Parents Need To Stop Pressuring Their Kids To Go To College
The rising cost of a college education and the difficult job market that most graduates are entering in to leads most thoughtful people to ask a question that would have seemed ridiculous a decade ago. Before the recession and the explosion of college tuition, asking “Is college a lousy investment?” seemed like sacrilege. Now, it’s the cover of Newsweek. And it’s a question that parents need to seriously consider, because not only are we the prime investors, we also have a huge influence on the path our children will take. For some of our children, a college education really is a bad investment.
Megan McArdle spends a lot of time in her cover story comparing the market for education to the housing market. It is not a comforting or reassuring analogy for anyone considering a college education for their children in the future.
“These days an increasing number of commentators are nervously noting the uncomfortable similarities to the housing bubble, which started with parents telling their children that “renting is throwing your money away,” and ended in mass foreclosures.
An education can’t be repossessed, of course, but neither can the debt that financed it be shed, not even, in most cases, in bankruptcy. And it’s hard to ignore the similarities: the rapid run-up in prices, at rates much higher than inflation; the increasingly frenetic recruitment of new buyers, borrowing increasingly hefty sums; the sense that you are somehow saving for the future while enjoying an enhanced lifestyle right now, and of course, the mountain of debt.”
Just like not everyone is meant to own home, not everyone is meant to have a degree. As a society, we started to see these things as markers of success. A home, a diploma, a six-figure income. Of course we wanted these things for our kids. We get these ideas of what life should look like and it’s hard not to strive for them. However, Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman lays the situation out pretty clearly. When it comes to education, “Even with these high prices, you’re still finding a high return for individuals who are bright and motivated,” he says. On the other hand, “if you’re not college ready, then the answer is no, it’s not worth it.”
My parents had a very simple rule when they sent their kids off to college. If we kept better than a 3.0 GPA, my parents would continue paying our tuition. If our GPA slipped lower than that, we were on our own for the next semester. We could take out loans or work our way through it. If we managed to get our grades back up, they would start paying again.
Over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate my mom and dad’s system more. It taught us about responsibility. And it only worked if we were motivated to finish college, if we were ready to apply ourselves.
Parents pressure their kids into college because it seems like the only way to earn a decent living. Unfortunately, the rising costs just don’t make it a sensible choice unless students really want to get a degree like engineering or medicine that will lead to a very specific career later on in life. Unless students have their own ambitions and goals, punting off to a university for a couple years probably won’t do them a lot of good in the future. It could, however, saddle them or you with debt that will hang over their heads for decades.
We all want a great education for our kids. If my daughter tells me that she’s not interested or not ready for college, it will be an extremely hard pill to swallow. But pushing her down a path she doesn’t want isn’t the solution. In fact, it looks like the way to create more problems for young people as they start out life on their own.
Paying for any portion of your child’s college is an investment. Parents should look at that investment with the same thoughtful eye and objectivity that they apply to their stock portfolio. And if your child doesn’t want to use their degree, if they aren’t ready for the responsibility of college, you don’t have to throw your money at the educational complex. You can invest in your children through other means. And you can support their decisions with more than blank checks.
(Photo: The Daily Beast)