Why Sending Our Kids to College is Making Us All Stupid

The fun of paying for college.

The fun of paying for college.

The more kids I send to college and the more tuition I pay towards that effort, the dumber I am starting to feel.

I just don’t get it.

Let me preface this all by saying that I’ve just returned from a whirlwind 48 hours at the ginormous state school my third child will begin attending this summer, which required a total of eight hours of driving, sitting through about 10 hours of information sessions like “The Business of Being a Student” and “Student Health, Safety and Personal Responsibility” and the spending of many of hundreds of dollars on a hotel room for me, putting cash on a card she will use throughout the year to do her laundry and buy bags of chips late at night when she’s drunk and of course, swag at the bookstore so that everyone will know who we are when we’re driving around back at home (subtle reference to where the kid is going).

So I’ve already invested a ton of time, money and energy into this effort and we haven’t even stepped foot in Target yet to load up on sheets and towels and colorful stacks of drawers for her to store all the shit we’ll probably buy at Bed, Bath & Beyond and we haven’t even thought about all the textbooks she’s going to need for the actual learning part of college.

However, I understand that part. I get wanting to make your room cute and this third time around have a much better sense of what my kid really needs to survive her freshman year away from home. Like, what was I thinking about when I sent my oldest child – a boy – off with not only three sets of sheets but also an ironing board? The latter returned home in its wrapper and sits in my crawl space gathering dust.

But I came away from sitting through hours of PowerPoint presentations by various university officials scratching my head over two very big pieces of the college puzzle that don’t make a lick of sense:

Fucking FERPA

For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of sending a child off to college, let me be the first to tip you off to a very interesting phenomenon that you will be forced to contend with: FERPA or The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or, as I like to call it, bullshit.

This illogical law passed in 1974 puts students in control of what information their parents may or may not have access to, like grades or tuition bills. It’s been a pain in the ass over the years trying to wrestle information out of the other giant state university that my older two kids attend – like why their account’s been frozen – when you can’t find your child’s student ID# or gain access to their bills.

It’s the exact opposite of the way you’ve been operating for the kid’s first 18 years.

I tried to keep it in perspective at first, imagining that maybe more kids than not were financing their educations independent of their parents or bowing to the idea that, as legal adults, maybe it was time for 18 year olds to step up and manage their university accounts.

But now I know that that’s bullshit. I’m still the one troubleshooting frozen accounts and setting up budget tuition plans and now I am fairly certain that while kids might be contributing scholarship money or loans of their own to the college tuition kitties, most parents are up to their necks in home equity or other types of loans as well to foot the majority of the bill.

Navigating poorly-designed university websites to pay bills, and then the actual paying of said bills, is torture. Why, then, must we be forced to participate in the charade that imagines our children as active participants in this process and get them to authorize us to pay for all of it? It just seems like a waste of all of our time and energy.

Those tuitions are painful enough.

Which leads me to my second observation:

Who can afford all of this?

We were told during one session that focused on the financing of our incoming students’ educations that the tuition for the fall semester would not be set until the university’s board of trustees meets in July but to expect an increase. The woman standing up on the stage from the bursar’s office and fielding questions from parents said there’s pretty much always an increase, which was met with a lot of murmuring from the audience. I’m surprised no one started to boo or throw tomatoes at her.

I’ve never been really good at math and am sometimes challenged by even simple counting but somehow this doesn’t make sense to me. Like, okay, there are about 46,000 students on campus and while there’s a huge disparity between what in-state vs. out-of-state students pay for tuition, let’s say each one is paying about $20,000 annually. You guys, that means the university is raking in about $920 million. I know there are plenty of people who need to get paid and I saw first hand all the construction going on all over campus – was duly impressed when I walked by a couple of the new fancy science buildings – but do we really need to pay the univeristy president the anticipated $6 million he’s expected to receive over the next five years?

Talk about bullshit.

I really need someone to explain to me how much longer regular people are supposed to be able to afford these exorbitant tuitions. How much longer is it going to seem normal for parents to spend all the equity on their homes and kids to be loaded with an average $35,000 in debt all in the name of a college education?

In my spare time, I’ve been trying to get some work done around my house and have had a hard time finding workers to get the jobs done because they’re either too busy or too expensive. I mean, my kingdom for a mason who returns my call or is not booked through October or a pool company that doesn’t want to charge me $600 to open my pool.

“Fuck college,” I joked to my girlfriend the other day, “our kids should just learn a trade.”

It’s probably the smartest thing we could do for our kids.

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16 thoughts on “Why Sending Our Kids to College is Making Us All Stupid

