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COMMENTARY: My Conversation With My Daughter About College Went A Little Like This...

Stay home now or come back later.

My daughter, Katie, and I went to college shopping two weeks ago and I found the experience exhilarating, terrifying and sad all at the same time.

We got in the car early on a Friday morning and drove to Whitewater. After two hours of being on campus Katie turned to me and said, “Mom, I can’t see myself here. It’s too much in the middle of nowhere. I’ll get bored.” Her nowhere, quite frankly seemed like a serene place to me, but I wasn’t going to argue with her. This trip wasn’t about me. “Let’s go to Milwaukee then, I know they have an open house today too.”

So back to the city we went.

And she loved it. She loved the fireside chat with the dean of letters and science, meeting the people from the biochemistry program, and that she ran into friends on campus. During lunch, we talked about how we were going to pay for it. And the conversation went something like this….

Katie: Noel, Rina and I want to live together on campus.

Me: So you’ve thought this through.

Katie: Yes, but don’t worry… they’ll help keep me focused.

Me: Do you know how much that costs?

Katie: A couple hundred a month?

Me: Try $1,000 a month at least.

Katie: Don’t you and dad have money for me for college?

Me: About enough to get you through the first year if you live on campus.

Katie: Look of disappointment.

She could get loans, grants or scholarships I explained, but quite frankly she needs to imagine what kind of life she wants for herself. You don’t have to know all of the details, but the more detailed and focused you can be the better. The reason being is that you’ll need to figure out what employers want and understand how that matches up to your interests and abilities. But the bottom line is: you need to understand the costs and how you can minimize those as much as possible. College is an investment in you, but it’s not going to mean anything if you can’t put that knowledge to work. Now you could start your own business or find a job, but you need to find a purpose for having that knowledge.

Do you want to be saddled by debt that you may not be able to afford if you can’t get a job right away?

Sure you can go away to college, live in a dorm with people you don’t know, do unspeakable things your mother will never know about, and come out of it with a diploma and $60,000 in debt. And you may have been extremely successful in your ability to learn those things. But if you take out loans and don’t get a job right away, you’ll still be responsible for paying for it.

Katie: How will I do that?

Me: You’ll have to move back home and work.

Katie: More disappointment.

I could tell I was bursting her bubble. But I don’t think I would be doing the right thing as a parent if I didn’t spell out the reality. 

When I went to school in Ohio, tuition was $2,500.  I paid for my entire first year of college with the money I had raised by selling my animals at auction for 4-H during our County Fair for six years. When I moved to Wisconsin and attended UW-Milwaukee, out-of-state tuition was $5,000. So, I made enough from my tutoring job to pay for about ½ of that, so I took a loan out for the rest. That number seemed daunting then, but there were still jobs.

The terrifying thing is, I know my kid is smart enough, and dedicated enough to finish college. But the fact remains, she can live at home while she’s in college and not have much debt to worry about or she can go away and have a lot of debt to worry about; all of that may be irrelevant if she can’t find a job.

But the sad part is: if she does nothing, she likely won't have a good paying job.

Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) November 07, 2011 at 06:36 PM
Bursting bubbles ... that really should be in the Parent Job Description. *sigh* But anyway - if the kid (any kid, not just yours) can figure out a way to come up with the money for living on campus so they get the full college experience, then they should go for it. For kids with high GPAs, good ACT scores and involvement in extracurricular activities, there are a lot of grant and scholarship opportunities out there, including from the college they choose. The kicker, of course, is that they have to actually seek them, fill out the application and submit the applicable materials to get the $$.
GearHead November 07, 2011 at 07:13 PM
Staying at home and working hard part-time meant I was indebted about $1800.00 after four years. Granted, that was in the fossil ages with tuition well under $1000 a semester. Paid it off over 3 years @ something like $72/month. Bringing this up because I think we do our kids a disservice by stuffing them into college if they can't benefit from it. (Not saying that you are doing that.) Grinded my beans back in the day when kids got either a parental or government free ride to a basket-weaving degree, or was it sociology? Thinking the modern day equivelant must be Journalism :P Because the quality of your average HS grad has declined, thus has the lack of a 4-year degree become even more of a barrier to opportunity. While we both can decry that, the answer may be to opt-out of that merry-go-round to nowhere, and focus on obtaining a marketable skill via the tech schools. Two years out to making some money, and getting a little bit of real life under your feet might be better than the aforementioned 4 years with crushing debt and no job prospect in sight. Just my .02
James R Hoffa November 07, 2011 at 08:50 PM
Hoffa loved UW-Whitewater! And it's one of the cheaper options out there within the UW system. She could also work full time during the week, part time on the weekends, and attend classes at night and on weekends just like Hoffa did, if she were really intent on living on campus and not wanting to go into debt. Otherwise, Hoffa recommends staying at home and minimizing your debt load as being the best option for long term financial stability and happiness. Keep up the great work mom, even if you continue to get the looks of disappointment, no matter how hard that may be :-)
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) November 07, 2011 at 09:34 PM
@GearHead - you make an excellent point! College is only for the student who has a clear path to career with marketable skills. As for the quality of our students, I am working on a commentary about this very thing and look forward to your thoughts. Crushing debt after college graduation without a job is also a good reason to look at getting general education requirements at a tech school. Same quality education for a fraction of the cost. Then, if appropriate, transfer to a 4-year.
James R Hoffa November 07, 2011 at 09:43 PM
UW-Waukesha is an often overlooked and excellent primarily two-year program school with fairly reasonable costs.
Denise Lockwood November 07, 2011 at 09:55 PM
Forgot to mention the additional disappointment from the kid when I mentioned that I just might go back with her and finish my masters degree... five more classes left, I said with a smile. Don't worry I told her, the science building is on the other side of the campus...
James R Hoffa November 07, 2011 at 09:59 PM
Big LOL on that one! :-)
Heather in Caledonia November 08, 2011 at 02:58 PM
I lived at home and went to Parkside. I worked part-time all of the 4 1/2 years I was there and had no debt. (My family agreed to pay basic tuition if I went to Parkside.) Living on campus and partying to get the "full college experience" didn't seem like something that would actually prepare me for Real Life. :)
Kathy Holley November 08, 2011 at 05:07 PM
My own student is a junior this year, feeling pressured about what to study and where. She's smart enough to have a lot of options available to her, but she's stressing because she really doesn't know what she wants to do and she doesn't want to screw it up. So why does she have to make these big decisions and go right out of high school? Sadly, that's the normal expectation. In other parts of the world, the "gap year" practice is more common, where students take a year to work and save up money, travel, engage in community service programs like Peace Corps/VISTA, and generally grow up and figure things out a little. It makes so much sense, yet the expectation is that our kids will go straight from high school to higher education, with virtually the entire college search/entrance process geared that way, along with a lot of scholarship programs. Sigh. It's tough to be a parent. Thanks for sharing, Denise. FWIW, I went to UW-Platteville, the first person in my family to attend a 4-year college. I started with a couple of scholarships and funding from my parents, then got part-time jobs and internships, always making just enough money in one semester to pay my bills for the next (tuition was $700 a semester then!). I worked really hard, took some summer school classes, and graduated in 3-1/2 years. Big differences in 33 years!
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) November 08, 2011 at 09:53 PM
@Heather - partying is a given, but not really part of Real Life. ;) No, I meant being on your own and learning to balance work and school with life, manage time, manage money and really discover who you are ... though @Kathy in the comment below makes an excellent point of the value of a gap year - so long as there are clear expectations for the student so you don't get stuck with a perpetual kid living at home!
Heather in Caledonia November 08, 2011 at 10:18 PM
I'm over 30 and still trying to discover who I really am. :) I've found that people who "take a year off" rarely go back to school. I think the high schools should really focus more on the students finding what they are good at and what they are interested in. Of course, right now, everyone is equally good at everything and everyone must learn everything, so kids don't have much of a clue by 12th grade.
Heather Rayne Geyer November 09, 2011 at 01:07 AM
My daughter is 7 and my step daughter is 11. I can try to remain in denial and try to convince myself that I have much more time to worry about this. But I know that time is moving far too quickly, so the dread is already kicking in. I cannot say if they will be college bound. But I can say that is what I hope for them. I hope they will be focused and motivated enough. Not only because I think it is wonderful to have as much knowledge as possible and so many jobs require it...but also because not going to college (traditionally - including the whole dorm life) is a huge regret of mine. I am 37 and I still am so disappointed with myself for not following that path and in my parents for not pushing me in any kind of direction. I do not want to live thru my children, but I dont want them feeling the kind of regret I do. Ugh, I need to go back into denial now. This hurts.
Lyle Ruble November 09, 2011 at 01:03 PM
My youngest of four is just finishing her fourth year at UW-M. All four have been responsible for coming up with ways to get their educations. Fortunately they all knew the courses of study and employment they wanted to pursue. Staying home for at the first two years makes sense. Removing the room and board burden allows for concentration on course work. Also, don't force a child into tech school or university unless they are emotionally mature enough to handle the self structuring required. A couple of years doing something else often makes the post secondary experience even more beneficial. Even when they are in school don't let them slide through without working at least part time. My own kids have worked part or full time all the way through. After graduation they had work histories and were able to successfully seek employment. The dorm experience is not all it's cracked up to be. Too many students fail because of the dorm experience because of the distractions.
Rees Roberts November 09, 2011 at 04:17 PM
The road taken is individual. Parents hopefully will provide the guidance their off spring need. But when it comes right down to it, it is your kid who will make their way. Hopefully, it won't be illegal or otherwise looked down at by society. There are so many options for people these days. That might be what intimidates them. As young people get older they will eventually figure it out. What I ask them is "what do you enjoy doing?" What do they gravitate to without even asking them? What hobbies do they enjoy? Those are clues. In my case I became a amateur radio operator at age 12. Because I knew others in Racine who were hams, one day when I was 18 I was asked if I wanted some part time work at WRJN. I knew right away what my answer would be. I loved it. And so started a 20+ year career. So, whatever they decide just support them. Guide them. Help them. Be there for them. It is, ultimately, their life. But they will enjoy having your words of wisdom even if they don't immediately admit it.

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