Monica Yant Kinney: College: Indispensable and indistinguishable

Posted: April 18, 2012

Nearly a decade ago, in his fearless standup act, comedian Chris Rock declared that a father's success can be measured by his ability to "keep your son off the pipe and your daughter off the pole." The bit still gets laughs, but today's recession-weary parents are probably more terrified of keeping their children out of debt.

If you're following The Inquirer's sobering series on the plight of millennials - aptly subtitled, "The Broken Dreams of a New Generation" - you already know that people 18 to 34 suffer the highest rates of unemployment in the nation.

Even those earning a paycheck are far from finding their bliss. As my colleagues revealed, there are 80,000 bartenders in America with bachelor's degrees and at least one Harvard-educated toilet scrubber: East Falls intellectual Benjamin Landau-Beispiel, whose $200,000 diploma bought him a part-time gig as a custodian.

Suddenly, a college degree seems both indispensable and indistinguishable, a document acquired at great sacrifice and cost but one that has never felt more worthless.

Tuition rates tripled in the last decade amid cuts in state funding to public universities and spending sprees on large and small campuses dressing to impress. As a result, students borrow more than ever and graduate saddled with the most debt in U.S. history.

Pennsylvania grads must repay an average $28,000 in student loans, the fifth-highest debt in the country. One Penn State alum featured in the series left with two degrees and $80,000 in IOUs.

The gift of freedom

They didn't wrap it up and label it, but my parents gave me what college experts call "the gift of freedom," the priceless ability to enter adulthood without the crushing burden of student debt.

The University of Notre Dame cost $20,000 a year back then. I won scholarships and got a campus job, but somehow my folks - a teacher and secretary - managed to cover the bulk of the bill. The modest loans they took to anoint me my family's first female college graduate were promptly repaid. Now in their late 60s, my parents have retired in comfort.

My husband and I earn and save more than they did, but are under no illusions that we're doing enough. As for retirement? We can't imagine ever not working.

Since we are dual alums, Notre Dame might be the one school on the planet where our son and daughter have even a slight competitive edge. Based on projections, packing both kids off to South Bend 10 years from now will cost more than $1 million - if they get in.

"Demand and selectivity have risen so high," notes Barmak Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, "that most of us today couldn't get into the schools we went to." Even if we did, he adds, "we couldn't pay for them."

Cheaper not better?

I ask Nassirian to rate the value of costly private colleges vs. still-high, but comparatively affordable, public universities.

"Don't assume that cheaper is always better," he cautions, "because in many cases, the most expensive schools are the ones subsidizing the most students."

To further confuse me, he says small liberal-arts schools that can't offer generous grants often possess one parent-friendly trait:

"They do a significantly better job of graduating people on time."

Still, I share my theory that in these astronomically expensive and uncertain times, financially clueless 18-year-olds who've fallen in love with an idyllic campus shouldn't be given the power to take on college debt they may live to regret.

Nassirian agrees that many parents imprudently let young people "pick the place and then assume there must be a way to make it happen." A surer approach, he suggests, is talking frankly as a family about "how much realistically you can contribute to defray the cost" before applying to a mix of dream schools and bargain institutions.

Posh dorms, football stadiums, and gourmet caf├ęs will always wow impressionable teenagers. But campus amenities quickly lose their luster when broke alums can't repay their loans.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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