  1. Oh, boy. This post touched a nerve. I’m so happy that a college parent finally wrote about this issue. I am a graduate from your alma mater(1989) and my daughter attends a private, exorbitantly expensive university, even with her scholarships and grants. To add to the list of puzzle pieces, here’s the worst one: 60- 75% of all college professors (emphasis on ALL) are adjuncts. When I was in college and grad school, I had no idea what ‘adjunct’ meant. Then I became one. Adjuncts are contingent workers who typically do not have contracts or benefits. They work for poverty level wages. For example, 2000 for a typical 15-week semester class. This translates to about 250 bucks every two weeks. If a professor teaches 4 classes a semester, which is a full-time load, he/she takes home about 1000 every 2 weeks. We grade for free (which is so much fun when the class is writing). Now take another look at the figure you mentioned above: 920 million per year. Where is the money going? On average, about 60% of every tuition dollar goes to sports programs (whether your student plays them or not), new facilities and features (the rock climbing walls and coffee bars as seen in the slick marketing materials), and to all the levels of administrative BS (the nine deans reporting to one vice president). To put this in perspective, the average custodian on a college campus makes 35-40 K a year. Adjuncts, those people who are teaching our kids (esp. if they are undergrads), are lucky to make about 20K a year. We drive to multiple campuses and work other jobs to carve out a living. The adjunct model is a huge money maker for colleges and universities. Think the Walmart model– oh, wait a minute — they pay better. In Colorado, we have tried and failed at legislation twice in the last year. Until college students and their parents (the consumers in this business model) figure out the majority of tuition dollars do not go to instructional costs, it will probably fail again. My friend Joe (Georgetown Univ). wrote a great article for PBS about this problem in higher ed: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/when-a-college-contracts-adjunctivitis-its-the-students-who-lose/

    In case the next question is why we do it, it’s because we absolutely love our/your students and believe in what we do. I know. Crazy.

    About FERPA, which is generally a big pain — You wouldn’t believe how many parents try to micromanage their sons’ and daughters’ educations. Last semester, a student’s dad got my cellphone number. He must have yelled at me for 5 minutes because I “gave” his son an F. He insisted his son missed one class (he missed 14) when his grandmother passed away. Because of FERPA, I was able to tell him I could only speak with his son, who happened to be sitting next to him. It took about 10 seconds to get the student to cave and confess everything to his dad, including the fact that he submitted 2 out of 5 essays. Other than this benefit, I completely agree with you. I pay the tuition bill, not my daughter.

    End of crazy-long comment. I love your blog; I read every post, and I should comment more to let you know how much better I feel after reading what you write.

    • Melinda … I got nervous when I saw your long comment but really appreciated all you had to tell us about the mysteries of high college tuitions and also the other side of the FERPA argument. I wish I was more on top of my kids’ college doings but I’ve got bigger fires to put out. But especially love knowing that you like the blog and are following along … xo

  2. I work at a college.
    I will speak to the FERPA.

    As was said at the College Orientation shows we attended (4 of them). You don’t need access, you need to have a relationship with your adult child. We have never had an issue with getting access because they respect us and we work together.

    In my role at the college, the helicoptering and grade-grubbing of parents is ridiculous. No, you cannot pick out your child’s classes or their major. No, you cannot know the grading policy of the course through me. I will not tell you if they handed in assignments or why they earned a C. They are adults. If they won’t tell you, stop paying for their car and their phone and their life. Maybe then they will grow up and go to class, pay their own bills, etc.

    As to the second, select a college where the president doesn’t earn seven figures. Oh, I forgot, you want to brag to your friends. Well, you get what you paid for.

    • Hey Susan thanks for chiming in and I totally agree with you. I guess there are helicoptering parents and maybe I’d be one too if I had my act together. I just need to pay my bills and such and get frustrated when I can’t access info because I don’t have my child’s ID# handy (please see earlier remark about my discombobulation). As for getting what you pay for, I struggle a lot with all that, too. Whether it’s all worth it in the end and of course there’s ego involved as well. Thanks again for reading and your thoughts.

  3. Short (er) comment: Even the presidents of community colleges make 6+ figures a year, so don’t feel too badly. They’re CEOs. It’s a national problem, unless you know the tricks (emancipating a minor, using that 1/8 of American Indian heritage, or “identifying” as a minority that gets the $$). I guess I got overly excited to see that you took this on. I know college parents who complain, but don’t care enough to voice their concerns to those who can affect change. They want the bragging rights and the sweatshirt more than the product they think they’re paying for. Most of us are tired and trying to pay the bills. I hope someday enough people push back in Taylor Swift vs. Apple ass-kicking style.

    • I am ALL for education, I’m just not sure the bigger the bill equals the better education. I think, in a nod to Frank Bruni, that you get out of it what you put into it. In the end we should be freaking out and revolting but instead, I’m trying to figure out how to pay for it all. Love your thoughts on this …

  4. As to FERPA, our kids know that if we don’t have access to their grades, they don’t have access to our pocketbook! We really aren’t helicoptering parents, but we have seen too many kids wash out in really dramatic ways before the parents even have a clue. (I wrote you about the kids whose parents didn’t know they weren’t going to graduate until right before graduation!)

    • I think I need to say that of course my kids give me access to everything, it’s just A: the notion that they have to and B: the annoyance when I come up against some FERPA roadblock when I’m trying to solve some tuition issue. And Alice, you’re tale sent chills down my tuition-paying spine … 😉

  5. Love your honesty. College costs are out the window. Having sent my oldest off last year to an out of state university (didn’t expect that one) I feel your pain. I also wonder if you’re 3rd child and my oldest are attending the same school. Is your drive south of you?

    • Isn’t it funny how sometimes we never see these things coming? My incoming freshman is going to Penn State’s main campus and the other two are a rising senior and graduate of Virginia Tech. As a New Jersey resident I’m wondering why I’m not pulling up stakes and relocating to one of those two states … 😉

  6. Pingback: The High Price I Paid to Get My Teen to Clean Her Room - Forked River Gazette

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