As a financial planner I am frequently asked by parents about the best way to save for the cost of their child’s college education. The question I am never asked is should their child go to college. For most parents that is not a consideration. The expectation is that once graduated from high school the unquestioned next step is college. But is it always appropriate that a parent’s expectation become a child’s reality. I recently read a paper written by Dr. David Hall, a Knoxville psychologist who focuses his practice on young people. I’ve attached that paper for your consideration.
Coming to terms with The College Experience
By Dr. David Hall
It was probably when I was in high school that I began to hear people talk about the importance of, “the college experience”. Most of the time I heard it from teachers, but also from other adults in my life, and even from peers who had yet to go to college themselves. It was taken for granted that not just the education you received in college, but the general life experience of being in college itself, was an essential rite of passage for a young adult from the middle class. I think pretty much everybody in my senior class had plans for college in the fall after graduation.
I was in a slightly different place. School had always been a struggle for me as I had dealt with learning disabilities, including severe dyslexia, which I did not understand very well the time. As I was reaching the end of high school, I was simply grateful that I was graduating in 4 years, and I had not put a lot of thought into what I would do after. My parents were supportive, as they did not see the need to spend the money on an education that I was not even sure I was going to use.
As graduation approached, I made my plans for the upcoming fall; however, these plans did not include enrolling in college. I planned to take time to develop as a creative writer, to travel overseas for the first time in my life, and to work part-time jobs as I found them. I was perfectly happy with this arrangement, and so was my family; however, the reaction from most other adults in my world was something different. My parents relate the reactions of their peers after they would ask my parents, “So where is David going to school next year?” When my parents would respond that I was going nowhere next year, their friends seemed to become uncomfortable and awkward, as if we were breaking some social taboo.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I am seeing things from a different perspective. In the end, I did go to college. After feeling restless towards the end of my first semester off, I decided to enroll in a local community college to do some general prerequisites. After this, I felt a little bit more inspired and enrolled in one of the larger state universities. I developed a strong interest in psychology towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, and then went directly on to a master’s degree in family therapy. After a few years of working as a therapist, I went back to school part-time and earned a doctorate.
But through my work as a therapist, the confusion and anxiety that I experienced around me as a young man comes into my office on a regular basis. These are college students, and sometimes their families, and they are collapsing under the weight of expectations that they feel they are carrying. For the college students themselves, often times they feel trapped in horrible and unhealthy patterns of alcohol, drug use, pornography, and excessive video gaming, to name a few things. Others are dealing with intense anxiety and depression because of the amount of academic pressure they feel, or their lack of hope for gainful employment in the future, and an inability to see how they are going to manage their student debt.
For the parents in these situations, they are dealing with their own frustration and anger over the amount of money they are paying towards tuition and living expenses, only to find out that their son or daughter has not been attending class, has gotten a DUI, or has lost scholarship money because of slipping grades. They are coming to see me because they want help in the situation, and I am often trying to help them to see the reasons that they are in this situation in the first place.
As always, I want to be empathetic and understanding to their pain in that moment, and of course I want to help them find ways of achieving solutions in the middle of the chaos. But when I step back and look at the situation, I often see things that do not add up in my mind.
I see young men and women who really have no interest in being in college, except for the purely social aspects of it, and because it is what their parents insist on. I see young adults who are pursuing degree paths that appear prestigious, such as law or engineering, but that do not line up with their natural interest or abilities. I see families spending massive amounts of money so their children can go to, “the right school”, even though cheaper academic programs might provide better fits. I see individuals amassing significant student debt to pay for education that will not reasonably provide enough opportunity for them to adequately service that debt in the future. All of this for the sake of “the college experience.”
Why do we do this? What is it that drives us to sacrifice so much for, “the college experience.” This is a question I pose more to parents, as I see the greater urgency to have the college experience coming from the older generation. Though the college experience is something that many young adults pine for, many of them would make different decisions about where and how to do their education if their parents seemed indifferent. So why is this so important to parents, the college experience? I believe there are lots of ways to answer, but I will offer four points that I believe illustrate many of the hopes and anxieties that parents experience when they are trying to encourage their kids to have a college experience.
1) It gets them out of the house.
There are some very practical reasons why parents place much importance on their children having a college experience. There is the normal desire parents have seeing their kids move on in life. Most parents have some sense of the dangers that can happen if kids failed to move forward. Once they leave the highly structured world of high school, many young adults can fall into an unmotivated rut of living at home with no purpose or direction. Better not to allow the gap and send kids on to the next institution that will fill their schedule.
