I enjoyed being on the “Real Life Survival Guide” for the “Personal Finance” episode –even though my first response to the topic was “this is going to be difficult” … I’m not the best person to ask about organizing papers and checks—I am someone who has had a papers coach come to my home and open the mail with me. But the conversation was lively and informative. We talked about some of the usual topics—how to organize and prioritize financial records and decision making. So far so good.
I was brought to a dead stop when the conversation turned to how to afford college. I thought we would be talking about how to deal with the typical $50k per year tuition —obviously this is a huge burden for most families. And yes—we did talk about the various options—community colleges, state schools, loans. However, I was shocked when the panel turned to another possibility—not sending kids to college at all. Gerry McGuire, a teacher-turned writer and full-time dad talked about encouraging his kids to take up a trade. Then it was a pile-on. All of a sudden it seemed that a majority of the panelists thought their kids should turn to plumbing to ensure their financial future. It seemed obvious to me that the participants were all so shell-shocked by the recent financial crisis that they were questioning whether a college education was still a pillar of the American dream. Why is a college degree- especially a liberal arts or general business major an endangered species? Our expert for this panel, Paul Schatz, tried to paint a picture that was somewhat hopeful—discussing financial planning strategies and resources that could help our listeners. I was surprised by some of the things he mentioned—e.g., that a 529 account so widely touted as a tax-favored way to save could actually hurt a family applying for financial aid.
I found myself struggling during the taping to defend a four year degree. I know that it’s not easy— four-year degree guarantees nothing—except years of student loan debt but I still thought that if you get the right guidance, take advantage of internships and learn how to network to get work experience—a four year degree can lead to a rewarding career—and life. College was not necessarily the perfect launching pad for me. Still, looking back on it, going to UConn was probably one of the best experiences in my life even I wasted a lot of my four years in college. I’ve often thought that it was too big, I wandered aimlessly into and out of the School of Education and cobbled together an Individualized Major because I really couldn’t decide on one subject. I liked history, art, architecture, literature— I was exposed to lots of ideas and learned how to do research, read, write and think. College fed my natural curiosity and nurtured my love of the arts. I can’t imagine how I would have made my way in the world without these skills and interests. And given that I am not talented with a hammer or pliers, a manual trade was out of the question. I wasn’t even interested in that most practical degree for women – a teaching certificate. That’s an essay for another day.
After the show, I talked to several friends and colleagues – and at least one college dean and several writers and artists. I was surprised at the results of my informal poll. Several agreed with the RLSG panel- that a college education isn’t a necessity—and maybe even be a luxury our society can no longer afford. I agreed with the dean that someone with gifted hands could make a living – everyone knows a good plumber, carpenter roofer, mason can do very well– but I would starve if I had to use my hands for something other than typing on a computer or dialing a phone! And besides preparing for a job or career is not the end all of the college experience. While one of my close high school friends is a self-taught expert in modern British history —she knows way more about it than some people with master’s degrees — I think she is the exception.
Another colleagues in my office said “how can you not go to college? What does high school prepare you for these days?” Even if your child is entrepreneurially–inclined, he or she could be closing off all kinds of possibilities by going directly from high school to business or a trade. Not everyone is born with the brilliance of a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs to invent new products that will change the world. Also, early success may not lead to further opportunities. My colleague gave the example of someone who built a good business, sold it but then couldn’t get hired as a manager even in the same field because he didn’t have a college degree. He is providing his kids with every advantage —including Ivy League educations—because he wants them to have a better start than he had.
And yes—it does take some creativity to figure out the financing— at historically low savings rates, a conventional savings program started on the day a child is born doesn’t guarantee you’ll be prepared 18 years later. Our panel discussed options like community colleges and state schools, work study, internships. It should also be noted that if your child is academically talented enough to get into a top college – there is still plenty of financial aid. We didn’t even scratch the surface on the show—but I later learned that financial aid is pretty transparent Websites for the Ivy League schools can tell you in advance how much aid you can obtain and how to qualify. According to people I know with kids at the Ivies, basically if your kid is lucky enough to get in, the school will help you work out the financing.
I think the conversation on the RLSG was not really so much about the dollars and cents—though that is daunting—no doubt. What I heard in the voices of the people around the table was a genuine fear that everything they had been brought up to believe about working and studying hard, getting a degree and that all-important first job just doesn’t work anymore. Paul Schatz said, if you put it all down on a spreadsheet, the front-end loans don’t make sense. Kids should be looking to the 2nd and 3rd tier colleges or trying to figure out how to leverage athletic or other talents or looking at the trade options. But we agreed that spreadsheets don’t tell the whole story. If you don’t have a passion for plumbing and you want skills and relationships to last a lifetime, then maybe college is still necessary.
Our foundations of faith have been rocked by the financial crisis –and now by Superstorm Sandy. As if we didn’t have enough problems—now so many people are suffering even more from power outages and property damage—and coming around to the idea that climate change is real. Electricians and lineman are in more demand than ever—which may add fuel to the no-college argument. I agree– we do need more people who can repair and upgrade our infrastructure. However, we also need engineers, architects, designers and scientists who can help us to address the longer term problems in our complex and flagging physical, economic and social structure. In this environment, more education –especially in math and science at the college level is needed. I actually had a discussion with Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum at UConn about this topic in the past year and me—the English major—was trying to convince him that students interested in environmental studies need more math and science! I now work at a Big 4 consulting firm and I can tell you that all students need as much math and science as possible!
I keep seeing articles about “adjusting our attitudes and expectations” families are trying to figure out what is possible amid the new economic realities. Parents are grappling with very tough choices—financing education they may need themselves o keep skills up to date, paying the mortgage, saving for retirement. Right now, paying $50k plus a year for college seems out of reach and perhaps unnecessary. We didn’t resolve the question during our RLSG episode, but we started a conversation that hopefully others will continue. After the taping, the panelists stayed around nursing their beers, wanting to connect and talk further. I’m grateful that there is a public forum like the “Real Life Survival Guide” where people can share their fears and learn that they are not alone in trying to figure out the future.
Sallie Kraus is an urban planner and attorney. She currently works in environmental and insurance consulting. A Connecticut native, Sallie has BA and master’s degrees from UConn and Rutgers and earned a JD degree from Yeshiva University. She is a member of the Bar in NY and CT.
Sallie is active in the Stamford, CT arts community and is a big fan of WNPR.