity in the USA presently.

  38. @Greg Please explain in a debt based monetary system how the math works out. Please solve for X where X is How in the hell do you pay back borrowed money with debt attached? There is only one way…to “earn” it from someone else, who also has to borrow. If you loan out 1 million and 1.1 million is owed, you have to go get the 100K from somewhere. Do that for 100 years and you get a math problem impossible to solve. Everyone borrows and everytime that happens, it adds to the debt. I’m not one of those gold “buggers”, however it seems logical the math will never work out…..it’s just a bad system put in place by greedy bankers.

  39. Hi John,

    What are the reasons that we don’t fund public education like so many European countries? Legitimately curious as I can’t really figure it out.

  40. I will forever be thankful to my parents for allowing me to graduate (undergrad and masters) with no debt, they also did the same for my 2 younger sisters. They also did tell us that I should consider this my inheritance, and I agree. My debt-education has had much better benefits to me and my family than getting some money when my parents pass. I intend to do the same for my children to the best of my financial ability, but I know that I belong to a small, highly-privileged group that can afford to do this. Given what it takes to succeed in the current and future economy it makes no sense to keep the necessary education behind a giant pay wall.

  41. I’m somewhat less fortunate. I failed my first time in college, and waited until I was 35 to go back. Unfortunately, severe health issues meant that I was only able to work for one year in college and forced me to take out loans. Now I have a degree, $54K of debt, and I’ve been sleepless for two months because none of the interviews I’ve had have led to a job.

    I’m the first person in my family of my generation to have a Bachelor’s degree. We’ve always been dirt poor. I worked my ass off and still wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the help of a lot of generous and good people. But I’d be lying if I said I felt good about my prospects right now.

    I feel so bad for the people younger than me, who are likely going to have an even worse debt load than I do.

  42. Oddly enough, I started school in a vo-ed program, with the intention to eventually become an engineer. School politics and calculus kicked my butt, so I left for a while and sampled several other schools, eventually ending up with some amount of debt and a BFA (which made my parents wince, because they had visions of another engineer in the family). Pell grants, working nights and going to school days, and parents willing to pay off my school loans kept me from joining the ranks of people paying heavily for their degrees. Later I was able to get my MLIS with more grants and support from my folks, but not go into debt, and I actually have a job in my field.

    Tuition has gone crazy, with for profit schools upselling pointless degrees like extra sour cream on your burrito, and even state schools ratcheting up the fees. If you want a job, it’s rare you can get anything but an entry level job without a college degree, and entry level jobs will not keep body and soul together without assistance, or multiple jobs.

  43. I was lucky; despite starting in a vo-ed engineering school, it didn’t work out and I cycled through several majors before getting a MFA. My parents supported me despite their hopes of getting an engineer out of paying for college, and again when I went back and got my MLIS.

    Tuition has gone crazy, with for profit schools upselling pointless degrees like extra sour cream on your burrito, and even state schools ratcheting up the fees. If you want a job, it’s rare you can get anything but an entry level job without a college degree, and entry level jobs will not keep body and soul together without assistance, or multiple jobs.

  44. This is an example of why I don’t understand the moral argument that one should never take advantage of one’s privilege. By that argument, should Athena’s parents not have paid for her college education?

  45. I attended a state land grant University in the mid 1970s. My economics professor Dr Neale emphasized to us that many of the people paying for our educations at the University of Tennessee had not had the luxury of education themselves. It therefore behooved us to be sure that ever after we become net contributors to society. Our “student debt” was to the taxpayers of Tennessee.

    His words have echoed in my mind ever since. It is an ethos that I think setves society well ; I wish more people agreed with it.

    I no longer live in Tennessee. It was not a healthy place for an out lesbian to raise two sons (now in their 30’s.) I live in California, but I still contribute to the Food Bank and some other institutions “back home” because I still feel that debt.

  46. DB: Nobody says that “one should never take advantage of one’s privilege.” Literally nobody; I’d never seen the phrase before, so I googled it and some obvious variations, and got no hits.

