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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