HETRICK: Parental responsibility and the high cost of higher ed

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Bruce Hetrick
Twenty-five years ago, on the day my wife Laura told me we were going to have twins, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.

While I knew the daddy part might be delightful, I pictured myself in a deep hole staring up at 22 years of houses, furniture, food, clothing, medical care, playpens, playthings, strollers, tricycles, bicycles, cars, insurance, equipment, lessons and more.

Overshadowing it all: two concurrent college educations.

Oh, how the bankers, brokers, teachers, counselors, relatives and neighbors lamented the looming cost of college.

Oh, the frightful forecasts of educational inflation far in excess of the Consumer Price Index.

Oh, the sermons shouting “save, save, save” and “save, save, save some more.”

So we started saving.

When Laura and I divorced and each got remarried, the boys’ stepmom (my second wife, Pam) and I started saving even more.

When it appeared that working for others might not cut it, I started my own business in hopes of increasing our saving power.

We drove our cars until they died, avoided lavish purchases, and otherwise played it fiscally safe.

Why the obsession? Well, I’d helped bring Austin and Zach into this world, and having done so, I felt obligated to see them through to adulthood to the best of my ability.

In my mind, that responsibility included financing as much college education as they were capable of achieving, and it was evident early on that they were capable of achieving a lot.

By the time Austin and Zach were high school freshmen, Pam and I knew our savings obsession was likely to succeed. So we sat the guys down, told them they could go to college wherever they wanted to go, and challenged them to do their best at whatever inspired them.

All four of Austin’s and Zach’s parents asked, in return, that the boys work hard in school, learn well, and earn scholarships and advanced placement credits if they could. That would be their contribution.

A few years later, just before she died, Pam added fuel to the educational fire. She asked that gifts in her memory go either to a scholarship fund at her alma mater or to a college book fund for Austin and Zach.

The outcome of our collective commitment:

Zach, our photographer, got himself apprenticed to a professional shooter while still in high school. He began freelancing to buy and upgrade equipment. His talent, academics and business acumen got him first into a West Coast photo school, then into Indiana University. Zach became a full-time professional after his sophomore year and continues his collegiate studies part time.

Austin, our writer, completed his freshman year at NYU, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated last year. This fall, he’ll begin a doctorate fellowship in English at the University of Virginia.

While both sons have worked to pay their personal expenses, neither has paid for tuition, room, board, books or fees. Neither has had to borrow a dime.

The New York Times recently ran a story called “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College.”

It said the outstanding college debt in the United States now tops $1 trillion.

It said 94 percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow to pay for it, up from 45 percent in 1993.

It said, “for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000.”

My only surprise is that anyone finds this surprising. All those who began harping on me about rising college costs back in 1988 have every right to say: “We told you so.”

What’s more, with Congress slicing Pell grants, reducing university research funds, and threatening to raise interest rates on student loans; with financial markets hindering many scholarship-fund payouts; and with state officials axing higher-education support, it’s no wonder parents and students have to borrow more.

But even though the College Savings Foundation says, “Every dollar saved in advance significantly reduces the cost of college if paid by debt,” too few parents are saving at all or saving enough.

Sure, I’d love to see more individual donors, foundations and government agencies invest in higher education. Yes, I’d love to see colleges better control costs. Certainly, I understand that many families have limited earning and saving power.

But I’m old-fashioned on this one: The party most responsible for footing the college bill is not government, not the university, not society and not students themselves. It’s parents who choose to bring children into the world.

Whether your child opts for trade school or grad school, higher education pays handsome dividends. But the only way to reap college benefits is to sew college seeds. Parents need to do the planting.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my sermon is this: Save, save, save and save, save, save some more.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

  • Uhhh, dude
    There is so much wrong with this article I don't know where to start. When bankers approached educators and explained to them that by creating a generation of indentured servants that they could greatly increase profits, they became responsible. Government, whose role is oversight, turned a blind eye. That makes them responsible. Dolt parents who give their kids everything they ask for played along. That makes them responsible.

    The sad truth is that today's college education is no better than my generation's high school education. Watered down standards have created enormous profits for universities, most of whom continue to build new buildings even now as the rest of us have cut back. Feeding such a system is insanity.

    I have better advice. About the time little Johnny and Janie enter eighth grade, start thinking about getting somebody else to pay for their college educations if that's what you want for them. Tell them to study hard, identify in state alternatives that are more affordable and then shoot for scholoarships. If the kids work hard through high school (which isn't very tough in this day and age), they'll probably get every last dime of their college education paid for. If they don't, then college probably isn't for them.

    It's okay not to go to college provided you have a plan. Maybe they can be an entrepreneur. Maybe they can be a tradesperson. I think that as the economic downturn morphs into a full blown depression, demand for plumbers, electricians and others who can fix what breaks will skyrocket.

    More than anything else, parents should recognize their kids and believe in them. To go to college to earn more money is lame. The world is full of miserable college grads. Dare to be different. Dare to be better. Have a little courage. Make something of yourself. Work hard. Kick butt. You don't need college for any of that.

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