    What you SHOULD do about privilege is to notice situations where it comes up, and work to cancel it out. Scalzi is doing the first one here by noting that so much of the reason his daughter is going to get out of college debt-free is pure luck from her perspective. The rest of us should help out with the second part, by doing what we can to enable colleges to lower their prices for lower-income students. Mostly that adds up to calling your state representatives and asking them to please fund higher education. Telling ’em to stomp on diploma mills like Corinthian Colleges some more also helps, if you still have anything like that going on in your area.

  47. Education should not cost the student anything beyond the effort to pass the courses. If they go on to make loadsamoney they will pay more income tax and maybe even create new businesses to employ others. If they don’t, how exactly can they pay off big debts?
    Of course, this relies on sensible income tax and other fiscal policies that aren’t tailored to try to make sure the money all ends up in a few hands, so basically US students are screwed.
    I got to do several degrees in U.K. before the neo-cons got around to destroying higher education and have normally paid more taxes than the average income. I’m very happy with that state. It buys me a small slice of a society in which I can have a decent life.

  48. Speaking as a non-American who came up through a user-pays system, college/university costs are hellish. New Zealand, free market paradise that it is, will loan you the money for your degree and to live on while you’re doing it, it can be done free but the threshold for that is set by your parents’ income til you’re 25, several years after most people with a Bachelor’s degree will have graduated, so it’s a virtual non-event.
    So, student loans are for most people pretty much a necessity if you want a degree, both to pay for courses and pay for living costs, I was at university for seven years, worked part time through most of it and made approximately NZD $150 a week, which covered my rent. The loan gave me an other $150 a week to cover groceries, sundries and larger bills. This was all fine, at the age I was that’s an adequate income if you’re practical, but I then I graduated. I’m still making the same amount a week, only now I’m paying into superannuation (voluntarily) and paying back my loan (not so much). I owe the government NZD $67,000, which they charge me interest on (something I find deeply offensive), which they then wipe, effectively eating the amount I paid off last year on the difference between the pre- and post- interest figures.
    Effectively, going to university has lumbered me with a huge debt no real benefit. It’s a horrible system, it doesn’t work in anyone’s favour and is that much more enraging when you realise the people who designed it went to university for free in an era when a part-time job would cover living costs.

  49. I am jealous. My Miami University education was nice and all, but the $100,000 in debt has crushed my life ever since. It was a great experience on a personal level. Financially, college was the worst decision I’ve ever made or am ever likely to make in the future.

  50. There was a comment that came up in a tuition discussion in one of the UK politics groups I’m in that I think sums up the matter perfectly, that getting through university should an academically challenge, not a financial challenge.
    Now getting to a society where that is possible? That is the real challenge.

  51. I paid taxes in one state for 21 years. My child starts college as an instate student. A year later I have to move and suddenly tuition rises by 20,000 per year, i.e. he cannot go to that school anymore. The system is screwy beyond belief. Because almost anyone who is not very rich has faced at least one bureaucratic nightmare from financial aid and/or repayment. Probably several.

  52. We figured that college would be super expensive once our kids became of age, so when both my son (1992) and daughter (2001) were born, both myself and my late father set up 429 plans (Higher Education) that are tax deductible here in CT. They definitely came in handy for the son as it helped pay for about 65% (about $16k) of his tuition to go to a votech school. My daughters has roughly $23K for college education purposes so that should be good for at least two years of college by the time she comes of age.

  53. Joe, you start off with X dollars floating around in the economy (where X is some phenomenally large number). And then some jerkoff goes and bales hay for an hour, and of course, he wants to get paid his $10 minimum wage. So now, there’s X+10 dollars floating around in the economy. Do that for a hundred years and a hundred million people, and you’ve got 100million people * 100 years * 2000 hours * 10 dollars an hour = x + 20 trillion dollars floating around the economy. (Or so, i may have dropped a zero somewherr).

    Does your economic model handle that? Does it allow for the value of new labor to be added to the economy over time as people commit new acts of labor?

