My older son Damion graduates from college on Sunday. I’m sad to admit that I’m primarily relieved that I no longer have to write big tuition checks. These college years have been financially stressful! One graduate down, two more to go (in 2021 and 2022).
Still, I’m happy for my son, and deeply pleased with his accomplishment. I might even shed a tear on graduation day.
He made it through in four years with relatively light student-loan debt, no small feat these days. He hasn’t lined up a job yet, but he’s working on it. It will come. And then his adult life begins.
I remember when mine began — and how challenging I found the adjustment. I think many of us experience this. I’d run out of things to graduate from and had to find my way. It was bewildering.
So I aped what I saw my parents do: make routines and systems out of everything I could.
I organized my life around my job. It’s what my dad always did. He worked from 7 to 3:30 in the factory, and by God he made sure he was at work not just on time but early and ready to work hard. I didn’t have to be to work until 8, so I adjusted my timing accordingly, but otherwise I followed his pattern. I went to bed every night by 11 and rose at 6. I showered and dressed, and then went into the kitchen where I turned on the radio and made eggs and toast. I read the newspaper over breakfast until it was time to go. I got to my desk by 7:45 most days. When I got home, I made a simple dinner and watched the nightly news. I did simple chores around the house or ran routine errands, and when that was done I watched TV until bedtime.
I set aside Thursday evening to go to the laundromat and afterward iron my dress shirts, and Monday evening to shop for groceries and supplies.
I adapted my mom’s system for not running out of items at home. Every week I put a fresh sticky note on a kitchen cabinet and another on the bathroom medicine chest. As I got close to running out of items I’d write them down on the nearest sticky note. Then on shopping day I’d transfer those items to my shopping list and set out fresh sticky notes. For critical items like toilet paper I always kept a spare in the closet. It cut way back on emergency trips to the store. Whenever I needed to use one of my spares it went onto the nearest sticky note so I could get a new spare on my next shopping trip.
I paid my bills on Saturday morning. As they came in the mail I’d stack them on a table next to my desk. On Saturday I’d figure out which ones were due soonest and pay the ones I had money for. The rest went back onto the stack. I didn’t make very much money. but there was enough to pay for everything if I timed it all right.
Those were my normal routines and systems, but I could shift them around when adventure came my way. For a while I had a Thursday-night airshift at my alma mater’s radio station. Sometimes a friend would call and want to go get a beer. Every now and again I had to work late. Sometimes I went away for the weekend. I kept enough of everything on hand so that if I needed to, I could move laundry or shopping a night or two and be all right. My Saturday bill-paying routine could always be done the preceding Friday over breakfast.
My routines and systems provided structure and resiliency to my life. I always had clean clothes, so I never had to worry about what I was going to wear to work. I always had food in the house, so I never had to spend big money on a meal out (unless I wanted to) or go hungry. My bills were always paid, so nothing ever went past due and collection agencies never called.
My routines and systems let me live a pretty good life. I was able to focus on my job and enjoying my free time.
I still keep these routines and systems, except today shopping is Sunday after church and laundry is Saturday morning. I still pay bills on Saturday, although there’s enough money now I just pay every bill every week. I still have enough slack in the plan that I can move things around a day or two without running out of underwear or finding nothing in the house for breakfast.
I suppose I come from a family that naturally builds routines and systems. I know not all people do. But I know everybody can build habits, like brushing your teeth. With deliberate practice I think anyone can enjoy the lowered stress and increased effectiveness this brings.
Three of our sons are heading off to university this week and next. My oldest begins his final year at Purdue, my youngest his second year at University of Indianapolis, and our youngest his first year at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.
That school was not our son’s first choice. It wasn’t anywhere on his list of preferred schools, actually. Unfortunately for our son, our family’s serious life challenges in 2017 and 2018 led us to be very late in the very important process of selecting a school. It limited our son’s options. IUPUI is a good school with several excellent programs, including a major in our son’s area of interest. But he chose IUPUI because it was available and affordable, not because he wanted to go there.
Our son will get a fine education at IUPUI. But he will attend his first classes there on Monday less than fully excited. Our bright and capable son applied to many very good schools and was accepted into every one. He was even accepted into my alma mater, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a high bar to clear. That tough little engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana, has offered the best undergraduate engineering education in the nation for more than 10 years running, according to U.S. News and World Report.
College costs have ballooned nationwide since 1989, when I graduated from Rose. All four years cost roughly $60,000 then, which was considered a positively astronomical sum. In those days Rose was neck and neck with Notre Dame as the most expensive schools by far in Indiana.
Today, one year of Rose-Hulman costs about $60,000.
None of our son’s preferred schools offered enough financial aid, but Rose-Hulman’s offer fell the shortest by far. They offered thousands in grants and guaranteed student loans. They also assumed his mother and I would contribute a very large sum, one that we would have found very challenging to pay. But even after all of those funds were applied Rose wanted $37,000 more, and advised our son to seek private student loans in that amount.
We looked into those loans. The only ones we could find began compounding interest immediately. At the offered interest rate, that $37,000 would have ballooned to nearly $60,000 by the time he graduated. If he had to borrow that much each of his four years, with interest those private loans would total about $201,000 upon graduation.
I cannot justify that kind of debt even for the best undergraduate engineering education in the nation. Very good engineering educations are available for far, far less money at other schools.
