In two short years, our little bird will be leaving the nest for college. Like a lot of families with kids her age, we've started to check out schools. My husband and I are not naïve, but the full force of this future commitment is staggering.
We have the poor luck of living in a state that has done a terrible job of funding its schools. Pitt, followed by Penn State - with Temple close behind - have the dubious distinction of being the most expensive public universities in the country. Pennsylvania ranks 47th among states in per-capita state funding of its public universities. Yay, PA.
When I went to college (and I went to all three aforementioned schools), public universities were eminently affordable. My parents paid for my undergraduate education, and I paid for graduate school with the assistance of a graduate assistantship and a low-interest loan that was paid off quickly.
As of now, Penn State is our daughter's number one choice. It costs about $35,000 a year. It's a gorgeous school with lots to offer our engineer-to-be. But seriously? They couldn't slap a coat of paint on those dorm walls, which haven't been updated since I lived there 40 years ago? And yeah, we love knowing the school had to pay $60 million because of the Jerry Sandusky debacle.
We visited Drexel, founded in 1891 as a technical school for "working-class young people." Mr. Drexel must be spinning in his grave, because today's young people and their parents must be able to afford a whopping $67,000 a year to attend this admittedly fine school (same dorms though). $67K for one year. Come on!
Interestingly enough, the engineering professor who gave our presentation received his undergraduate degree from Penn State. And his master's and Ph.D. from Pitt.
My husband walks our dogs with a guy whose dad was once very high up in Drexel's administration. Know what the dad says? It ain't worth it.
I work for a nonprofit. My husband is a self-employed professional illustrator who teaches part time, with zero benefits. His career has been profoundly affected by the economy and changing technologies and values. We pay about 25 percent of my gross income for health insurance and health-related costs. On paper we make a nice living, even though we don't have nearly enough saved for retirement, which will never happen - death is our retirement plan. We are being squeezed more and more each year.
I plugged our salary into one of those financial calculators. According to that, we should be able to contribute $35,000 per year toward our daughter's education. It'll be simple. We'll just sell our house, live under a bridge, and eat cat food (the generic kind, no Fancy Feast for us). That's the only way we would be able to contribute that kind of money. No house, no cars, no food. No problem!
When I went to college, it was the great equalizer. An affordable college education was the way everyone - rich, poor, or in between - could get started on the path to success. Now even state-supported schools are out of reach financially (and extremely hard to get into due to intense competition).
The debt-load is going to hobble an entire generation of kids who will spend their working lives getting out from under their school loans. That's just plain nuts, and something we should all be very worried about it.
Somehow, we will get our daughter through college. But at what cost?