    If you say it works for people baling hay for ten bucks an hour, but doesnt work for bankers banking bankety bank bank at 1%, that can only be because you think baling hay is worth 10 an hour but banking is a job of zero value.

    Your demand that X going in equals X going out while people are constantly working and adding money to the economy doesnt add up.

  54. My brother and SIL both work for the local branch of our state university (different departments). One bennie that comes with both of their jobs is a certain amount of credit hours per semester that could be used for continuing ed … or transferred to a child who’s still living at home. My nephew lucked out, because what he wanted to go to college for was something the state university had a good program for. His student debt for a four-year degree was books, lab fees, the parking permit, and $1 per credit hour; basically no debt at all compared to what some of his high school buddies will somehow have to pay.

    But if he’d wanted to do something we _didn’t_ have a good in-state degree program for? His maternal grandmother died from complications of Alzheimer’s, his maternal grandfather is in the Alzheimer’s wing of a care center, three guesses where the family money went.

  55. @Greg – Any money created in the last 80+ years(most of it basically) has had debt attached to it. Any money “floating around” has been long surpassed by all of the money created since the central banks were created. Your point would have been valid 1 years after, but now, I can’t believe that. All new money has been created with debt. Not sure I follow you(and I’m not being condescending here I’m trying to understand). I don’t see a way for any of it to ever add up. If the economy is flooded with more money now that has debt attached, and that debt most certainly is greater than any existing, pre central bank money(we’ve printed trillions by now so it is), then there is no way to repay all of the debt collectively. Take labor out of it. Labor is what people do for money. All money, which stems from the central banks. So i don’t follow. My question is, if you make 20 trillion dollars over 100 years and loan it all out x times over and now 21 trillion is owed back, how do you pay back the 1 trillion? Music chairs…and a flawed equation.

  56. The #1 reason I don’t own my own home today, student loan debt. Luckily, I have a STEM degree and the debt it going away, slowly. Without the massive debt, I could stimulate my local economy from a home purchase, a new car, and disposable income to pump into locally owned businesses like bookshops. Instead, my paychecks go towards rent, food, insurance, and student loans. I don’t mind paying for college, not at all. My problem is that the powers that be decided to inflate that cost to such a height that many of us become wage slaves for the next 10+ years. I’d like to see that change by the time my future child goes to college but like you, early preparation is crucial.

  57. Remark of a spoiled European:

    Education is an investment into a society’s future, and not to take care that their youth gets the best education available is probably one of the most efficient methods for a modern society to shoot itself in the knee. Or somewhere more lethal. The education your youth doesn’t get now because society as a whole thinks a degree is a luxury one should have to pay for like for a car or a vacation will cost the US a multitude of that amount in the long run – and that doesn’t even take into account that knowledge isn’t necessarily something that can and should be measured in economical value.

    The same is true for health care, btw.

  58. Our son went to law school,in Canada while our daughter attended Occidental College in California. He got a huge entrance scholarship, paid most of his tuition the first year. She got a small scholarship, about 20% of her tuition and (mandatory) residence. The punchline: they were the same amount.

    For both kids, the deal was the same–we paid for everything except beer first year and then expected them to work and pay for something (books, clothes, for example).

    I went to Duke in the 70’s, my parent similarly paid tuition and residence first year and after that, my tuition. When I went to med school in Canada, there was a government grant and I worked 24 hours a week during the school year and 48 hours a week in the summer until my last year (all clinical, with lots of on-call) when my parents happily paid my tuition.

    Ontario government now guaranteeing that undergrads won’t graduate with tuition debt. I think this is great

  59. I graduated in 2005. Back in 2008, you know during that pesky recession, I was working two jobs for a brief period of time. My husband couldn’t find work as his degree was in construction management. That whole housing crisis really put a wrench in our plans. (And yes, he tried the minimum wage jobs too. They didn’t want him because of his degree. but I digress…)

    I made a comment to a coworker at my second job that I needed to do something about my student loans. I was hoping that Sallie Mae would allow me to put them in deferment instead of forbearance.

