Parents

Colleges' obligations in helping their students after graduation (essay)

More than 45 years ago, Benjamin Braddock left an indelible mark on the American public in "The Graduate." Politely yet palpably rejecting advice to choose “plastics” as a career, Benjamin submerges into the darkness of a swimming pool in an attempt to escape the looming decision: what’s next?

The lack of clarity that plagued Benjamin’s generation has only been heightened for today’s graduates who receive equally cryptic messages to pursue jobs in technology, business, or fields for which they have little interest or knowledge. But they also find themselves competing with record numbers of college graduates, often for low-paying or part-time jobs while shouldering college loans.

For most, the college experience was itself stuttered and uncertain. Only slightly more than a third now obtain a bachelor’s degree within the traditional four-year window. Eight years in, only 60 percent graduate. More than a third churn through at least two institutions, and most change their majors along the way. Coming out, debt loads and default rates are at record highs.

Despite these problems, the United States continues to have the highest number of college graduates in the world and ranks fourth internationally in the proportion of college graduates among 25-to-64 year-olds, at 42 percent. For those with degrees, unemployment rates are lower and lifetime earnings are higher. The basic contour of the college storyline persists, even in the face of the Great Recession: College brings rewards to those who finish. It not only makes a difference in employment and wages, especially over one's lifetime, but also in many aspects of health and well-being. The exclusive focus on jobs and wages is shortsighted. These non-economic rewards need to enter public discussion of the value of higher education.

The short-term problem, and a serious one for many young Americans, is getting started after college. One major challenge is unrealistic expectations. That college degree isn’t a fast-pass ticket to a high-status high-wage job. Most young graduates will have difficulty finding full-time work, and there are few options for stable jobs with real opportunities for advancement. Graduates and parents see the popular unpaid internship as a portfolio-builder for “real” work later on. Be forewarned: These internships are not likely to lead to employment and meaningful skills. At some point, graduates need to get started in a job rather than wait too long for the right job. Just how long one should wait is a tough call. But there will inevitably be some waiting up front. Graduates and parents need to be prepared for it.

A bigger problem is that graduates do not know what they want to do or, if they do, what options exist for getting there. Their career aspirations are often too high for their abilities and backgrounds — but no one has told them otherwise. For many there are feelings of regret: “I shouldn’t have screwed around when I had the chance to buckle down.” “What was I thinking when I decided to major in art?” Many mistakenly assume that enrolling in graduate school to earn yet another degree or two will automatically make them more marketable or be profitable as they pile on new debt. Graduate school is an expensive place to find oneself and an ineffective place to warehouse young people.

What should we do? Young people need to align their aspirations with their skills and abilities and know the odds of their ambitions, and parents must aid them in helpful and honest ways. Not everyone is going to be a screenwriter or real estate mogul -- and a few years as a barista are unlikely to be well-spent if one’s career ambitions are not in coffee service.

Young people need a better understanding of the labor market and a strategic plan that focuses on who they are, not just on what they want to be. They also need to know the truth about adulthood: that we seldom land where we expect. Successful pathways into adulthood are fueled by flexibility, resilience, and adaptation -- not exactly the stuff of college textbooks and learning outcomes.

Institutions of higher education have a moral obligation to open these difficult conversations with students early on -- but in a competitive marketplace, under-resourced institutions are often unwilling or unable to be honest about the chances of their graduates. Institutions expend virtually all of their energy getting students in the door and then keeping them in -- that’s where the financial incentives are -- than they do to see their students out. Graduation largely marks the end of the university’s commitment to the student. Apart from career fairs and basic advice on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing, it’s goodbye and good luck. To leave school is to become adult: You’re on your own. The day after graduation, institutions turn their attention to the incoming class.

The bottom line is that if young people are graduating from college but not getting jobs that are even marginally aligned with their career hopes, or that pay enough to get them on a path toward economic independence, we have reason to be concerned. We also acknowledge that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to foster student understanding and appreciation of arts, humanities, and social sciences, which are at the foundation of our global society. These problems signal a dire need to stimulate public debate about the purpose and effectiveness of higher education in the United States.

