I don't know how many columns I've written in my two stints at the Times since I first started here in 1994, but it's a boatload.
I don't know how many columns I've written in my two stints at the Times since I first started here in 1994, but it's a boatload. I wrote my first one in the spring of 1994 and, minus a 26-month absence when I worked at the U of M Crookston before returning to the Times in January of 2004, I've written one or two columns per week, without fail.
Write that many columns – this doesn’t include the editorials I've authored on this page, probably twice in number compared to the columns – and after a while it's not uncommon to have one potential column topic after another dance across my mind, only to be dismissed out of the realization that I've probably written about it before, possibly more than once. Worse yet is when a potential column idea passes the mind-flash test for at least partial originality, and then a couple of sentences into typing the opening, the dreaded sense of deja vu settles in: I am indeed trudging on familiar turf.
But I think this one is fresh. I don't think I've ever started a column by asking readers for advice, but I am now:
What's the best way to help your kid get started and, hopefully, through college, graduate, start a career, a family and a successful adult life, without being so burdened by tuition debt that just getting started on that life is drastically more difficult? Financial experts, parents who are going through this or who have gone through this and know more about it than I do, please drop me an email or an online comment, because my wife and I are stumped as to how best we can help, or not help, our oldest son embark on this daunting adventure.
We have to be near the breaking point, right? How much longer can this house of cards hold up under the crushing weight of this fatally flawed system? How many more college graduates burdened with essentially the debt of a home mortgage in the form of student loans can our economy take on before it starts to crumble, or, worse yet, implode? How are these young college graduates supposed to get an apartment or buy a starter home? How are they supposed to afford a car payment?
It’s not like this is some deep, dark secret. Everyone is aware of this; it's one of the most pressing challenges facing our country today, and it's like everyone's afraid to acknowledge what’s going on. College is too expensive, and yet at the same time young people are told if they don't get a bachelors degree, and maybe even a masters degree, they're going to start their adult lives a couple steps behind everyone else, and they're only going to fall further behind the pack as time passes. Eventually, they'll be lapped by the field and live an unfulfilled life that dabbles in poverty-fueled misery.
Colleges know their prices are outrageous, so they basically try to justify that by turning their campuses and campus life into country club living. As if how nice your dorm was or how amazing your campus amenities were are going to have any affect on your life years down the road, when you're still making a hefty monthly payment on your student loans.
The moment each of our sons were born, we started college funds for them. We put a little away for them every month, and over time learned that little things sometimes don’t mean a lot, or at least add up to big things.
That's where we're at with our oldest son. I envisioned his college fund mushrooming from interest income and market growth, but how silly I was. He has about enough money to cover his freshman year, and then it's decision time. In two years, his younger brother will have a bit more set aside, but the predicaments are ominously similar.
Private student loan? Government student loan? The more I read, the more leery I get. The student loan industry is shifty, to put it mildly, and it’s often difficult for college graduates who might need a breather every once in a great while or even a Plan B to be granted any relief.
I never dreamt we'd consider having our son take out some sort of personal bank loan and have us cosign it, but I'm being told that's an option that provides some security and peace of mind. Of course, we’d find ourselves making interest-only payments while he's in school, or maybe even payments that knock down the principle a bit, too, which is certainly something I never envisioned when the boys were little and we dared peek way into the future to see how our middle-aged and retired lives might play out.
I don’t want to drink domestic lager in my golden years. I don’t want to tee up Top-Flite golf balls. I want to enjoy craft beers and imported brews dark as night that are so hoppy my face collapses on itself at the first swallow. I want to hit Titleists.
But I don’t want to hang our sons out to dry, either.