Let’s look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves regarding the role that we parents play in the rise of college costs.
Much as the other players in the rising tuition game, we have sometimes been in the midst of the action, and sometimes on the sideline. On occasion, we have done things to exacerbate the problem, while at other times our inactivity deserves its share of the blame.
Here are a couple of examples.
In the actions that certainly haven’t helped category, we as a group decided, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to give birth to the largest post-war generation of babies in U.S. history, larger even than the baby boom of which so many of us were a part.
The sound of this baby-boom echo still reverberates, not only in the construction surge that has gobbled up land outside of our major cities, but also in the number of knocks on the outside of college campus gates and, more importantly, in the number of passages through those gates.
More and more students have been part of each and every high school graduating class for the past five years and still more of those students will be gaining their high school diplomas in the next five years. And, due in no small part to our urging, an increasing percentage of those newly minted grads chose to continue their education at a two- or four-year college.
This increased “college demand” alone is a principal reason why college already costs so much and why the cost has and will continue to go up.
Yet, while we must look ourselves in the mirror when it comes to college costs, it would hardly be fair to beat ourselves up collectively over individual child-bearing decisions from twelve to twenty-two years ago.
It is fair to assess, however, whether our child-rearing decisions in the wake of those record number of births have, in their own way, contributed to the college-cost problem.
For instance, a large percentage of us have shown a willingness to pay a premium for what we consider to be brand-name and/or high-quality services for our children, whether it be the money we spend for music lessons, sports travel teams, academic tutors or any one of the myriad of products and services that cater to how special we believe that our children are, and how much we want to support them in whatever endeavor they choose.
Colleges notice this behavior, and it is a contributing factor to how they price their “service,” which is providing a higher education to our children. Many colleges also see our willingness to provide our young adults with cars on their campuses, accoutrements for their dorm rooms and cell phones or other electronic devices on their persons, and they surely must think to themselves, “Oh, they won’t mind a few more bucks per credit hour.”
Of course, we do mind when costs go up, and we do deserve at minimum an explanation and at most some tangible relief. Some schools explain their costs better than others; we need to demand that all schools place higher priority on better communication with us, and better budget transparency in general.
And whatever our financial circumstances, we need to take a close look at the “wants” and “needs” of the current and future college students in our families, distinguish for ourselves and for them the difference between those two impulses, and help guide these still-impressionable young adults to smart, specific buying decisions and even smarter, general financial literacy.
See, looking in the mirror wasn’t so hard to do after all.