Now that my children are almost college-age, I have to face some cold, hard facts of personal accounting. I have not been saving for my teens’ college tuition plan. On my college professor’s salary I cannot afford to send my kids to the same kind of private institution that I attended as an undergrad. Nor do I want them to wind up with $80,000 in student loan debt by the age of 21. (I can’t even do the math for the additional costs of a graduate education for them.)
I was blessed as a young person by parents who hiked over big, tuition dollars for an undergraduate Duke education and left me loan free. I worked part-time in the college grill where I was rewarded with free food and beer at the end of the evening. After lowering my parent’s retirement account with tuition costs, they told me that grad school was on my own shoulders. I quickly ruled out the cost of Emory’s tuition and decided to attend my state university, which awarded me with a tuition fellowship and low-cost housing in Gainesville, Florida. I still wound up with $25,000 in debt (a small amount by today’s standards) for six years of graduate education, which I paid off by age 40.
As a professor at a university with many middle class and first generation college students, I find that too many of my students are enrolled in five, six or even seven courses (!) per semester in order to get the most out of their tuition dollars and to graduate sooner. These same students often have several part-time jobs to pay for housing and living costs that have escalated significantly since I was an undergrad.
Much has been written about the escalating costs of college tuition. Significant news has been published over the last few weeks regarding the rising default numbers for student loans, particularly at for-profit institutions. Congress is reconsidering federal regulations for schools that have higher percentages of students defaulting within a short period of time--typically for-profits that service, as Harris N. Miller of Career College Association says in The Chronicle of Higher Education : "less affluent populations." Employment data, debt to income ratios, and politics play a big role in the complex, new proposed regulations  from the Education Department regarding student loans.
A family member of mine has had a difficult time repaying her graduate student loans which were acquired after she had two young children. She and her husband could not afford day care while both parents worked and lived in an expensive college town. Nor did they want to both work full time until their kids went to school. Her student loan payment was not affordable based on her employment income, and she eventually went into long-term forbearance, with interest accruing steadily.
Now I know that I don’t want this to happen to my kids. I would like to at least offer what my parents did—an undergraduate education, and I assume any debt for it. But this means that I am looking at tuition exchange programs and state universities for my kids, as most of my colleagues have also chosen. (Tuition exchange is granted to faculty and staff of children at universities within certain exchange programs. They are competitive and not guaranteed with admission.)
It’s clear that universities are at a financial breaking point with tuition and housing costs. The public is already broke. Not many of us can afford to save for college, much less assume an added debt of hundreds of dollars per month, even if we defer it for a while.
On Friday I am taking my son to look at a college he is interested in attending in another two years. In the back of my mind I'm wondering if I can sell my house to afford the tuition once the kids go to school.
How’s that real estate market doing…?