By Shane Cashion
I spent the better part of this past weekend watching bowl games. I love the tradition and pageantry of college football. Because I played soccer in college, another fall sport, I had the privilege of visiting more colleges and universities than most. Whenever time permitted, I’d spend an hour or two walking around each school, taking in its lush green quads and historic architecture. I’d also wander through the tailgating fields where apoplectic students would mingle with alums over a smorgasbord of brats, burgers, dogs, chili, and other tailgating delicacies. It didn’t matter whether I found myself on a Big Ten, ACC, SEC, or small conference campus, the sights and sounds of the game day experience were always special and, for the most part, the same.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve set foot on a college campus as a student, yet I still reminisce about those wonderful times more than anyone cares to hear. What’s more, I always block out Saturday afternoons to watch college football on television. This past fall my wife gave birth to a little girl. Now, for the first time in nearly twenty years, the thought of college isn’t just one of fond memories, but rather one of concern for my daughter’s future.
I came across a flyer from Washington University, the university closest to my house, stating that tuition and room and board for the 2010-2011 school year is just under $54,000.00. Naturally, I was shocked to see how expensive it had gotten, so I pulled out my laptop and did a bit of research. I learned that Washington University is on par with costs at most of the better universities and that, on average, tuition and fees at universities increase at an annual rate of about eight percent. This means that by the time my daughter matriculates, the cost of college will have tripled. Absent some fundamental change in the way universities operate, I could be looking at paying as much as $600,000 for my daughter’s undergraduate education.
From a purely financial standpoint, I can’t help but think I’d be better off having my daughter disappoint me, perhaps a pregnancy midway through her senior year of high school to an older guy with a house and a good job in the trades. One of those great union gigs would be perfect. You know the kind that includes benefits where the co-pay for heart transplants or brain surgery is $5. In time, I’m sure he and I would grow to be friends. Occasionally, he’d even invite me over to his house to watch college football, because he knows I love it, and because he’ll watch anything as long as beer is involved. Since they wouldn’t need money for a down payment on a house, I’d give them a trip to Hawaii as a wedding present. Even better, as a Catholic, I’d also make a big deal out of the fact that they had a kid out of wedlock. I’d use that as an excuse to get out of paying for a big, lavish wedding. In this way, my wife and I would be able to retire early to someplace nice.
Unfortunately, I know this is all just wishful thinking on my part. More likely than not, I’ll have a daughter who’s smart, but not really smart. The type of kid that gets accepted to the best private universities, but that doesn’t do anything to raise the school’s stature, so doesn’t get a scholarship. And even though I’ll have been practicing law for nearly thirty years by then, God willing, I know I won’t be rich like those wildly successful King of Torts type lawyers; I’ll be just comfortable enough to render my daughter ineligible for financial aid. Then, after five and half grueling years in which I deplete our retirement savings, I’ll wear bad pants to her graduation, hug her, and tell her how proud I am of her degree in Art History, and that she shouldn’t worry about finding a job, there’ll be plenty of time for all that nonsense down the road.
As another college football season comes to an end, these are the things I’m left thinking about. I can’t help but be concerned over all that has changed since I went to college. I want my daughter to experience what I experienced, not to be stuck going to some school she doesn’t want to or, even worse, a questionable online school where her classroom is a makeshift desk in our basement. I want her to go somewhere that excites her, somewhere quaint, a place where she can fall in love with a town and a campus and, if I’m especially lucky; maybe even the Saturday game day experience, like I did. I also want it to pay off for her, in a practical way, in a way that will allow her to fend for herself financially. At the end of the day, I think I’m like most parents in that I want a lot, and I can’t help but worry over the rising cost of college and, even crazier, whether $600,000 in undergraduate tuition will be a justifiable expenditure in tomorrow’s economy.