The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].
Without fail, all new parents receive the same piece of advice: “You had better start saving for college now.”
On a surface level, this seems like sound words of wisdom. My wife and I have already started putting money away for our child’s future. However, in 17 years, what we do with this money is entirely up in the air, because we are not going to push our child to go to college.
That may seem counterintuitive. If there’s a chance that our kid won’t attend college, why bother saving money? Because life is about keeping your options open, and that’s exactly what we intend to teach our child.
The Tuition Is Too Damn High
Let’s return to the original advice doled out to unsuspecting parents: saving up for a rainy college tuition day.
In a previous life, I worked in college admissions and financial aid, so I can say the following with a strong degree of confidence: no matter what you do today, you will never be fully financially prepared for the cost of college. Unless you are already wealthy, win the lottery, or spawn a 7-foot man-child who can run the 100-meter dash in 9.8 seconds, you’re going to have to pay out of pocket for your kid’s college education.
If you think the price of college is expensive now, just imagine what it will be in 18 years when your kid is a college-bound age. Today, the average 4-year public college charges close to $10,000 per year for in-state students. Colleges also abide by a lesser known fourth law of physics: tuition always rises, never falls. The end result is an average 5 percent increase in tuition per year.
This means by the time your kid is applying for college, you’re looking at about $23,000 per year for in-state tuition — more than double what it is today. And that’s just for one year! Plus, this projection doesn’t take into account the cost of room, board, books, and other expenses associated with enrollment.
To make up this affordability gap, student loans usually play a large role. Currently, our nation holds as much debt in student loans as we do in auto loans. There is about $1.2 trillion of student loan debt and about $1 trillion in auto loan debt. Before most young people have a fighting chance to compete in the marketplace, they have to conquer repaying this debt without any real promise of a job that will help them do so.
Despite the ever increasing gap between tuition and our inability to pay, we continue to perpetuate this cycle. And we do so by erroneously focusing all of our energy into “getting into the right school.” There is the myth that only an education from a top-tier university — often times, the most expensive one — will steer our children toward success. This myth usually results in too much stress for too many families during students’ senior high school year.
And the stress is completely unwarranted. Research indicates that admissions into a highly selective university does not correlate with higher financial earnings.
College Is Not For Everybody
I’m not trying to spread a defeatist message here. It never hurts to start saving money today. And, if I may make a recommendation, consider building equity in a life insurance plan that offers cash equivalent payouts in 18 years. It doesn’t necessarily build interest in the same way an IRA or mutual fund does, but it effectively hides this money when the FAFSA starts evaluating your assets.
Just something to consider.
But I’m not here to give financial aid advice. I’m here to talk about why I’m not going to push college on my kid.
Despite what your kid’s high school counselor tell you, college is not for everybody. This isn’t some smug, elitist claim; it’s the plainspoken truth. The numbers speak for themselves: nearly 30 percent of college students drop out and never return after their first year.
Part of the reason why college is so expensive is due to this “college is for everybody” narrative.
When you create an inflated demand for a service — mindlessly pushing consumers towards a costly product with diminishing returns — the price is bound to increase. (Granted, this is not the only reason for the increasing cost of tuition; endless public subsidies that function as a culturally-accepted form of corporate welfare does a number on the cost of attendance as well. But that’s a whole other rant.)
The Road Less Travelled
I don’t intend to have my kid feed into this inflated demand. When I said that I am keeping options open for my kid, I truly mean it. Everything is on the table. There is life after high school that does not solely involve dormitories, all-nighters, and fraternity keggers.
For starters, I will never discourage my child from learning a trade. There is a stigma about blue collar labor as being undignified, and I don’t intend to reinforce that bogus claim in my household.
Colleges and universities are always playing catch-up, training future generations to attain job titles that will likely not exist in 5 years. However, there are certain marketable skills that have remained consistent despite market disruptions and technological innovations. For the foreseeable future, the world will need plumbers, welders, and mechanics.
The technology may change — from gas-guzzling big blocks to self-driving electric cars — but the human element to maintain such technology will persist. Self-checkout stands are eliminating service industry jobs, but there are also creating a need for people to manufacture, operate, and fix the machinery of tomorrow.
Perhaps my kid doesn’t want to be the one turning the wrench, but rather build a business model instead. There is a new movement of entrepreneurial bootcamps, such as Praxis, that provide young people with the soft and hard skills necessary to be successful in the business world. PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel offers $100,000 fellowships for young entrepreneurs to skip college and start their own businesses. If my kid developed a solid business plan and pitch, I’d happily invest that college fund into his startup capital.
Or maybe my kid won’t be driven by the almighty dollar, and will have a passion for helping others. If so, there are no shortage of voluntary service corps for my little do-gooder to sign up for: Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, etc. Young people have the opportunity to travel, serve communities in need, and earn a larger vision of the world. In many cases, these future philanthropists earn scholarship money in lieu of a salary.
And there is, of course, the ultimate service route: The military.
I make this suggestion with some hesitancy. No parent wants to think about their children being dropped into a combat zone. Plus, if you are like me, you may have moral objections to our government’s militarism and excessive foreign interventionism.
But I do know how the military helped provide direction to some of my more listless and wayward friends — many of whom served while being thousands of miles away from any actual combat. And though they faced a bureaucratic nightmare after their honorable discharge, many of these friends were able to go to college for free courtesy of the GI Bill.
College will always be there if my child wants to attend, even if he chooses the non-traditional route.
While working in college admissions, I used to joke with my peers how comforting it was to have our job security dependent upon the emotional stability and critical thinking skills of 17-year-olds. We put an undue burden upon young people to choose their future at such a young and impressionable age. And, to make matters worse, we also send them down a rabbit hole of financial debt.
This is the last thing I want to force upon my kid.
For many kids, college is the right path, and it may be for my kid. If so, he’ll have my full support. However, it also might not be the right path, in which case he’ll learn an important lifelong lesson of remaining flexible, keeping all options open, and investing his money wisely.
Jay Stooksberry is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Newsweek Magazine, Foundation for Economic Education, Independent Voter Network, and many other publications. He writes about his with passions for liberty, skepticism, humor, and parenting. When he’s not writing, he splits his time between marketing consultation, staying active in his community, and spending time with his wife and son. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.