By Rachel Hall
If you have kids or are planning to have to have kids, it's likely that generations above you or even your peers have mentioned the looming "college fund" that we are supposed to have for our children, both born and unborn. And yes, if you come from a family with immense wealth, then perhaps your unborn spawn already have a fully mature, vested, pile of coins set aside for their presumed Ivy League capabilities. For the rest of us mere mortals, whatever you want to call the generation who currently has kids and is somewhere between 30-Something and 40-Something, chances are, we are not going to make the herculean efforts that most people would have go to, to even attempt (and likely not be able to succeed) in order to have a college fund for our mini mammals.
No, it's not that we are trying to raise illiterate, uneducated, anarchists. We are not saving for college because we just don't have the money, and because we see that college "savings" didn't really guarantee us careers that left us carefree about our finances. Most of us are still paying our own student loans (not me, thanks mom), or at the very least, are lucky enough for our families to still be paying them (again, thanks mom). If you are super lucky, likely living pay-check to pay-check, you might possibly qualify for deferment programs, which lowers your monthly payments, but just delays the inevitable. We are the generation that was told, JUST GO TO COLLEGE and EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE. You will get a job, pay back loans, make bank, and boom. Well the joke was on us (and some of our generous parents), if not completely, than at least partially.
Of course it is a privilege to have been able to go to college. I am one of those people who will say that college was some of the best years of my life…though I think 50% of that is manipulated memory. That being said, when my single mother and I sat down with the guidance counselor and she suggested a small liberal arts school across the country, we both said YES, this sounds great! Looks smart! Looks quaint! I want smart and quaint! Well guess what? A degree in Psychology (or whatever liberal arts degree you studied) pretty much only prepares you for another degree. Upon graduating in the early millennium, most of us made less than $40K a year and likely had over $25K to pay back. Factor in cost of living and you have a generation who has no idea what our long-term financial abilities will be. We assumed we would be financially independent, living on our own, and saving money. Clearly that's not the case.
Some folks knew all along that we would seek an additional degree and immediately after graduation signed up for more loans and pushed ahead towards another degree of sorts. We did this in hopes of accessing better jobs, and to gain a leg up on the "lesser educated" and "less hirable" so to speak. Some people just did it because we didn't know what to do after our life had been structured for us for the past 20+ years and we just craved that collegiate container. Either way, yes it was great to be able to write Masters Degree on the 5000 resumes I sent out, and yes I am personally happy and extremely grateful I could be financially supported to receive my degrees. That being said, I think it would be financially irresponsible for our generation to put money in a college fund when we barely have retirement funds, health insurance, or enough (or any) long-term investments. This generation is wondering how they will maintain health insurance, how they will afford rent, and barely can imagine buying a home. Most of us have very little retirement plans and little faith that the government will provide retirement benefits in 25-35 years. This generation needs to figure out how it will support themselves for the rest of their lives. This generation also knows their kids can go in-state to college, take out loans, or even defer college and work until they know what field they really want to get a degree in. So many of us are working in fields that have nothing to do with our degrees, we wonder if we went to college simply because everyone else was going.
Right now, plumbers, contractors, and electricians can make more money than the average teacher and pay much less for their training. We have an expensive and inflated education system and this generation is not sure what the ROI is. We also can't believe we (or our parents) paid thousands of dollars a year for a dorm and a meal plan, just so we could pretend we were independent, while our families footed the bill. Some of us worked in college, which at least brought us closer to reality, but still, attending university at 18 years old often just seemed like the thing to do…not a personalized plan. If one is to invest over 50k in themselves, you would think we would stop and think…is this the best investment for me? It might have been. I just don't think middle class and even working class people stopped to really consider what they were paying for. What is the true cost of college? Before we put our families and ourselves in immense amounts of debt, we should really know.
We can't just assume shelling out tons of money for college will be a great financial decision, particularly, immediately after high school. This is what I assume; I assume my kids want me to be self-sufficient, in good financial standing, and in a place where my financial concerns do not have to be theirs. For that reason, I don't have the extra funds to put towards their college right now. I'm too busy paying for their healthcare, day care, non-toxic organic food, ect… When the time comes for them to discuss going to college, I can offer them free rent, food, a place to study, and they are welcome to commute. If all goes well, I hope to be able to help them pay for school in some meaningful way. However, being able to pay $25k-$55k/year so they can have a go at feeling (but not actually being) independent is not something I am going to save for. Independence is something that can't be faked or funded. Education can be funded, and that I am prepared to help them access and consider. It just might not look like a dorm room shower caddy with a $50k price tag.
By Rachel Hall, Rachel has a Masters in Cultural Gender Studies, and a BA in Communication & Culture. She is a frugal Certified Life Coach, and can often be found hiding in her laundry room from her two children. More about her on her website.