Higher (Cost of) Education

Let me first say that my son is at the school of his dreams, in the place of his dreams, with people who are extremely important to him, enjoying learning and being part of a community far more than he did at, oh, one of the top high school in New Jersey. So…I couldn’t be happier for him. I have have much to be grateful for, and only wish he were not quite so far away, as making the 7-hour drive there and the 7-hour drive back frequently is not possible. But Vermont is his true home. He can’t wait to go snowshoeing and camping in the snow, and I allowed the purchase of a student pass to Stowe and Mad River Glen, a skiers delight. Now we need some snow!

I honestly do not mind economizing. Nevertheless, I was meditating on the issue of ever-increasing college tuition, and how that is shaping our society. Bigger children, bigger problems, as the cliche goes. The same is true of wants, needs, and expenses. There are probably preschools in Manhattan with tuition that rivals or surpasses the cost of college tuition in Vermont, but since we have never lived in Manhattan, nor sent children to “competitive” preschools, college tuition is our biggest expense child-related expense thus far.

We are educating our child at our personal expense. This wouldn’t seem so strange if we did not have European backgrounds, and his first cousins in Germany weren’t simultaneously receiving their university educations largely at the expense of the society which will benefit from the investment. Since Germany is home to the “one percent” of Europe, with the healthiest economy, best healthcare, lowest unemployment rate, and and among the most stringent policies of admitting immigrants. Someone must be paying. Presumably the people in Southern Europe, whose economies are in shambles, and who don’t have generous parental leave, and can’t afford to have children, are the people having their pockets picked for the good times in Germany. But that is the situation in Europe today. Maybe there will be a change when Italy leads the EU, as it will soon do, when Germany’s term as head of the EU is up.

Chances are that the young man currently in Vermont will, not long from now, be employed and paying a handsome portion of his paycheck into social security. He is, in fact, employed part time right now, so though I have neither opened his mail, nor looked at his pay stubs, he is very likely already making such a contribution. Society will also benefit from his college education, because once he has a college degree, he is less likely to be unemployed. No guarantees, and rare is the individual who is not unemployed at some point, but statistically speaking, he is likely to be a net contributor. Will that make him a happier person? Probably not if he is forced into the corporate or wage-earning world. He wants to work in environmental agriculture, to help create a more sustainable world, and until he grows old and tired, will flourish in an outdoor environment rather than behind a desk. His will, therefore, be a double contribution: his career choice, as he sees envisions it now, will benefit all, not only himself and any eventual dependents or co-dependents. Food–and the water, and chemical and radiation-free soil on which food depends–are his concerns. He would probably make more money if he elected to major in economics and work in the business world. His brother majored in environmental economics, and will practice law one day soon, hopefully also protecting the environment.

Wherein will the greatest benefit to society lie? With the typical business major, or with the student working to save and protect our environment? Brokerage statements are of low nutritional value. One study showed that rats who ate Corn Flakes cardboard boxes, and nothing else, lived longer than the rats who ate only Corn Flakes cereal, and nothing else. So I could be wrong. Maybe your statements are printed with soy ink on hemp paper, and are extremely nutritional. Check with your broker, and be sure to have them sent via post, not only online, if this is the case.

Our young student will not be burdened by loan payments after he graduates, but many of his peers will. What, then, is their incentive to bother with college, and ever-higher tuition? Should we expect a generation of autodidacts and entrepreneurs not ensnared by government loans? The interest rates of student loans remain unconscionable! Why, when their degrees will benefit the elders in our society, do these same elders stack the deck against the struggling student, and for the profiteering banks? Why are student loan rates higher than mortgage interest rates, and far higher than the rates at which banks borrow money? Who is profiting from these high interest rates? Banks, the U.S., and other governments? The “starving student” is no mere cliche, but a sad fact of American life. It is also unfortunate that our culture has become such that all must, or at least should, attend college. We depend on a variety of people, but as trade unions are weakened, the paths through university or even professional school–not without their burdensome costs–have become more alluring.

Preschoolers do grow up and many practice a trade or use their college education. That this benefit to society-at-large should burden the individual and family is unethical. Along with raising the minimum wage, we must lower the barriers to equal educational opportunities.

An education is not, however, all a child needs. It all starts with parents, preschool, and cupcakes. The intangible needs and wants are costly in terms of time, productivity, and earnings. And that cost is mostly shouldered by mothers. Hence the enduring gender gap in pay and career advancement. But parenting is an occupation that provides the richest rewards, as well as heartbreaks unlike any other.

Thanks to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for supporting students, and honoring the contributions they make to our society, and for helping keep interest rates on Stafford loans reasonable. Not low, but at least reasonable. Or so it seems to one who is not struggling to find a job and pay back a loan that matures with graduation, even if the student’s maturation isn’t quite so instantaneous.

Click on the link to see and hear Senator Warren speak about student loans:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbDaO4jdyuk‎

And in case what I wrote about the fee schedule–or basic lack of same–at institutions of higher education in Germany seems entirely too good to be true, here is a recent article on the subject:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/26/world/europe/Germany-Backtracks-on-Tuition.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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