Trust falls off the ivory tower

In September, the day I put my youngest son on the bus for his first day of kindergarten, I made my last student loan payment. I don’t know which was more bittersweet, choking back diesel-infused tears as the bus lurched down the street, or wondering, as I wrote out my last payment at the age of 42, whether diverting that cash into my IRA each month would make up for the years I paid for childcare for two, leaving nothing to sock away for retirement.

I was trying to decide what would better serve as balm for my flight of self-pity, a nap or another pot of coffee, when I was interrupted by one more unpleasant thought: My older boy was starting third grade, leaving us less than 10 years to do something about the fact that his college fund contains $850. (Still think you’re a bigger loser than me? That’s less than we put in when we opened it.)

In most stories, this would be the paragraph where I’d stop my whining and tell you whether my higher education — a B.A. at a private liberal arts college and an M.A. at a large, ranked public university — has paid off, and what impact that has had on my planning for my own darlings. I can conjure any number of points to put to that essay: That the lifelong love of critical inquiry nurtured on both campuses propelled me into a satisfying writing career; that I’m so sick of making repairs to 15-year-old cars I wish I had taken the LSAT; or even just that — insert narration of ups and downs here — I’m at peace with the basic bargain.

The truth is I’m deeply ambivalent about it, and even more conflicted about the notion of preparing for my sons’ future studies. They’re bright boys, likely to do well despite their parents’ inability to provision them with trust funds. But theirs is an era of heart-stopping tuition costs and an ever-widening chasm between the rich and the rest of us. In countless ways, it’s hard not to think that for them, the stakes really, truly are higher.

It’s become a truism among Americans that admission to The Right College is Junior’s ticket to security. But the wage-slaves among have to ask: At what price? It took me 20 years to pay my $17,000 in loans. With the cost of a B.A. at our local liberal arts schools approaching (and in the cases of

Macalester and Carleton, exceeding) $40,000 a year, will their loans leave them too strapped for even the modest choices I’ve made? With a debt-load the size of my mortgage on their graduation days, will there be another writer in the family or will the jokes about my gifted wheedler, my oldest child, as corporate raider grow serious?

No, no magic bullets here. And if we don’t get off the topic of my investment habits soon, you won’t find even as much optimism as I actually feel. Rather, I offer you solace in the form of two slim paperbacks about the college experience in millennial America. Everybody, it seems, can be okay, even if we have to drop back and give up the notion of college as (mostly) a time of self-discovery.

By Syracuse University Professor of Public Affairs Bill Coplin, 25 Ways to Make College Pay Off: Advice for Anxious Parents from a Professor Who’s Seen It All is an accessible, pragmatic look at what parents and kids alike should hope to get from college. The overall shared goal, he advocates, is to make sure your student develops skills, builds character, and explores careers while in school. An Ivy League sheepskin may come with connections, he admits, but for most of us, concentrating on those three things will go a long way toward producing a graduate with the attributes most sought by today’s employers and one with the self-knowledge to recognize the best opportunities and wring the best from them.

Coplin’s not suggesting you nurture the careerist in your student. Rather, it’s his opinion that every student should make friends with the university’s career services office upon matriculation and should take full advantage of the aptitude, skills, and personality tests offered, as well as the career path counseling to start looking for skill-building jobs and internships right away. (This is exactly what a St. Cloud State University survey of Minnesota businesses released in September found employers wish students would do, by the way.)

The book is a font of good, reassuring suggestions — not least in the chapters about how to be your kid’s partner without being a helicopter parent and on applying for admissions. Why not give up the competition to get into Name Brand U, for instance, and focus instead on treating the application process as a learning opportunity, and a chance to reflect on the idea that what Brainella does with her college education is more important that where she chooses to go?

You think Coplin has sucked all of the romance out of university days? Then you haven’t spent much time as a student at a modern American college. In My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, anthropology professor Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym) took a sabbatical, enrolled in her own institution and moved into a dorm. Her aim was to learn such things as why so few of her students did the assigned reading for her classes, why attendance was so spotty, and how Kids Today ended up so much more focused on her grading curves than on putting their best foot forward.

Of course, she got her tuchus kicked. Her classmates (who miraculously fail to question her age and the overwrought research protocols she insists upon detailing in the book) were completely stressed out by the multiplicity of choices available to them in terms of classes and majors and clubs and the implied possibility of picking the wrong course of action. They were masters at packing too much homework into too few hours because most worked too much and building social networks buzzing with intel on which teachers, assignments, and extracurriculars were part of the successful juggling act. (Cheating, apparently, is rampant.)

Just as interesting, Nathan debunks the myth of college as madcap social ballyhoo (Can I say “endless kegger” in a nice family magazine like this?), noting the same overabundance of choices in living and meal arrangements means most students pursue either a path all their own, or one shared by a very few kindred spirits.

That earlier lament about critical inquiry, four years to do nothing but ponder the big ideas, etc.? Not at the pseudonymous AnyU, apparently. “Despite official assertions about the university as a free marketplace of ideas, the classroom doesn’t often work that way in practice,” Nathan writes. “Ideas are rarely debated and even more rarely evaluated.”

Kids these days, you’re thinking? Not so fast. While Nathan went into her freshman year with a trove of professorial judgment about her students’ obsession with getting by, she came to see their attitudes as downright pragmatic in light of the university’s increasing focus on fundraising and on wooing “full-fee” students to “well-paying” fields like business administration and health administration. The kids, it seems, are just gaming the system we gave them.

Who knows? A generation from now when my kids are in college, maybe self-discovery, critical thinking skills, and debate, and an old-fashioned insistence on believing that profit will follow passion might just be de rigueur for any self-respecting anti-establishment college rabble rouser. There are no guarantees, of course, but me — I have a decade of bus stop chitchat in which to plant a few seeds.

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.

In this article
25 Ways to Make College Pay Off: Advice for Anxious Parents from a Professor Who’s Seen It All
Bill Coplin
AMACOM, 2007, $14.95

My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student
Rebekah Nathan
Penguin, 2005, $14