    We started talking about loans in general. I had a little over 20k in debt. My husband was just shy of 30k. We both went to state schools, but I had gotten more scholarships. Being the valedictorian at a tiny rural high school does have *some* benefits.

    My coworker didn’t have any loans. Her parents paid for everything at a private school. I made a supportive statement along the lines of, “that’s so great your parents were able to do that for you.”

    And I will never forget, she responded a little haughtily and with a very pointed look, “Well….it was just really important to my parents that I be financially independent and stable.”

    Which is great statement on its face, but underneath was the subtle accusation that my parents were irresponsible assholes who didn’t want me to be financially independent. They didn’t pay for my education because they weren’t able to pay for it. (I got a semester of books, and they paid the interest down on my loans) I had a sister starting her senior year of college when I started my freshman. I had a sister one year behind me. And a brother 3 years after that. There just wasn’t the money. We fluctuated between lower middle class to solidly middle-middle class. And in the 90s recession, we were briefly poor.

    I worked my ass off to get the scholarships that I did. I went to a state school instead of the private one that I had been pining after. I worked constantly during the summer (I was in a sort of unpaid internship during the school year.) I was actually really proud that I didn’t have more debt. It was so strange to me that this coworker didn’t understand ANY of that.

    Anyway, very soon I will be free of my loans. There is less than 2k left on them. *fingers crossed*

  60. Enkin Anthem,

    I am a US citizen and I agree with you 100%. Not only does it seem rather obvious, but there is good data to support this view. Societies, economies are made up of people. Removing as many obstacles as possible that could inhibit the individuals that make up your society from reaching their maximum potential to contribute not only makes sense pragmatically, it also makes sense ethically. Hopefully we’ll get our shit straightened out before we devolve to third world status.

  61. Josh notes: “My problem is that the powers that be decided to inflate that cost to such a height that many of us become wage slaves for the next 10+ years.”

    Statistically, you’re probably one of the lucky ones if you can pay off your debt in only 10 years. More often, the problem is “debt bondage” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt_bondage): the loan will never be repaid because its terms and conditions are designed to prevent repayment. The only people who benefit are those who loan out the money. Remember the song lyric “sold my soul to the company store”? The problem hasn’t gone away; it’s just been rebranded so people think that it’s gone away.

    Like any other form of unquestioning faith, 20th-century American capitalism is not about empowering the majority; it’s about ensuring control of the majority by a small minority.

  62. I don’t think it’s coincidence that essentially the only two sectors of the economy in which prices are rising WAY faster than inflation are education and health care. People who work in health care are forced to get an advanced degree; in order to pay off that huge debt the health care system charges these huge fees.

    In addition, the Powers That Be in secondary education know that they are, for all intents and purposes, the gatekeepers to getting a career (vocational schools like plumbing, electrical and HVAC not withstanding) so they can charge whatever the hell they want.

  63. @Beej

    According to many economists, the reason health in general sees rising prices is because as we get richer as societies, we can afford them and we get more utility (happiness) from each additional unit of better health that we would from that much more on a nicer car. So it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we’re spending more and more on those two sectors– it just means that as societies we value them. (There are other, more negative, reasons that health is expensive, and that it’s more expensive in the US than in other countries for worse outcomes, but in terms of the change in healthcare costs, most of that is going to higher quality healthcare.)

    Unfortunately most of the reason education is costing more than inflation is because of declining government support in the US. But the fact that more and more people are getting higher education– that isn’t a bad thing. Skilled workers make the economy more productive (even if they’re working in jobs that don’t “require” a college degree).

    If we had a government that cared about future productivity in the US, we’d be investing more to make it easier for everybody to benefit from more education (you know, like the kids of coal miners in West Virginia) and we’d be working on keeping health costs down and health care accessible while still improving healthcare and health outcomes. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because HRC’s platform was heavily informed by expert economists. If this doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because the media cared more about “emails” than policy plans.)