Amid the refrain that “college is for everyone,” parents and educators are so focused on getting students to the finish line that graduates are left with little guidance or support in how to cross the line from the confines of college into the messiness of adult life.

Barbara Schneider is the president of the American Educational Research Association, professor of education and sociology at Michigan State, and author of The Ambitious Generation (Yale). Richard Settersten is a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, professor of social and behavioral health sciences at Oregon State, and author of Not Quite Adults (Bantam/Random House).

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Families used housing windfalls to send their kids to pricier colleges

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As housing prices rose for some working- and middle-class American families, so did college ambitions of their students, study finds. Which leads to the obvious question: Are those ambitions now dropping as home values fall?

What high-end summer camps say about college admissions and pricing (essay)

Contentious debates about rising college costs during the academic year make summer a welcome break from bad news.  One recent headline was “Political Storm Stirring over Student Loans.” The next day a New York Times editorial urged, “Subsidize Students, Not Tax Cuts!” These articles, unfortunately, forecast that summer is going to provide no vacation from higher education’s political heat wave.  It merely shifts the focus from the campus to camp.

That’s because the spending and choices associated with the American ritual of sending a child to summer camp today is a rehearsal for the kinds of decisions that will face a family about five years later when they consider sending the same child to college. It also reinforces how advantages and inequities are acquired early in the American college sweepstakes. 

For a relatively small portion of prospective college students and their parents who are serious about selective college admissions, here is how choices and opportunity costs have brought camp and campus into a seamless web of deliberations far beyond the planning and pocketbooks of most American families.

How Much Does It Cost?

The answer is that it all depends -- camps are comparable to colleges in their range of prices and services. Among the numerous possibilities is “Pine Forest Camp,” located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, conspicuous because it was selected by The New York Times as the subject for a front-page feature story on the changing economics of camp. A glance at the Pine Forest website indicates that in 2011 the charge for seven weeks of a full summer for a stayover camper was $9,700.

Official camp charges do not include such incidentals as travel and supplies.  There is considerable discretion on how much parents must pay versus how much they choose to pay.  And, for families who are newcomers to deciding about camp for their children, there is new information to absorb about camp expenses. The camp’s website provides a camp packing list.  Some clothing items “are only available through Bunkline" -- an internet site for purchase of camper gear. In addition to clothing and accessories, parents can pay for special optional programs: superstar tennis, superstar golf, horseback riding, top cooks, and one-on-one fitness.

Camp as College Prep

Pertinent for connecting camp to college, an upscale camp such as Pine Forest showcases on its website that it offers as a supplement a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) prep course. The catalog elaborates that, “In SAT Prep, campers will spend 4 hours a week preparing for the SAT by learning test-taking techniques and taking 3 practice tests during the summer. Campers have a competitive edge when they return to school in the fall. This extra course is taught by a certified teacher and SAT tutor. Most participants improve their scores by over 100 points."

An option in the leadership track for campers is the “College Bound” program. It is not completely clear whether this entails added charges. Or, if it does, how much? This detail is crucial because it can drive up expenses. Its availability suggests that the clients of the camp are highly concerned about college admissions.  The “College-Bound program combines the best parts of being a camper with additional responsibilities and challenges. 11th graders live together with counselors and enjoy the full range of Hi-Seniors activities. CAs participate in leagues, inter-camp games, socials, Color Days, Banquet, Cabaret…the best parts of camp! Plus CAs have unique ‘college-bound’ opportunities.”

The CAs have a trip to Washington, D.C., with visits to American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Holocaust Museum, the Kennedy Center, and on the way back to camp, a visit to Pennsylvania State University.  The Boston trip introduces camper-students to Boston University, Harvard University, and Boston College, along with walking tours of Cambridge and historic Boston.  Finally, the trip to New York City provided visits to New York University, Greenwich Village, and Broadway.

