When College is A Means To No End: Financial Responsibility For a Murky Future

Posted on March 20, 2012 by


I fear that if I tell one more “in my day” story, readers will start to wonder if I’m in fact an ancient artifact, unearthed by some enterprising archeologist, dusted off, propped up in some Herman Miller chair, and taught to type (unlike any of today’s youth, who are expected to use computers without even a passing familiarity with a keyboard).

Really, I don’t feel that old (on days when it doesn’t rain, snow, or promise to), but this statistic makes it seem as if I’ve come from a land far, far away. I’ll tell you it anyway. Here goes: When I graduated school, well, even after I graduated school, to be honest, a college degree almost assured you of a job.

It’s true, I promise.

In 1970, the unemployment rate for four-year college graduates was about a quarter of that for those who hadn’t graduated. And to make the pot even sweeter, in that self-same year, the unemployment rate all-told was (this is for real. Other old people can vouch for me.) 1.3%. So even without converting fractions to decimals or vice versa, you can see that graduating college pretty much ensured you of a job, and, the employment rate being what it was, you kept that job, if you wanted, until mountains crumbled into the sea.

Fast forward. In April 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for those with at least a bachelor’s degree was 4.9 percent. Going to college no longer ensured that you would be employed after graduation, and it certainly no longer ensured that you would be employed steadily until retirement.

There are many reasons why college has shifted from a job-guarantor to more of a job-possibility-maker, but I want to address three situations that tend not to promote job eligibility, so we can think about a parent’s responsibility to fund these situations, if the parent is capable of and willing to do so–and to fund what happens after.

To be clear, I’m assuming for purposes of this post that parents can more or less cover the staggering costs of college today, whether with or without debt, and that parents generally want to support their children as they get their undergraduate degrees. But I’m also going to assume that these parents are supporting their children’s education as a means to an end, so their willingness to support comes into question in the following three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Child A matriculates at a Big-10 University, works reasonably hard, and, when sophomore year comes round with its requirement to declare a major, declares that he will major in nothing other than. . . Comparative Literature. He struggled with himself mightily, since he was also interested in Religion, but he is sure this is the right way to go.

"Ah, your daughter's an electrical engineer? Nice. My son's passion is Arabic poetry. What's that? Oh, yes, MANY career opportunities. All the investment houses want someone who can write about Arabic poetry, these days."

Scenario 2: Child B from Massachusetts enrolls at one of the University of Massachusetts campuses, since the UMass schools are the best deal for her. After one year, she informs her parents that she’s switching from the main school to The College of Visual and Performing Arts, where she will major in nothing other than Theater. Just what you’d always hoped for. And her grandmother still believes she’ll be a doctor.


Scenario 3: Child C has severe learning disabilities aside from his ADHD, and his performance in high school was  so poor that all of his friend’s college choices were closed to him. His disabilities, coupled with his lack of academic interest, allowed him to make it through high school only, if we’re honest, by the schools’ distaste for flunking anyone–and some pity for the parents.

So Child C’s parents locate a college–a private, very expensive college (his parents won’t say exactly, just that it’s “in the $40,000 per year range”)–with the mission of providing their son with a “college experience” while trying to keep him afloat.  The courses are at such a low level, and there’s so little homework, that if he just makes it to a moderate number of classes, he passes.

This enables the entire family to continue the fantasy that Child C is just like all his friends, and, simultaneously, enables Child C, with much free time, to engage in more drinking and drugging than has even become common on other college campuses.

By year 2 ($80,000+ in, before ‘incidentals’), their son seems to have learned next to nothing, but has instead developed a taste for alcohol and marijuana that his parents find concerning.

Any of these situations sound like something you can relate to? Have a son majoring in Artisanry? A daughter doing Art History? A child spending time and money in a school he should never have started?

Let’s address these college situations and what your obligation is in terms of funding them in the next 2 posts.

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