  64. There are things you can do (my kids did) like go to junior college for two years cutting the bill in half and go to less expensive schools for the last two years. What you do not want to do is simply blow cash in the form of making existing schools free. All you end up with is more demand and a dysfunctionally small supply.

  65. Joe “Take labor out of it.”

    You say that because labor has intrinsic value, and paying people money for their labor would mean that money is tied to intrinsic value, an idea that directly contradicts your conspiracy theory stuff that the banks are just printing money of no value and flooding the economy with it. So, of course you want to take labor out of the picture.

    “My question is, if you make 20 trillion dollars over 100 years and loan it all out x times over and now 21 trillion is owed back, how do you pay back the 1 trillion?”

    Your question is “how do loans work?” The problem is you want to jam an answer in that fits your conspiracy theories.

  66. Well said.

    I hate that my kids are currently limited by sheer dumb luck. Both are on the autism spectrum. (Careful phrasing because there’s autistic and there’s autistic, you know, and most people simply don’t understand how huge that gulf is, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing …) Eldest is an artist, Youngest a burgeoning computer programmer. It’s a quandary. Eldest has talent. When she’s healthy, she has passion and drive. But she also has a more limiting set of autistic expressions than her brother—primarily abysmal processing speed and poor working memory, which are absolutely KILLER in the traditional college environment, not to mention a cornucopia of comorbid health conditions. Most of those, both mental and physical, surfaced under the intense pressure of trying to succeed at the traditional path her last two years of high school. She pulled it off and graduated with a medal for her visual arts work, but her health gave out under the stress (and bad timing) and she had to withdraw from community college for a while.

    The timing was either really good or really bad depending on how you count it; we had just paid off the previous mountain of medical and life-circumstance debt from her childhood and were getting ready to save aggressively for college costs when she got sick again. Within a year, we had five figures in medical debt (and I’m not talking a mere 10k). Hey, we’d do it all again. That’s our kid. But it puts expensive college solutions out of reach. It also makes it impossible to save properly for her younger brother’s college career, which will require a more traditional (read “expensive”) path.

    There’s nothing out there publicly to help kids like mine. They don’t qualify for scholarships because they don’t fit the mold. There are no grants because we’re not poor. Eldest is poorly suited to typical entry-level work due to her multiple sensory issues and her awkward social performance (and again, the memory and processing speed concerns that are often the only or primary qualification at the low end of the economic spectrum). The only services out there to help people like her are privately offered, and come with price tags that would make your eyes water: $45,000 a year for a year of community college to get a certificate, for instance. (We’d be paying for it right now if she hadn’t gotten sick.) And I know Youngest will need *some* additional support for his schooling, though not at that level.

    It’s not just her or the millions of other autistic young adults, either. It’s all the kids struggling with ADD, ADHD, mental health challenges, chronic health issues that require routine absences, and on and on and on. Many, if not most, of these young adults are talented, capable, and driven, and could find employment making at least median income—often well over median income, in the high fives and low six figures. As productive, tax-paying, self-supporting citizens they would also contribute to the consumer base and drive further economic development. We would easily recoup our collective investment in supporting them. Instead we erect all these financial walls, making it impossible for any but the wealthiest families to boost their kids; the rest get stuck in low-income jobs (if they get any job at all) and produce far less than they could. Not everyone needs college, but even trade school is out of reach for many of our kids. That’s insanity.

    By not investing in our kids we are leaving money on the table. I’m not in a position to quantify the impact on our GDP, but it must be nontrivial.

    If only she’d been born to richer parents, she would have a job right now.

  67. In the 1950s and 1960s California built a superb university system, and
    profited accordingly from the resultant tech boom (it’s worth noting that
    Boston was the original computer tech hub).

    However, in the 1980s Americans, not just Californians, became very keen
    on putting people in prison for extended periods, and most of the money
    for that came out of state budgets. In California, the prison budget
    gradually crowded out the university budget, so that university student
    fees skyrocketed. Further, loans were readily available to students so
    that universities could raise those fees without fearing loss of student
    numbers.

