How Are We Ever Going to Afford College?

With the average annual cost of a four-year private university now a staggering $42,419, it's a wonder anyone can send their kids to school. Don't despair: Who said you had to go private?

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My daughter has already started fretting over getting into a big-name college at an early age. Just to give you a sense of what I’m talking about, imagine an even-younger Rory Gilmore.

Sample conversations we’ve had over the past three years:

Daughter, age 10: Mom, is M.I.T. the best science college or just one of the best science colleges?

At 12: Mom, would Johns Hopkins care how I did in middle-school math?

Just a few months ago, now 13: Mom, do you think Yale would be impressed if I started an NGO like, now?

And because she’s worrying, I’ve started worrying, too. But not about how she can get in. I have faith she’ll do fine. My concern is how on Earth my husband and I would ever afford such schools. Would we have to borrow against our retirement (such as it is)? Sell our plasma? Become über-wealthy (exact plans TBD)? Yes, we had 529 college savings accounts for both our kids, and tried to contribute something to them monthly. But the funds have underperformed, compared to our mutual funds; which is to say, the paltry sums we invested have grown into only slightly less paltry sums.

In an attempt to feel proactive about this problem, I used one of those online college calculators. Don’t do this. You will find out that at your current savings rate, your child’s 529 fund will cover the price of one-third of one semester, or maybe one really heavy textbook. The calculator will cheerfully suggest you put away an extra $1,250 per month from now until high-school graduation, and you will find yourself drinking wine straight from the bottle at midnight, numbly binge-watching Gilmore Girls. (Which won’t help. Someone, please tell Rory to shut up about Harvard already?! Sheesh.)

Obviously, I’m not the only woman losing sleep over saving for college. A recent Prudential Financial study found that the number of women who felt confident they could provide college tuition for their children decreased by 7 percent between 2004 and 2014. And that’s because women are smart—as we all know, the cost of college has radically outpaced inflation. Yes, there is financial aid, which most students receive. Yes, the published cost of tuition is not necessarily what you’ll pay, especially if you are from a middle-class or low-income family. But there are tons of kids and parents who still get dinged during or after college for thousands of dollars they don’t have. (I once interviewed a prospective editorial assistant who said she had $80,000 in college loans. The job she was applying for paid $22,000.) The whole college gambit feels terrifyingly unaffordable because, well, it has the potential to be exactly that.

That’s why Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, a slim but brilliant rebuke to college-admissions insanity, is so important. Most of the book focuses on the hothouse environment that turns teens and their parents—in, let’s face it, a certain socioeconomic strata of society—into grade-grubbing, test-prep obsessing, resume fodder-acquiring neurotics. As he writes, “In the United States, circa 2015, it’s not just shoes, handbags and SUVs that signal your status and how enviable you are. It’s a whole lot else, and colleges have climbed higher and higher up on the list—against all reason and with hurtful consequences.”

Bruni critiques a culture fixated on universities as brand names, rather than places of genuine learning; a culture in which, say, my middle-schooler would already be trying to plot out an ideal list of activities and accomplishments to place on her college application in five years. And Bruni also chastises those universities for “ginning up desire in order to frustrate it, instilling hope only to quash it”—an inevitability for all but a few kids, unless they’re legacies, athletes or otherwise connected.

But Bruni does something else important; he doesn’t just call bullshit on the adulation surrounding the Ivys and schools of their ilk. He makes a case that community colleges, and public two- and four-year institutions are, in many cases, not just the more affordable choice, but also the more enriching educational choice. (Although many of these schools—particularly the latter—are still raising tuition annually by a distressing amount, they’re the best option middle and lower income college-bound American students have.) Bruni cites Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author and graduate of Rutgers University, who told Bruni that his college “gave him a passport to the world”—a world with a truly diverse population that opened his mind in myriad ways. Díaz now teaches at M.I.T., where, he analogizes students to customers who come in and want their “pickles on their burger. They don’t come in for you to upend everything.” Bruni also notes that the Ivies are now largely inhabited by kids who spent years angling to, well, get into college, and although there are numerous exceptions, on the whole they’re not the most curious, risk-taking bunch. “An elite school composed entirely of young men and women who have aced the SATs or ACTs isn’t likely to be the most exciting, eclectic stew of people and perspectives,” writes Bruni. “It doesn’t promise to challenge extant privileges and topple old expectations … [The students] avoid risk because they can’t brook the possibility of failure. They conform.” No wonder that around just under half of Harvard grads and just over half of University of Pennsylvania grads now head into careers in consulting or finance, as Bruni reports; it’s the logical destination for those following a linear path.  

Bruni’s book is a gift to teens, like mine, who need to spend more time fully inhabiting their adolescence than plotting their early adulthoods. And it’s a gift to parents like me, who want their kids to have gratifying and mind-opening college experiences—and would like to retire someday, too, thank you.    

The next time my kid brings up one of her college quandaries, I’m planning to tell her to consider casting a wider net down the line (Hey, I hear SUNY-Binghamton looks great! And what about the University of Delaware?). And then I’ll tell her to run along and play. 


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