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Our Biggest Expense
January 12, 2010 - 8:22pm

We often hear that buying a house will be a family's biggest expense. I wonder if this aphorism still holds true. In my family, our greatest expense will be higher education. My wife and I are committed to giving our girls (now 7th and 5th grade) the same advantage of a debt-free college and graduate school that we enjoyed.

But the math is daunting. Let's say that our kids followed in our path and went to a private undergraduate school. That is about $50K per year - times four years. For both girls that's $400,000 total in undergraduate expenses. Yes, I know that this is the retail cost that most families don't pay. And yes they could go to a public institution. And yes they might qualify for scholarships. But I'm betting that our family will fall into the tuition bubble - we will make too much to qualify for much aid, but too little not worry and struggle.

Then comes graduate or professional school. If one kid follows my wife in medicine that is easily another couple of hundred thousand dollars. If the other kid goes to graduate school then perhaps our family cost will be less, but given the realities of the job market, I'm betting they will both go the professional school route.

At this point in the game I'm thinking that $500,000 is a reasonable estimate for what it is going to cost to get our kids fully graduated and credentialed, again if we don't want them to start life with a huge educational debt. Does this sound realistic to you?

There is no way we will be able to save that much money. Who can? We anticipate that when college comes for our girls that we will downsize our house, trade the equity for tuition, and move into something small, cheap and outside of an expensive school district. We also plan to work forever.

The irony is that we are committed to doing whatever it takes to get our kids through the most expensive and bundled education system at the same time when learning is becoming unbundled and cheap. What sort of amazing learning experiences are available on YouTube EDU or iTunesU? Want to learn physics, then the Open Culture site has a wonderful course for you. We all know about the amazing courses available at Carnegie Mellon or MIT. As Lev Gonick talked about in "The Year Ahead in IT," the Open Content and Open University movements are both contributing enormous amounts of materials to the commons while redefining how we think about our institutions.

This is a serious mismatch that I have not been able to get my head around. As the costs of institutions of higher education continue to go up, and the ability to access learning for free on the Web explodes, the value as a parent for a traditional degree (and graduate degree) seems only to increase. Perhaps I want my girls to have the bundled experience that my wife and I enjoyed. This includes all the social learning that occurs through living in a dorm, living a away from home, interacting with a wide range of smart and diverse students and professors.

Is it the dorm living?, the social scenes?, the culture and sports?, the food? - I'm honestly not so sure. I know our desire for our kids to have a traditional undergraduate experience is not really tied into the labor market - as someone (not sure who it was) has said that a diploma was once a ticket to a job, and now is just a passport. We know our girls will need to go to graduate or professional schools if they hope to have middle-class lives. But we don't think that a high-priced undergraduate institution is necessary to feed into professional or graduate school. Yet we are looking forward to paying the undergraduate tuition.

Are we being irrational? Why? Will higher education be your families biggest expense?


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