Monday, July 13, 2009

To Pay or Not to Pay

A very interesting piece came out today on Babble.

Essentially, the author (who has five children) says that she will not pay for her childrens' education largely because she knows she will not be able to afford it, but also because she believes in some kind of bootstrap mentality where children appreciate it more if they earn it.

After reading the piece I have a lot of thoughts. Probably the first is gratitude. Because honestly, it never even occurred to me that there WAS another option beyond paying for my kids' education. So just the opportunity to consider this has opened my eyes quite a bit. for instance, my friend A said that her parents made her and her brother pay for the first year and then they covered the rest. Seems like that offers the best of both worlds.

R paid for his own school (almost) entirely. I will not speak for him, but let's just say that his philosophy is that he wants his children to have what he did not. He wants to pay for their education entirely. It has been hard for him to start life with so much debt.

My parents paid for my school and then they paid for grad school. During the time, I will absolutely admit I was not grateful at all. All of my friends were in the same boat, so the idea that I would thank my dad for all the hours he logged that paid my 160k*** "little Ivy" education was preposterous. It is only now, a decade later, that I am grateful for what his generosity afforded me: a debt free start to my life, the room to explore my interests and find my niche without the burden of debt and yes, a massive sense of entitlement.

I could not be honest without admitting that I was and have been spoiled by my upbringing. It is good for me to open my eyes to other thoughts and listen. This is one of the reasons R and I are so good for eachother. He challenges my expectations.

All that said, I expect my kids to go to college. And then grad school. I expect them to be lawyers/doctors/PhD academics/successful writers, etc. I don't even think I realized how pushy/upper middle class my expectations were until today. The idea that they would do anything other than college/gradschool seemed insane. I can't say that I have been awakened and now hope they will learn a trade and skip college, but I am considering some of my expectations of a toddler and a baby and wondering if they are too pushy.

Could I have created the life I have and love--the job, the family--by bootstrapping it? Maybe. R certainly did. But where I have an idealistic, "our kids can major in whatever strikes their fancy b/c they will go to grad school anyway" philosophy, he is much more, "what can they do to maximize their earning potential?"

Two schools of thought, both equally valid.

I have no answers today. I will say I want kids who are grateful and know what they have, not spoiled like I was. But I also want children who feel they can do anything they want, attend Ivy League schools and not have the pressure of finances holding back their dreams and ambitions. In the end, I am not sure what to think, but I am grateful for the opportunity to ponder it. So, thanks Babble and Meagan Francis.


Andromeda said...

I've been thinking a lot about this article and the ensuing discussion too. When I saw your capsule summary, but before I'd read the article, I made some assumptions about the author's argument (I know, I know, bad me) that turned out to be wrong, and I realized it was because our experiences have given us a really different set of assumptions about college, so we read her argument in different ways.

When I saw your summary, I assumed her argument was "parents shouldn't have to contribute financially toward their children's education at all". And that's just a step too far for me. But I'm coming from a background where that was a point of view plenty of people had (and I hang out on an internet group for teenagers who need advice about college, and that problem comes up fairly often). The majority of my high school classmates didn't go to college; of those who did, the majority went to the state university in my hometown. It was a very, very small fraction of us who were applying to selective universities (including almost none of my friends); the guidance counselors couldn't help you if you wanted to go out of state; I had to figure it out myself.

And I was really lucky because my parents both worked for the aforementioned state university (a professor and administrator), both have PhDs, and both made it clear I could go wherever I wanted for college. Meanwhile my friends were staying in town for college because they'd never had any reason, culturally, to keep their grades up to the point where they could go anywhere else, or their parents thought all degrees were the same and so no reason to send them somewhere expensive, and I wanted to rip my hair out.

My hometown went too far in its direction. But the prep school world where I used to teach (and where my husband grew up), the affluent suburban world in general, goes too far in the other. It doesn't make sense to expect everyone to go to college; not everyone needs or wants it for happiness. It certainly doesn't make sense to expect everyone to go to the same thirty top-ranked schools without acknowledging what others can offer, or put so much pressure on teenagers to go there that they're shoving their schedules full of AP classes they're not interested in, and skimping on sleep, because they have to go to college but they don't know why, because they're just borne along by the weight of the cultural assumption and the shared panic over SAT scores. (I didn't even know you could study for SATs. What a strange revelation.) It doesn't make sense to expect everyone to go at 18 -- many would be better off with a year or two to gain perspective, figure out what they actually like doing outside of school, and use that newfound maturity to bend school in useful directions.

Andromeda said...

[heh, comment length limit!]

And it doesn't make sense to expect everyone to go to grad school, either. That's something else I see a lot of in that online community -- teenagers assuming they'll all go to grad school, I think chiefly because, one, school is all they know, and two, they are convinced that if *one* degree is good, *two* degrees must be better. You tell them that there are people with BAs who make more than people with MAs, or that having too many degrees can make you *over*qualified and unemployable for some positions, and they stare at you utterly blankly.

I think grad school is great. As I said, parents with PhDs, and I'm on my second go-round myself ;). But grad school's great if you like it, if you can finance it, and if you have a reason for being there -- some deep passion or career aim that can't be satisfied some other way. Those ifs really fail to hold for a lot of people. (The husband did one semester of grad school. It's not for him. I expect he'll always make lots more than I do, and he has a much clearer career arc.) I worry that graduate degrees will get progressively devalued, as more kids feel pressure to get them -- that we'll be seeing them as requirements for jobs that don't need them, the way these days BAs are required for jobs that don't need them. That there will be programs with no real rigor or purpose springing up to take money from people who feel they have to go to grad school. That it will be yet. another. way. for people who are already wealthy and privileged to erect barriers against people who are not, to keep their class position to themselves.

Looking into my crystal ball 20 years down the line, yeah, I think odds are V will go to college, and then grad school. Her father is, frankly, in the minority (in both our families) having *not* earned a grad degree. We're weird that way. But it's "expectation" not in the sense of "demand" but of "probability"; she seems to have inherited the sort of intense and systematic thought that predisposes people to spend a lot of time in school. I think my position here is to support her emotionally (always), financially for most (...but maybe not all) of college costs and none of grad school (which I view as a career investment, something where the student bears both risks and rewards), and to help her not be swept away in the status-focused, college-going hysteria likely to obtain in the private schools she's likely to attend. A college-focused culture has a lot of advantages I didn't growing up, and I think on the whole is a better thing, but it has some cruel drawbacks which I find frankly baffling, from my outside perspective.

halloweenlover said...

Josh and I have this conversation all the time because I'd love to have 3-4 kids and he panics over the cost of college, to which I say we don't HAVE to pay for their entire college tuition. I would like to contribute as much as I can, and I will strive to do so, but I refuse to make myself crazy to make sure their tuitions are 100% paid. My parents didn't pay for my undergrad, but I ended up getting a full-ride at a private university (lucky, I know). I took out massive loans for law school, and it has been fine. Not ideal, but fine.

I had a friend from Iowa who blew my mind years ago with the whole "your kids might not want to go to college" thing. I was thrown at the time, because OF COURSE they will go to college, but I understand now that there is always a possibility they will want to do something else. I will say, though, I am on the bandwagon with your dad and I won't continue to support them if they don't (a) go to school or (b) get a job. No free rides around here.

On the happiness thing, I've made buttloads of money and been beyond miserable. Now we are on the lower end of the financial spectrum and I've never been happier. No amount of money can buy enough prozac to make me go back to a law firm, so I wonder what you would really do if faced with the choice between financial stability and happiness. I think you might be surprised.