    Hinc illae lacrimae.

    Will

  68. I’m the youngest of four. I went to the private university of my first choice, and my parents were able to swing the costs. I graduated debt-free. I started my working life debt-free.

    It took me over a decade before I really realized JUST HOW AMAZING a gift that had been, but I’ve never stopped being insanely aware and grateful for it since the realization hit.

  69. My husband and I both made it out of our undergrad debt free: Me because I was lucky to have parents who could afford it, my husband because of grants, scholarships, part-time jobs, and savings. When we had kids, we started saving right away. During our son’s kindergarten year, our community announced the Kalamazoo Promise ( https://www.kalamazoopromise.com/ ) where all Kalamazoo (Michigan) Public School graduates will have 100% college tuition paid at Michigan public colleges and universities (and some private) if you attend KPS K-12. (The amount paid goes down depending how many consecutive years you attend. The minimum paid is 40% if you attend only high school.) Our kids would have been able to go to college either way, but the Promise lifts a huge burden of a large part of the cost

  70. nicoleandmaggie notes: “According to many economists, the reason health in general sees rising prices is because as we get richer as societies, we can afford them and we get more utility (happiness) from each additional unit of better health”

    That’s certainly one explanation, though it’s only true for the upper (insert wild-ass guesstimate) 50% of society who can afford healthcare in the U.S. For everyone else, not so much. More importantly, there have been a great many reputable studies that show the outcomes from the American healthcare system are not any better than in countries such as Canada and most of the OECD that spend a fraction of the U.S. per capita sums on healthcare. Health care costs in the U.S. are rising because it’s essentially a monopoly industry that has arranged for an environment to evolve in which the only check on their prices is the cost of torches and pitchforks. When the peasants start revolting, costs may begin to decrease. (OK, sorry for being facetious. Have to counteract that Canadian stereotype every now and then.)

    See, for example: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/health-costs-how-the-us-compares-with-other-countries/

    DeAnna Burghart notes: “I hate that my kids are currently limited by sheer dumb luck. Both are on the autism spectrum.”

    I feel your pain. My son spent the first 18 years of his life in that pigeonhole before being correctly diagnosed with Wilson’s disease — rare enough to have appeared twice on House, MD — only a couple months before it killed him. The only reason we’re not in debt up to our eyeballs is that we live in Canada, where the medical care (and ca. $10K monthly worth of specialized chelation drugs) were provided free. He’s doing OK now, but will have lifelong deficits. Anyway, we did some snooping around way back when, when it appeared like he might actually want to attend university. Turns out he didn’t, but that doesn’t mean your kids will never be able to attend.

    There are universities that provide special programs for such children. See, for example: http://www.bestcollegesonline.com/blog/10-impressive-special-college-programs-for-students-with-autism/
    As I noted earlier in the comments, there may be specialized scholarships and bursaries your kids can apply for. Google “autism scholarship fund”, minus the quotes, and you’ll find a bunch of promising leads. A good university guidance counsellor, including one at the 10 colleges mentioned in the previous link, should be able to point you towards other options.

    I used to have a link for a well-reputed college or university in eastern North America (I’m thinking Vermont or Massachusetts) that grants full degrees but specializes in kids with autism spectrum disorders. It wasn’t cheap, but seemed on a par for high-end U.S. universities. Unfortunately, I deleted the link when it turned out Matt wasn’t going to go to school. An appropriate medical specialist or a really good guidance counsellor might be able to turn up the school for you. In any event, the link I provided suggests that there may be many options for you.

  71. I got through college the same way as you did. Loans, grants, scholarships, workstudy & summer jobs. I was the oldest of nine kids and my parents couldn’t afford to help me. I got out owing $2500 in 1973 dollars. My first job as an accountant paid $3/hour. I think the scramble for the financial aid (and the subseqent paying off of the loans) actually helped me in later life by showing me what real world finances were like. That does not mean that I think the current system is good, just that it worked for me. And it appears to have worked for you because you understood the necessity to start saving early for Athena’s college expenses.

