Giving it the college try


I have a complaint.

In the second episode of the fourth season of the TV drama The West Wing, Josh Lyman, White House deputy Chief of Staff, and Toby Ziegler, White House Communications Director, are stuck in a hotel in Indiana  and they come across Matt Kelley, a father, who’s concerned about how he’s going pay for his daughter’s college tuition.

Kelley has just taken the daughter to visit the University of Notre Dame and she’s fallen in love with the school. He says she’s so excited about seeing the school up-close that she’s not going to be able to get to sleep. He nurses his frustration and worry over a beer in the hotel bar.

“It (college) should be hard,” Kelley tells the two White House staff members. “I like that it’s hard. Putting your daughter through college, that’s a man’s job, a man’s accomplishment. But it should be a little easier. Just a little easier, because in that difference is … everything.”

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Just a smidge easier

Rising college tuition rates and student debt seem to be in the news every day. You can throw a lot of numbers around and I don’t trust a lot of the statistics I see on this topic. But according to the Department of Education, the average annual increase in college tuition from 1980 to 2014 grew by 260%, compared to the nearly 120% increase in all consumer items.

With numbers like that, many critics and millennials want to talk about free tuition. I would love it too, but I’m not fighting to change everything we know about American capitalism.

I’m just asking that it be a little easier.

Fighting to keep up with the Jones

Colleges fight each other to have the bigger endowments. They brag about who has the biggest. College use their endowments for two purposes: to grow the principal amount and generate income: The higher the endowment, the better interest rates the colleges can get on their massive loans. Yes, colleges use those endowments to pay out a small portion, usually a percentage in the single digits, to help indigent students, but many schools seem more interested in holding onto the money and letting it work for them, than being a good member of the community.

And make no mistake those endowments are in the billions upon billions. US News & World Report stated late last year that Harvard University’s endowment of $37.6 remains the clear leader of all U.S. colleges.

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‘This is a stick-up, raise your hands high above your head’

At the same time, colleges and universities are charging, when it’s all said and done, hundreds of thousands to attend. My son is right in the middle of this process. He’s a high school senior and has been accepted to a number of different schools, both public and private, both near and far. One school with tuition and room and board included wants him to pay more than $55,000 a year to attend. Another public institution charges more than $31,000. These are fine schools with great reputations, but last I checked Socrates and Aristotle never stepped foot on either of their campuses.

And yet they still charge an arm and a leg. They have every right to do so, but excuse me for not bowing down at their alter. Excuse me too for not questioning the tax status of many colleges. These are very money-making ventures.

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My West Wing Moment

I’m not sure what my son will decide. My heart aches for him. My wife and I will  help him a little. I wish we could help him more, but we’ll quickly hit our limit — the costs are just too much. In the end, no matter what he decides, he’s looking at considerable debt.

My son is considering all his options. One would be to enlist in one of the armed services. He knows he wants to serve, it would just come sooner. He would be able to help save money for college, but he would have to put his college dream on hold and potentially put himself in harms way. In short, there are no easy answers.

The challenge is not a new one for us. My daughter is in the same situation. She’s currently in college and faces the same challenges, the same what-if questions. Like many parents, I spend my free time racking my brain for ways to put away enough college money for all three of my children. (I swear I haven’t robbed any banks yet, but the idea has come to me once or twice.)

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A mind is a terrible things to waste

The funny thing is that I benefited immensely from a college education. I get the value. I get the benefit. But like Matt Kelley says on the show, it should be a little easier.

It really shouldn’t hurt this much.

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