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

Posted on March 21, 2012 by


So let’s return to yesterday’s post, where I left you with a Comparative Literature Major, enthralled by the Gaelic tradition and busily writing a thesis on its impact on James Joyce, whose novels you–along with most of the literate world–never finished.

And then there was the Theater Major, busily practicing for her role as the Chink in the Wall. She always wanted to be a Shakespearean actor, she tells you excitedly.

Finally, we have Child C, a child with no declared major, as he is too busy having the “college experience” to bother with such incidentals.

Let’s spend some time with our friendly Comparative Literature major. It wasn’t exactly what you hoped your kid would come up with in terms of majors. But, to be positive, you think, at least it’s not Bagpiping, right? Things could, it’s true, always be worse.


However, Comp Lit is a little famous–or infamous–as being a fast track to no-job. A piece by CBSnews.com, from November 2011, entitled “25 college majors with the highest unemployment rates” kindly included it in its listing, claiming that the unemployment rate for those who dedicated their four years to Emil Zola, say, was a whopping 10.2%.

So you need to ask yourself what you really want your child to get out of his college experience, and what is reasonable to ask him to do in exchange for his meal ticket. Of course it’s become a truism that college graduates are more employable and make better starting salaries than high-school graduates alone–and assumedly that applies in general whether one’s major is horticulture or advertising.

But beyond that, nowadays parents want their children–those who go away to college–to learn the independence that comes from living out of the family home, to develop the social skills required to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures, and to do some major social networking. If college is indeed all we believe it to be, these tasks will be accomplished no matter what the major.

This may be controversial, but here it is I don’t believe you should mandate your child’s major. You can, of course. You can threaten to pull funding if Child A doesn’t major in Biomedical Engineering or Business. But you create a resentment that may come through both in your child’s approach to his new major, and in numerous other ways in which he deals with his college experience. You increase his desire to skip classes, to act out by drinking and using drugs, to even flunk out.

If you signed on for a college deal, and you believe college is inherently valuable, you’re going to have to come to terms with your child’s fascination with Arabic poetry, and keep the comments and eye-rolling to a minimum, as well.

What you can do, however, is quickly put a stop to the financial hemorrhaging post-college. Make it clear to your child that, no matter what his choice for a degree, he will not be supported afterwards. He may return home, and sleep in your beds and eat your food, but after that he’s on his own.

And make equally clear that if a job declaiming the merits of Spanish Romantic poets isn’t forthcoming, you expect your child to take what is, whether that means something in a different field, something that pays less than he’d like to earn, or yes, even the proverbial burger-flipping at McDonald’s.

“Does this Whopper look right? They didn’t prepare us for this in the upper level Spanish Romantic Poetry courses.”

You, parent, need to be honest with yourself when it comes to this. Probably you feel a certain pride that your child has gone to college, and would like him to come out of it with something prestigious to show for your financial efforts. If prestige is so important to you that you simply can’t tolerate his working at Starbucks, you’d better realize you’ve signed on for a financial commitment that may have no end in sight.

And what about our lovely young lady from Scenario B, who has selected the major most parents love to hate: theater?

The Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition for actors, producers and directors, put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, notes, in a most understated way, ” Competition for acting jobs is intense, as the number of actors auditioning for roles greatly exceeds the number of parts that become available.”

In fact, in Manhattan, as of the end of 2007, there was 88% unemployment among equity actors, according to the “Fractured Atlas Blog.”

Those may very well be the worst statistics for any career going.

To return to the Occupational Outlook Handbook and its view on earnings: “Many of the most successful actors, producers, and directors have extraordinarily high earnings, but many more of these professionals, faced with erratic earnings, supplement their income by holding jobs in other fields.” [italics mine]

And there lies the crux of the issue, if you’re going to be the supportive parent as your child blissfully spends her years as a Theater major, perhaps even surpassing her role as the Chink in the Wall from Midsummer Night’s Dream with a stellar performance as The Doorknob in Alice in Wonderland.

“Can you see my daughter’s arms??? She’s the chink! I’m so proud.”

You’re going to have to be clear both with yourself and with your daughter when the financial component of the support will end.

Once again, I would make clear that your daughter is welcome home after school, and would set a certain amount of time that is reasonable for her to set out on interviews and try to make it in acting. This does not mean years. Also, you won’t be financing an apartment in Hollywood or New York–that’s up to her when she has the funds.

After the set amount of time has passed, you expect your daughter to take other, available jobs, to support herself, until her lucky day arrives.

I was pleased with an intervention with one family, where the parents were supporting their child, Jill, in Hollywood as she went to audition after audition. Using the techniques for withdrawing support that I advise in my post “Fixing “‘We’ll Just Fix It For You’: Letting Your Children Be Adults: Walking the Walk,” Jill’s life on the dole slowly came to an end.

Both Jill and parents caught on to the system quickly, and Jill took on a job as a personal trainer in an upscale gym, with hours I considered rather ungodly, leaving her free to attend auditions as they came up. When even that income didn’t completely cover her lifestyle, she added on a job as a personal assistant to a producer, which both taught her some of the ins and outs of the business from a different perspective, and supplemented her income.

Jill is still out in L.A. She has had a few roles, including one as a highly irregular nanny in a moderately successful film. But most importantly for Jill’s sense of herself is that, while she is living out her dream, she is doing it independently, making it on her own skills, ambition and drive, currently beholden to no one. She is, in short, making it as an adult.


A thought on kids who flunk out, and a plan of attack for Scenario C, our child too busy partying it up to actually study, in the next post.

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