  72. Joe Clement:

    I suspect that I would have known that without the benefit of my own college debt. In my past I was a writing/editing consultant for financial firms and my first book was about finance.

  73. As someone staring down the barrel of this situation and not being in the fortunate position of being able to just write a cheque, amen to that. It’s worse in the UK, if anything: the average grad will come out with a debt burden of around £60K.

  74. I’ve never understood why we are no longer able to pay for the things that we used to do with ease as a country.

    Basically, the 1% stole all your money.

  75. @geoff hart–none of what you say is untrue nor does it contradict what I said. In fact, you can find review articles on those topics by the exact same authors in journals like health affairs. Who knew healthcare was so complicated? Last Friday I think we had a discussion on our blog about healthcare costs.

    Which uh, are different than education costs except that government could help decrease inequality in both markets. (I’m being good and not even starting on monetary policy! But yes, health is not education. So I’ll stop…)

  76. I’m continually amazed by the poor choices many children make in picking their parents. It’s like they don’t even know how this country works.

  77. For me it wasn’t so much that I got lucky in picking my parents, but I got lucky in picking a brother whose ex-girlfriend went to a tiny top-ranked school I might not have otherwise heard of, a school that offered need-blind admissions. (Nice to see some 5Cs love in the comments!) I had some loans through Pomona College, but they were a minor part of my aid package and were eliminated entirely for my senior year. My parents contributed a little, right up until my sister was in a near-fatal accident and my dad got the financial aid office to reevaluate his portion down to nothing in light of the medical bills.

    I really want to be able to give back to the school, so other students can have the same opportunities I did. We’re not quite there financially yet, but I think we’re getting close.

  78. I honesty don’t know how the average American pays for college these days, or, rather, pays it off, once they’ve gone into considerable debt. I make good money, yet when I had 2 kids going to college at the same time, I was paying on average $12,000 per semester per child, or roughly $48,000 per year. Those weren’t Ivy League tuition’s either, though both are excellent schools in their own right. It was a mind-blowing ordeal. Colleges don’t take payments (at least these two didn’t), so when the bills arrived every semester, they wanted paid in full. Even with my income I struggled. Receiving two bills totaling over $24,000 every four months is a lot, no matter who you are. My kids were, I suppose, lucky. But for most, a four year degree with a final cost over $100k….is it really worth the lifetime of debt?

  79. I recently retired as a professor in a science department at a public university. Math and science were the smallest college on campus because it’s “hard” and nursing, business, education, and criminal justice (thanks to CSI) were more attractive to students. From a financial standpoint, we had a very large pool of money to award as scholarships to sophomores and above who had declared a major in the field. When you have wealthy graduates (and tech companies with connections to the university) and faculty contributing as well, the money builds up quickly. With a small number of students choosing to major in that subject we were able to give some financial help to every student who bothered to apply. (And sometimes we had to nag the students to get them to fill out the application form.) In some cases it was only enough to cover books for the year but several students got full rides. If you have kids in college tell them to investigate financial help that may be available in their major department.

  80. For those interested in learning more about the current crisis in higher education costs, I recommend the book “Paying the Price” by Sara Goldrick-Rab. If you’d like something briefer, she has several keynotes & other talks easily searchable online.

  81. Coming from Europe, Finland specifically, where the higher education is much cheaper than in the US, I have to say that it’s still not free in any real sense. Here you need to pay for the membership in the student union, and for your study materials (and those books are not cheap), food, transportation, and for a place to live in. All this adds up.

    You get some money for a while when studying – I think this is a bit less than three hundred euros a month nowadays. You can usually get some housing assistance, and the option of getting a loan. The real cost of college studies is enough that people usually need to take the loan and work part-time during the semesters. The study grant and the housing assistance is not very much at least in the Helsinki area as there is not enough cheap housing for students. This makes it so that support from parents is important. Things are going worse here – I studied twenty years ago and was lucky enough to both have the option of not taking a loan and getting an education which made me employable that I had it easy, but many people just can’t do it.

