Essay

Our children’s college educations are their inheritance

Under the Clock
Pentax KM, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax, Kodak T-Max 400, 2018

My younger son, Garrett, started his final semester of college yesterday and is on track to graduate with a Computer Science degree. That means I’ve written the last tuition check for my sons, and an era ends. My older son, Damion, graduated two years ago, is now gainfully employed in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and lives independently. Garrett looks forward to his first post-college job and apartment.

Both of my boys are bright and capable, but not enough to get into elite schools. Even if they had gotten in, their mom and I make too much money for them to get financial aid, but not nearly enough to pay their whole bill ourselves. They would have graduated with crushing debt.

Instead, Damion went to Purdue, which is one of the great bargains in education. They have held costs flat for nine years! They had a program Damion wanted, and through it he got his degree in environmental science. Garrett was afraid giant Purdue would be overwhelming, despite its well-regarded CS program. He believed that he’d navigate a small school successfully, so he found the University of Indianapolis, a private school with a foundling CS program. (He now realizes he could have handled Purdue, and believes his education there would have been more rigorous, but hindsight is always 20/20.) UIndy gave generous scholarships to attract students to the CS program, bringing the cost in line with Purdue. Their mom and I were able to cover our older son’s entire first year but after that we needed both of them to take the federal loan offered each year. We paid the rest.

Garrett will be $20,000 in debt upon graduation, and Damion is paying off $15,000 in debt. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than the $12,500 I had to pay off after graduating in 1989. I managed that debt just fine, even on my meager starting salary. Damion is managing on his salary, and I expect Garrett to do the same.

I’m pleased that they came out of school with minimal debt. Many of the twentysomethings I work with who went to expensive schools are paying off debt in the six figures. I remember one young man in particular who graduated from my alma mater $200,000 in the hole! He would have liked to work at a startup, but he needed the higher pay of an established company to afford his loan payment. My sons’ manageable debt gives them freedom that my young colleague lacks.

These were prime years for Margaret and I to save for retirement. Unfortunately, that money went to colleges instead, and we need to catch up on retirement. We probably won’t retire as comfortably because we chose to carry so much of our kids’ college costs. I told my sons not to expect there to be any money left when I die — I gave them their inheritance by paying the majority of their educations.

We have one more in college, my wife’s youngest. He’s mighty bright — he graduated high school in three years. But then he realized he had no idea what he wanted to study and took a gap year. We live in a surprisingly wealthy suburb and most of his friends’ parents could afford the elite schools they all went to. We are not surprisingly wealthy and as our son looked at elite schools he was shocked by the debt he would need to incur. He pivoted entirely and enrolled at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. This is a joint effort of those two state schools, located Downtown in Indianapolis. It’s a jaw-dropping bargain with tuition at about $5,000 a semester. He saves a ton more money by living with us, rather than on campus. He is studying neuroscience, a course of study that leads to grad school. His research tells him that his undergrad choice matters far less than his postgrad choices. Through his program at IUPUI he will receive his degree from Indiana University. While IU isn’t an elite school, it’s also not a third-tier school or a community college. Degree in hand, he’ll compete for as good a grad school as he can manage.

I applaud all our kids’ choices. They all have or will have educations that set them up for reasonable success. Not elite success, but then, they never had to face the pressure of elite competition. They’ve had balanced lives and I expect that will continue.

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26 thoughts on “Our children’s college educations are their inheritance

  1. You describe a situation familiar to me, as my children each came out with modest debt from a State University. I do not understand how private universities will exist in any numbers in another generation on the course they and the population are currently on.

    I have become quite jaded over how college, health care/insurance and late-life nursing care have combined to suck up wealth of the middle class on a massive scale, wealth that cannot be passed along to the next generation.

    • It’s only in the last few years that I became aware of the idea of generational wealth. My upbringing was blue collar enough that as a kid I never expected to receive anything from my parents when they passed — indeed, I expected that I would always have to make my own way. That mindset strongly informed my parenting.