How Far and How Fast Are Costs Rising?

Both colleges and camps are scrutinized for their rising costs and prices over the long haul. In 1931, when Pine Forest Camp first opened, a seven-week stay cost $85. The summer camp in 1931 costs about 114 times as much today, 80 years later.

Did summer camp really cost 114 times more than now? This may be technically accurate – but it is a calculation so misleading as to be incorrect because it is incomplete.   When one accounts for inflation, that $85  in 1931 translates to $1,263.68 in 2011 dollars. Summer camp has increased by 767 percent -- or, stated another way, it is about eight times more expensive than it was in 1931.  As for comparing costs of college and camp, college presidents may find some relief from critics in now being able to document that colleges are not alone in escalating prices.

Extra Expenses and the Real Cost of Attendance

As preview for the peculiar consumerism of rising college costs, consider a recent development about summer camp expenses that made front page headlines in The New York Times article, “To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining Up for Private Jets.” A number of families were chartering private jets from New York and Philadelphia to take their children to rustic summer camps in rural Maine.  What started as an infrequent act spread in popularity, so much so that the small airports in Bangor and Augusta had to increase services to accommodate this expensive practice.  Why would parents pay huge amounts for air service instead of the traditional drive in the family station wagon or SUV?  The explanations provided a look at family discretionary choices about their children’s education and related support services.

Some parents explained that chartering a private jet was useful because it compressed round-trip travel time from several days to six hours.  This could be justified as effective and, perhaps, efficient.  There was a secondary, social effect: bragging rights and prestige among parents and children in which chartering the private jet conferred some reflected prestige of “conspicuous consumption.” All constituents henceforth had to be at least aware of this level, whether they mimicked it or not.

All this took place outside the purview of camp officials.  To the contrary, for some camp staff, it was a disconcerting clash with the values and experiences of camp life they wished to transmit to adolescents. Regardless of the camp administrators’ views, there was little they could do to encourage or discourage the practice.  Parents, meanwhile, had to take these factors into consideration about camp expenses and lifestyle. The summer camp economy had become financially stratified by official price plus added discretionary expenses subject to expensive status pressures. This was a forewarning of decisions about college prices and choices that a family would make in the future.  Most important, it shows how numerous variables need to be considered when one calculates the genuine cost of attendance.

Cost of Attendance (COA). Connections to College Costs: From Camp Back to the Campus

Camps and colleges use similar language such as “tuition and fees” charges. Second, a camp and a campus have comparable investments in residential physical plant with recreational and instructional facilities.  A residential camp enrolling 450 children has an annual budget of more than $2 million, including $1 million for salaries for a staff of 500.  Annual maintenance is about $700,000.  The residential dining hall at Pine Forest serves 4,200 meals per day for a summer total expense of $500,000. Third, the proliferation of expensive accessories illustrates how expenses can snowball. The connection between camp and campus becomes more evident when one recalls that a camp offered two optional programs for which families would have to pay extra: the SAT prep program and the Leadership program dealing with college campus visits.

Escalation of supplements was the focus of another New York Times article last summer on the quest for admissions advantage that high school seniors gain by enrolling in (and paying for) programs that provide unusual summer experiences geared to writing an impressive college application essay.  This new, expensive option in the summer experience was called “priceless fodder for the cutthroat college application process. Suddenly the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past."

If one knows that such pre-college socialization and programs make a difference in who goes where to college and how well they are prepared, does one then include the camp and other activities in plan for compensatory programs that increase promote genuine equity and access? The sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman observed in their 1968 classic work, The Academic Revolution, that for the children of education-minded American families, going to college is not a sprint, but a marathon.  Some competitive families start the preliminary heats of this race early, with summer camp as the racer’s edge.

Forty years ago John Gardner, in his 1961 book, Excellence -- asked, “Can we be equal -- and excellent, too?” High prices at camp and campus signal that the answer for today is, “Fat chance!”

John Thelin is professor of higher education & public policy at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins Press, 2011).

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