    So, it’s not a paradise here either. With the recent cuts to the university funding, many of the staff are leaving Finland and many departments are either closed down or merged into larger departments.

    Of course we get the old “you should pick a study area which makes you employable in the future” mantra, which of course means that humanities should just be shut down and everybody should be studying either engineering or finance. This does not imply a society I would like to live in, though.

  82. mjfgates: You may not have seen it said, but I have. Just not in those words, I guess. I blogged about this at the time, but it must have been during the period for which my blog has no index, so I can’t turn up a link. But the context was a couple (opposite-sex) who had refused to get married on the grounds that (at the time) same-sex couples couldn’t get married, and they devoutly believed that taking advantage of privilege that others don’t have is where you begin to be evil. (I googled a few combinations of “privilege” and “evil” and got a lot of irrelevant false drops, so that wasn’t of much help.) My post was a disagreement with that. Marriage isn’t like a company that you hurt by boycotting it, and it didn’t help same-sex couples get married by avoiding it yourself. All you hurt is yourself by, for instance, running into hassles at Customs & Immigration, which is the story that the unmarried couple’s original post was about.

  83. Have to say, with one just graduated (double bachelors) and two in school at public universities in California, one’s “local” Cal State is still a hell of a deal. May not be true elewhere, of course.

    Housing and the like if the child goes “away” adds significant expense, but if one is fortunate enough to live in California and one’s child is accepted at your local CSU, keep them at home and make going to college their priority, it is quite possible for the child to graduate in 4-5 years (less if they take as many APs as possible, and GE at the CC level) with essentially zero debt. Even a full time schedule at a CSU, on quarters or semesters, is pretty affordable, all things considered … if the child stays at home.

    But yep, it’s a deeply flawed element of public policy, generally.

  84. @brittneyconstable– go ahead and donate $47 or $4.70 each year if that’s all you can afford. Your SLAC doesn’t need your money so much as they need a higher rate of alumni donations given that percent goes into college rankings.

  85. I was both 1) incredibly fortunate and 2) worked my ass off. I paid my way through a four-year private college with a combination of scholarships, loans, summer jobs, grants, odd jobs like editing and typing papers, and work-study during the school year. I lived close to the bone (but I always knew exactly how much money I had, as opposed to some of the students on my hall who were stuck waiting for their allowance check at the end of the month). I graduated with debt, which I repaid (I got a charming letter from the bank congratulating me for being a Good Citizen).

    How was I lucky? At the time I went to college the interest rate for student loans was fixed at a manageable 3%, which meant I wasn’t drowning in debt the minute I walked out the door. And then the people I worked for in the summer gave me an annual grant for the four years I was in college, in addition to my wages. I also learned how to be incredibly tight with a dollar, a skill which was very useful.

    I should add that all the scholarships I got in my freshman year vanished thereafter–the two local scholarships I was granted when I graduated from High School were for one year only, and the scholarship committee at my college decided, after the first year, that my parents made too much money (their income hadn’t changed, only the criteria apparently had).

    All this was an inadvertent lesson in the value of financial autonomy, because in any dispute over my education with my mother (who had a proprietary interest in what I was studying–in her mind I think I was finishing the degree she hadn’t had a chance to complete) when she said “We aren’t sending you to college to major in Theatre,” I could answer “That’s right. I’m sending me to college to major in Theatre.”

  86. Denmark has some of the highest income tax in the world (29% minimum, 52% max) in addition to 25% VAT tax of things. If we can live with that then we can have all that they have as well.

  87. My brother lives in Utah, but is a dual Canadian-US citizen. His son was offered a place in engineering at a good western college. With scholarships, his yearly costs would have been about $50k US. Because brother is a Canadian citizen, my nephew is going to a first rate engineering school in Ontario. Yearly costs – $25k Canadian. Probably better education at less that half the cost. Mind you, if he had applied as a foreign student, the costs would have been a lot higher.

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