      But it’s true: college expenses have put Margaret and I saving for our retirement. And if Margaret and I are able to catch up enough to have an okay retirement, all it will take is one of us becoming seriously ill to sap our savings. And if that doesn’t happen, when we need assisted living that will take all we have and nothing will be left.

  2. DougD says:

    That must be very gratifying. September will be our first year of writing two tuition cheques.

    All Canadian Universities are state schools, so if students are so inclined to go to an elite school they go to the UK or USA. I graduated from a lower tier school, but managed to start a career as did my classmates (some of whom were punted from more prestigious schools before landing in my program).

    I graduated with debt to my parents. I forget how much but as I paid it off they gave it to my younger brother for his spending money, which was not gratifying. After a few years I had accumulated some funds which turned out to be the amount required to pay off my wife’s student debt. So at least we started our lives together with zero, not negative!

    • I went to an elite school. Not an Ivy, not MIT, but one of the best regarded engineering schools in the nation. It was wicked expensive. It’s outrageously expensive now — about a quarter million dollars out the door after four years.

      But I work alongside engineers from all sorts of schools and — guess what — there are good and not-so-good ones from all the schools.

      I’m quite sure it didn’t feel good when your loan payback went to your brother for spending money. :-(

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    It’s quite a feat for your kids to get out of college at sub-20K! I had people working for me at my last management gig in Indy, making 24K a year and owing 170K! The “average” was about 80K! Unbelievable.

    I have two nephews basically on the same track, one’s out of college and owes 18K, the other may owe less when he leaves; both went to the UW system, and were able to get through on some money from my brother, some money from them working summers, and part time during the school year, and grants based on their academic performance. One’s always been a bright kid, the other a terrible student in high-school, but took a year off between high-school and college to think about things: he came back strong!

    When I went to college in the mid-70’s, the U of Wisconsin was $267.00 a semester.. I worked full time summers and part time winters in a photo-studio to make money, but minimum wage was something like 2 bucks an hour! The factories in Milwaukee were still going great guns, and many of my pals who had connections like Dad’s working in factories, got “summer replacement” positions. The unions mandated that they had to be paid union wages, so most people I know who did this, over 8 weeks, made all their college costs, fees, books, transportation to college fees, and “fun” money! They left not owing a dime!

    Why was college so cheap? The government funded part of it. As a nation, we believed that the world could only get better with education! Defunding of colleges started with Ronald Reagan…’nuff said…

    • We need to return to government funding state schools, full stop. The situation we’re in now is ridiculous and is part of what is shrinking the middle class.

  4. We too have been down this route! I graduated from IU School of Nursing on a Pell Grant and my husband graduated from Purdue with ROTC scholarship and then 24 years of military service……Thought he’d stay only four……Our children all graduated from IU and we paid for it…..our only stipulation was they must be able to make a living in whatever field they chose, because there would be no more money down the road to support them……Now are grandchildren have also graduated from IU and we paid for that too, same stipulation. And both are enrolled in Grad school, one at Vanderbilt School of Medicine…..we are paying for that too. Education we feel is the one thing you can give your children and grandchildren that will never be wasted. There will be no inheritance for any of them, they have received the best….and I am spending every dime that I have left!

    • I told my sons I would not pay for their college unless they majored in something that led to solid employment. In retrospect that was probably a little too strong. Your approach was better!

  5. tbm3fan says:

    Tuition is scary and out of control. Granted I went to SDSU in 1971 and while there only paid $89/semester for the entire time of five years. I could pay it myself via my job with no problem. My professional school, at UC Berkeley, cost me $250/quarter, for four years. Had work study with one of the research professors and so I got out with only a $4000 loan in 1981.

