On the College Bubble, #1

ChoosingThe Parent Imperfect is certainly in some sort of denial. While I am quite focused on the fate of the Cape Verdean bilingual program at the Dearborn School, the clock is ticking toward a very intense period Vince’s life. He is about to enter his senior year at the nation’s oldest public high school. Not only will this be the final chapter in the struggle to help him and the rest of us get through the BLS experience: During fall 2014, Vince and his entourage must do a lot of work and make some important decisions about what happens next.

Since early this year, Vince has been visiting a few colleges in the Boston area. The whole thing has slowly become more real for him (and his parents) and he has begun to think more seriously about what sort of school he’d like to attend. The assumption at BLS is that every student at the school will attend some sort of a four-year college, and the school provides lots of support to students making that decision. There is less support, social, psychological, etc. for anyone interested in making a different decision.

With the support for college choice, comes no small amount of social pressure to take the next step. I’m not sure that Vince’s immediate or natural reaction to his experience at BLS would be to sign up for four more years of school. It’s very much like that moment when he suddenly realized there were exam schools, and he quickly got caught up in the rush to get in. No one wants to be the only one in their group of friends who is not going off to college next year. Everyone close to Vince is very engaged with this same process, and many of them are quite likely to get into and attend elite schools. This is an anxious way to start my Sunday morning. What must it be for Vince?

Student Loan DebtIf I really want to get nauseous, I can think about the financial aspects of these coming decisions. Every year about this time, a new set of studies and articles spinning the data in the studies appears in the press saying that, as expensive as education has become, a college degree is still a very good deal. Education debt, now more that $1 trillion, is definitely the new financial bubble, and the job market for today’s college grads is not great. The percentage of high school grads going on to college has declined sharply during in the aftermath of the financial collapse of the last decade. Even so, as inequality has worsened in the country, the gap between the earnings of people with a degree and without one continues to grow. Very soon, the lifetime earnings of degree holders will be more than double that of their peers who didn’t get the degree. One analyst points to this data and suggests that not getting a degree is one of the most expensive things that anyone can do in this year when we will face this decision.

Is that what matters to me/us…Vince’s lifetime earnings? Do I, the man who was earning 9K per year (while in El Salvador) when I turned 40, want to go deep in debt so that my son will have higher lifetime earnings? And what about that part of me who thinks that, during Vince’s lifetime, climate change is going to change everything in a way that even the lefties looking at these earnings numbers can’t begin to predict?  If that doesn’t make me look beyond the Times (New York, that is), then there’s the fact that I spend my working days with a bunch of very smart (not to say, brilliant) students who are in the process of spending 150K for a law degree that has less than a 50% chance of landing them a job in their chosen field.

social changeWhat matters to me is not Vince’s lifetime earnings, but whether or not he finds something to do that he’s passionate about and will allow him to make a positive difference in the world. If I said that to him, which I will do AGAIN at some point soon, he would smile knowingly at me, and probably shake his head. I can hear my father saying, “All right, save the spiritual reading…” Most times, Vince would bite his tongue and not respond, but, if he was having a day in which his frustration level was higher than usual, he’d say something like, “Yeah, Dad, I know that’s what matters to you, but it’s my life, isn’t it?”

College BubbleFor now, it’s our lives. What happens over the next few months will affect how all of us live, including Connie, who enters eighth grade as Vince enters twelfth. She’ll, once again, be struggling for a little attention as the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Regardless of climate change, my dreams about a life mission to change the world or the data from the Economic Policy Institute, when Vince walks into school in September, everyone who really matters is going to be talking about where they want to go to school, not whether or not a four-year college makes sense. To the extent that he receives guidance, that guidance will be all about the college choice.

Time to get out of denial and ready for life on the bubble…

 

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