And with the college phase, many young people also move out of their parents’ home for the first time. Though many parents in this phase experience a bit of empty nesting grief, this can also be coupled with the feeling of success that comes from their young adult child being out of the house. Parents feel successful because of this practical manifestation of their child’s independence; granted, many college students are still financially dependent on their parents, but then living out of the house is a step in the right direction.
2) There is the hope of eventual independence.
And with the young adult being out of the house, there is also the hope that the college experience will equip them for eventual financial independence. Most families are willing to work hard and make financial sacrifices for their children if it means that, through their education, they will be able to financially support themselves in the future.
The problem is that many young adults go through college without a lot of precise thought of what they are doing it for. And though they might be finishing with a degree, depending on what the degree is in, they may not be particularly well-equipped for that hope of independence. I did a minor in film studies while I was doing my bachelors, and am very happy that I did, but I am not exactly sure what my chances would have been for gainful employment if film studies had been my major. In the past, just having a college degree, any college degree, may have been enough to secure successful entry into many careers. But more and more studies are showing that this is not the case. And though your kids might have enjoyed the classes they took on 19th century literature and modern sculpture, it may not have helped you as a parent in moving them towards independence.
3) The experience was essential in my life.
And finally, the significance of the college experience for their children often has to do with the college experience that the parents had themselves. For generations past, the experience of going to college represented so many things that people have found foundational to their successes as adults. For many, the college experience was about learning independence for the first time, about making deep and lasting friendships, possibly meeting their future spouse, and often times experiencing a certain amount of recklessness that nonetheless they were able to learn from and to get out of their system. An education was also part of this, but one of the points I am trying to hit in writing this is that the college experience is seen as something separate than the education of college. The two might run concurrently, but when we talk about the college experience we often are referring to all those things that go along with the educational experience of college that are not actually classes, or exams, or the like.
The value of these experiences for so many adults is beyond question, what we have to take into account is the changing context of what college looks like today. More and more college students and their families have to rely on student loans to pay for college. And though some might say that you cannot pay too much for good education, statistically you absolutely can pay too much for an education. And though the four-year experience at the private college may have been so formational for you, your son or daughter may end up mortgaging a good portion of their life to do the same.
4) What do I tell my friends?
As I related earlier, when I was finishing high school many of my parents’ peers would ask what my plans were for college. In most cases, this is a question that comes from a genuine place of concern and curiosity. For middle-class Americans it has been the assumption for a long time now that when young people finish high school they go on to college. Not going to college, to them, would be like if they did not go to high school a generation before. We believe that without a college eucation an individual is handicapped in their ability to succeed in the adult world, so the assumption is always that a college education is the thing that parents would want for their children.
If this was all of it, the question would be less anxiety provoking. Of course parents want their children to be successful, but if that success was better fulfilled by taking a path other than college (e.g., going to a technical school or learning a trade) then it would be easier for parents to be content with that. But in the end, it is not just about the success of the children, but also about the appearance of success for the parent.
Like so many things in life, where your children are going to school can become a competition. A trade school might be an excellent fit for many middle-class young adults, but parents can fall into the anxiety that this answer does not, “sound right”, to their friends when they are asked. The underlying fear is that you have failed somehow as a parent because your child is not taking the socially expected course in life. Going even deeper in this, for many families it is not enough to go to a four-year university, but are you going to the, “right”, university. Going to a state school can seem like settling to many people, and many parents want to be able to tell their friends that their kids are majoring in this prestigious field at this prestigious university. When parents get to share this, they feel like it is a marker of their success as parents.
The problem with all of this is that it puts the social appearance of something over the practical needs of the situation. It might be a very prestigious major, but it might not fit the desires or temperament of the student. And it might be a very prestigious school, but attending it might stretch the financial means of the family beyond what is wise, particularly when an equally good education might be had at a far less expensive school. If parents were truly indifferent to social expectations of their peers, how much would having the right, “college experience”, really be worth to them.
The question that all of us have to answer is what sort of assumptions do we have about the college experience? What is essential? What is not? And how can we, as families, make the wisest decisions about what moves us in the future?
About the Author:
S. David Hall, PsyD, LMFT, LPC is a licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT) and licensed professional counselor (LPC) in the state of Tennessee. David has been in private practice since 2006 and before that worked in inpatient psychiatric and addiction treatment settings. David completed his Doctorate in Psychology with his dissertation focused on the role of language and narrative in therapeutic change. David is also the director of the Narrative Institute, a training organization for narrative therapies, and is co-directing international training for the Institute for Sexual Wholeness, coordinating their trainings in the United Kingdom.
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