  6. We have been able to get our kids through as well. Two of them without any debt at all, so that has been a blessing for us (and them). I do know that student debt is crushing a lot of young people right now.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        The smartest person I ever worked with in senior corporate management, told me her Dad told her he was paying totally for her education, and she had one job only: to work diligently at school for the highest grades possible. She was NOT to work part time during the school year, and could only work about 4-6 weeks in the summer. Her “job” was her education, and if she had spare time, she was to work on extra assignments.

        Most of us don’t have a parent that can do that for us, but it must have worked because she was brilliant and went on the be a VP someplace. I remember my college struggling through, getting home from after school work at 11pm on the bus, and staying up until 3 in the morning doing homework, and catching a few hours sleep before starting it all over. I did not score high on that schedule, and was lucky to make it through!

  7. Victor Villaseñor says:

    Parenting goals right there!

    Not the last tuition check, but the balanced life and (mostly) freedom after college for your kids.

    Final sprint Garrett! Eyes on the goal!

  8. Interesting to read the responses here. I had an undergraduate scholarship but my graduate school education ($60k) was 100% student loans.

    My children knew that we had no college fund. They’ve never had a summer job. School was the job. Both have tuition scholarships, one at 50%, and the other at 100% which the school lowered to 80% because of COVID. Student loans will have to cover the rest. The elder child graduates in May and wants graduate school but she’ll have to pay her own way.

    It’s true that undergrad choice matters far less than postgrad choices. No employer ever asks where I did my undergraduate studies. I think the third child made a brilliant pivot.

    • We didn’t have our kids work through high school. Working during the school year in college was up to them. Both sometimes took jobs but didn’t work consistently. We did insist on summer jobs during the college years, however.

      None of our kids was going to get significant scholarships — they weren’t geniuses, and they weren’t athletic. I have always wanted to make sure, for the ones who were college bound, that they exited college with minimal debt. If I’d had college-age kids in the early 80s rather than now I would have gone a different way, as it was possible then to pay your own way as a student at a state school. A low-debt young adulthood opens up so many possibilities.

  9. Darts and Letters says:

    “They’ve had balanced lives…..” that part at the end of your essay really resonated for me. I really appreciate that insight, it’s a good one. Both of our boys attend a big city public school system mired in woes with student achievement and equity and with my oldest getting close to high school (fortunately the high school in our reference area is a good one), I think a lot about what we can do to give him access to other opportunities and help him do well in school, how hard we should push him on studying or extracurricular things to make up for going to a so-so school. we’re lucky he’s an A student and just a bright kid in general. I’ve wondered if we are doing enough. But I want to be careful and make sure our boys embrace learning for its own sake and not just to make good marks. I don’t want to obsess about what college they go to, like many parents do. That’s been well documented the past year because of some of the college entrance scandals that I think it’s really crazy.

    Love hearing about the paths your boys took, it’s so interesting and instructive. Like Damion, I’m a Big Ten grad (pac ten, too) but with the distance of getting older I always really regretted my choice of a huge state school when I had no real specific academic plan, I’d do things a lot differently. I did fine academically (met the boys’ mother there, that probably had the biggest impact on my life) but when I look back I realize how ridiculous the institution is, a virtual factory really not truly meeting the needs or expanding, captivating the minds of so many thousands of its students who aren’t getting what they bargained for. Depending on certain problems you might study in the costs of higher ed are just profanely wrong. Anyway, sorry to ramble on. Thanks for the thoughts you shared above, Jim.

    • Now that I’ve been through it, I have this perspective: that if your kid is truly elite in something, anything, then go to every length to get them into the best school possible for whatever they’re elite in. But: (a) most kids aren’t elite, probably including yours (and definitely mine), (b) the cost of college outweighs its value, and (c) paradoxically, that college credential is still the best way to a life of means — not necessarily fabulous wealth, but a life where you don’t always have to worry about wolves at the door. So: help them find a college situation that balances offering a program that they want, that they can successfully complete, at a cost that leaves them with the least debt possible.

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