So here I am in a place that, honestly, I never really thought about when I started a family. I am just a few years away from the "great college hunt" for Son #1. In the part of Burbania in which I live, it is an annual rite of passage for children--sometimes starting in their Sophomore year--to collect viewbooks, burnish their talking points and go out on the "college tour." Ultimately this leads to a personal existential crisis and--finally--selection of the "perfect place" to spend the next four (or more) years.
The problem is that I have no realistic way of paying for this. I don't mean in the sense of the boys not being able to go to the "schools of their choice". I mean that I cannot afford any school. Period. Also, I do not see that situation changing in the near future. My wife and I chose professions that help people. The financial rewards are, therefore, somewhat limited.
One can ignore many of the issues around this odd distribution of wealth. Our work is fulfilling, after all, and renting isn't all that bad. However, in the case of college, it is a problem. The question isn't whether we will go into debt but how much debt we are willing to take on. There are three of the little dears, so we must ration--carefully--the family resources. Perhaps they will live at home and study at one of the local state universities. Perhaps they (and we) will have to take on more jobs to make it work. I don't know. It is an open question.
I also wonder how long we Burbanians are going to let this situation last. I am well aware of how much better off my family is than most people are. If we cannot afford the escalating tuition, how will other people? Who is going to all these schools? Is everyone going into debt for fear that their child is one step closer to homelessness without a degree from Bates?
There is a sense from the media and from parents that there is nothing we can do. According to common wisdom, college is necessary and, therefore, we must sacrifice what financial security we might have for the sake of our children. Still, as tuition and fees increase, shouldn't there be a moment when we decide that Harvard is just one big scam? There has to be a better way to gain the knowledge that college ostensibly provides. These institutions may be pricing themselves into irrelevance.
I am serious here. If tuition increases and becomes (increasingly) an exclusive club for those who can afford exclusive clubs, there will come a time when the rest of us find other options. For example, why can't my children "homeschool" their undergraduate experience? We are, as I have mentioned in other posts, members of the Boston Athenaeum, a private library with collections primarily focused in the arts and humanities. My kids are bright. They can do their own research. Also, "a la carte" college courses taken as necessary could fill in gaps. Even with occasional courses, membership in a library, and other costs, the expense would be much less and the education at least as good for a motivated student.
People in my generation (that would be GenX) graduated with mountains of debt. It isn't at all clear that it was worth it. Now another generation is learning the same thing. What are the chances that smart people are going to repeat the mistakes of the past? Wait...don't answer that.
What I meant to say was that it only takes a few people to change the way we think about higher education. All it takes is enough people to think outside the box to create a new paradigm in learning. The argument that one has to go to college to be an intellectual has always been a weak one. The argument that a piece of paper from a large institution qualifies you for gainful employment may be weaker than we thought as well. Programs of self-education have the potential to create curious life-long learners. Perhaps some of our children will give it a try...