I called Rose’s financial aid office hoping that my alumnus status might open a door. Nope. The woman I spoke to was very kind, apologetic even, but said that on appeal the most our son would get was an extra thousand dollars.
Rose-Hulman is now simply out of reach for a family with middle-class (or less) money.
Small, private colleges are struggling to survive across America. Rose-Hulman, I believe, saw it coming. As they quadrupled the cost of admission over the last 30 years, they also built a world-class campus that can attract the elite (read: wealthy), who can pay. I hardly recognize the place; the campus I attended in the 1980s was spare, almost ramshackle. Rose did this so it could continue its mission. Reluctantly, I have to say I can’t blame them.
But as a once proud alumnus, as the son of a factory worker who had a life-changing experience at Rose, as someone to whom his Rose-Hulman education has paid lifelong dividends, I’m disappointed to the core.
I’ve written many times about my Rose-Hulman experiences; click here to read it all.
I wrote this five years ago, when my sons were in high school and thinking about their futures. I’m thrilled to see how much of this advice they took, and how relevant it remains today.
Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.
The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.
1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.
How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.
If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.
If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.
But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. There are paths to move up in those worlds but they are hard and slow. This will suck; avoid it if you can.
2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.
Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.
Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.
3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.
Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play the music from my youth.
But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.
More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.
4. Be who you are.
This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.
You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.
This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.
5. Following your dreams is overrated.
I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.
Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I was only an average programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.
You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.
6. Enjoy the journey.
If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.
You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.
That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.
Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.
7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.
You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.
For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.
Those days are pretty much over.
I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due one month after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.
The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.
But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.
Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.
Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.
You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.
Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!
These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.
I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now he’s weeks away from his final year of college, and I’m thinking about this message again.
I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.
My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.
My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.
Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.
Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.
There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.
What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.
I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 10,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.
Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.
Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.
I have never been cool.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t enjoy how being uncool marginalized me. So I tried to improve my coolness quotient. I wore hipper clothes. I joined clubs at school. I tried not to talk about things that really interested me, like writing computer programs. But it was all like stepping into an ill-fitting suit – uncomfortable for me and obvious to everybody else.
So I gave up and just started following my unusual interests. I came to accept that I would hang out around the fringes in the high-school social pecking order. Sure enough, that’s what happened.
The only thing that kept me from having no social life was that my best friend, who was as much a geek as I was, had a viable social niche – acting. So sometimes I got to hang out with his drama club friends.
And then I went off to engineering school, where I was surrounded by geeks. Many of them had elevated their geekiness several levels beyond anything I could ever summon. On the relative scale, I seemed average! In a place where everyone was a geek, being myself was easy.
I started to branch out, finding new interests. I got involved with the campus radio station. I grew my hair and started listening to heavy metal music. I studied theoretical mathematics. I went on late-night drives in the country with a friend, exploring old roads.
I had a ball being myself.
I came to realize that in high school I felt like there was something wrong with being who I was. I was glad to have left that feeling behind in college.
Most of us leave high-school social nonsense behind as we age, of course. But I also think that most of us feel a flood of those old anxieties before each reunion. I sure do, at any rate. But because I’m comfortable in my own skin, I always have fun talking to everybody – most of whom I recognize but do not really know because I kept to myself so much back then.
A bunch of us went out for drinks after my 20th reunion five years ago. Because some things never change, I was there with my old best friend and several of the old drama club crew. We were all talking and laughing when suddenly the fellow who had been the leading man in all the plays exclaimed, “Jim! You used to be such a dweeb! But now you’re so cool!”
It felt good to hear it. But he’s wrong; I’m still not cool. I’m just okay with that now, and it shows.
When I was 17, I was very fortunate to be accepted into Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a school of science and engineering, one of the best in the nation. It was also one of the two most expensive schools in Indiana, competing each year for that title with the University of Notre Dame.
Upon graduation, each man in my class was issued a baseball cap just like the one pictured here, as a gift. We all joked that it was our “$60,000 baseball cap,” for that was about the total cost of a Rose-Hulman education in the mid-to-late 1980s.
I’m sure that my dad swallowed very hard when I told him that I wanted to go to Rose. We were a working-class family. But the financial-aid office told us not to worry, that they would find us a way. And they did. I got a Pell grant from the government, and the Lilly Endowment gave me a healthy scholarship. I borrowed $12,000. My parents scraped together the rest, which was on the order of $20,000. I’ll never know how they managed it, especially starting my sophomore year when my younger brother entered Notre Dame.
Last October I was on campus recruiting soon-to-be graduates to write code for the software company where I work. One of my former professors stopped by our booth to say hello. He’s nearing the end of his career, and he reflected on how much things had changed in his 30-plus years on campus. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to go here now?” he asked. Of course I didn’t. He quoted me a number well north of a quarter million dollars. “That’s for the whole four years, tuition, room, board, everything,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how any of these kids can afford to be here.”
That really hit home because I now have a 17-year-old son thinking about college. Thank heavens he doesn’t want to be a scientist or engineer. Thanks to my parents’ sacrifice, I make way more than a working-class wage. That means my son won’t qualify for the same level of aid I got. And while I do all right, I don’t do so well that I can scrape together the kind of money it would take to send my son to a school as expensive as Rose.
I guess I should be glad he’s not interested in science or engineering. Maybe he’ll want to go to a state school. I might be able to afford that.
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