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Getting Ready to Get Saddled: Trying to Plan Ahead for Your Kid’s College Education

collegeNPR has recently been making my mornings more grim by running depressing reports on the staggering cost of a college education.

Turns out our parents were right: college is good for you. In a report last week, Marilyn Geewax cites a Pew Research study which finds the income difference between college and high school graduates is higher than ever. The bad news is that the cost of college is also up, and steadily rising. Geewax reports that, adjusted for inflation, the cost of tuition and fees at public 4-year colleges and universities has more than tripled between 1973 and 2013.

What’s a student to do but take on debt? That’s what I did in order to be the first person from my family to attend college. I graduated 15 years ago, but still owe tens of thousands of dollars in loans to the federal government, an amount which I added to a few years back when I went to graduate school. And this is the amount I owe even after my parents refinanced their house to pay off loans taken out through their credit union, and with me working both summers and part-time during the semester and signing paychecks right over to the college. In other words, affording my diploma wasn’t a cake walk for either me or my parents, and yet still I’m in the hole.

Sadly, my situation is becoming the norm. Today on NPR’s Morning Edition, Eric Westervelt reported that 70% of todays’ students graduate with, on average, nearly $30,000 of debt. Receiving that financial aid can be daunting, as Pell Grant applications and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are complicated and time-consuming to complete. (My mom spent hours on the phone navigating the system, fighting for every penny she could get me.) What’s more, the amount of money available is not keeping pace with the increase in tuition and fees. In 1979, a Pell Grant might have covered more than 75% of the cost of a 4 year public university. Today, a Pell covers more like 30% of that cost.

What’s a family to do? For starters, begin socking away money as soon as possible. Most states offer 529 plans, which give tax benefits while letting you save money for use at a national college. We opened one up when our son was born and a little bit of my wife’s paycheck goes toward it each month. Additionally, some states have plans that allow families to save up for in-state institutions. If your child is approaching college age, you can begin familiarizing yourself with the means of applying for aid. President Obama was recently touting reforms made to the FAFSA application, which is now shorter and online.

The greater question, of course, is can (or even should) the government be providing more assistance to families for college? And should measures be taken (and if so, what measures) to reign in the climbing cost of tuition? Parents should be asking these questions of their Congress members.

The idea still holds strong that college is something every American child should strive to attend. It is possible that this will change in the coming decades; that we’ll see a rise in vocational programs and specialized schools, and a liberal arts education at a four-year university will be available only to the rich or the select few. In China, for example, where I taught for about a year, college is not a guarantee. This puts an enormous strain on the students to achieve, and contributes to the huge gap between the rich and poor there. It’s not a path that I believe would be good for this country to follow.

No matter how much I owe, I wouldn’t take back my four years working toward a liberal arts degree for anything. The friends I made in college are still near and dear, and the skills I learned there are ones I continue to use in my life — most explicitly, at this very moment, how to write an essay! What’s even more important is how college changed my view of myself, and helped guide me from a high school student who lived at home to a self-sufficient, independent adult who follows his own path and thinks creatively, and critically, about himself and the world around me. Those four years were transformative, and that’s something I hope my son will have the opportunity to experience. It might take some sacrifice to get him there — on both my part and his — but it’s one worth making, I think.

Of course, my great hope is that it doesn’t take much sacrifice at all! In an ideal world, our country will strengthen its commitment to college, and take other steps to staunch the widening economic divide, so that a quality higher education is available to every student with the desire and skills to take advantage of it. How we get there, though, is unclear.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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