Puppy Love and College

I recently made my first exploratory college visit with my high school aged son.  My initial reaction during the tour of this elite liberal arts college was the same as my visit to an Israeli army post a few years ago:  “God help us!  We’re screwed if our future is entirely dependent on the success of these highly-libidinal teens and twenty-somethings.”  The truth is, I loved the small campus, the 1:10 ratio of professors to students, as well as the personalized study programs that they offered.  For almost $50K per year my kid would get access to great professors, small class sizes, incredible opportunities for selective, character-shaping internships, plus free-massages, and, get this, puppies in the quad to relieve stress during finals week.  As our sophomore Theater Arts major tour guide said, “because who doesn’t love puppies.” 

It was easy to picture my kid there, thriving, making life-long friends, generally “becoming”.  Sadly, the $50K/year price tag only gave me slight pause.  It should have stop me dead in my tracks, but it didn’t.  Why not?

First, I was told by our college guidance office that “you just can’t tell what a college’s real cost will be” until you see how much scholarship and aid money they are going to give you.  If they really want you, a private college tuition can sometimes even be less than a state school’s (so I’m told).  So, why not apply to the schools you really want to go, and then deal with the money part latter?

Second, I’ve bought into the idea that your child doesn’t need to go to the best school she can get into, but to the college that fits her best.  What’s the point of going to college if your kid will just be miserable there.  Can he thrive there if he feels lost?  Won’t she learn more, and live better, in the near future and even well into adulthood if she builds a strong foundation during her first foray in independence?  And, how can she do that if the coursework is so overwhelming that she can hardly breath?

Third, and I know that this will sound simultaneously idiotic and self-serving and high-minded, I don’t really care about money, what I care about is people.  Can I afford NOT to make a strong investment in the people I love?  Apparently after reaching the Jewish age of wisdom (40), and after collecting almost $200K in graduate school debt between my wife and myself, I haven’t learned a damn thing.  I have figured out that my student loans might finally get paid off when my youngest kid finishes graduate school.  If he goes.  If it still makes sense to still go to graduate school in a decade.  [My sense is that educational life is changing so rapidly that it’s too hard to accurately predict what is or isn’t necessary to “make it” in the near future.]

Alas, such is the disconnected-from-reality mindset of a parent raised in the 80’s and 90’s, an era so seemingly prosperous that even though I know better it is hard to fathom that this “economic down-turn” can last much longer.  Intellectually I believe that we’ve likely got almost a decade of unravelling to go and perhaps a full generation to recover from as a nation.

Reading Jefferey Eugenides The Marriage Plot (it should have won him a second Pulitzer) and watching the new HBO series Girls (working with high schoolers and only have sons, I found the first two episodes so mesmerizingly current and concerning that my wife had to remind me that it was a comedy) I am reminded that college does not guarantee a successful “launch”:

Girls, an HBO Series (its dark, funny, and honest)

“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think, I may be the voice of my generation.  Or at least, a voice of a generation… Okay, all I’m asking to finish this book is $1100 a month for two years.”  (Girls character, Hannah Horvath, to her parents who are cutting her off after two years at an unpaid internship).

I believe that the desire for our kids to “just be happy” is a relatively new phenomenon,  no more than one or two generations old.  It was not so long ago that parents just wanted their kids to “make it,” to survive.  Once the relative risk of survival diminished, a new goal came into play – happiness, and happiness, as an end in itself, has brought for many a wave of depression, an eclipse of the holy dimension, and a deadening sense of total relativism in all aspects of life.  It’s the difference between living for something larger than the self (think God and country) verse the living for one’s ego.

The Talmud provides a short template of parents’ obligations to their children:

“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well,” (Talmud Kidushin 29a).

The brief checklist suggests that one must provide for the spiritual as well as physical well-being of one’s children.  Circumcision (
brit milah
), redemption of the first born (
pidyon haben
), and the study of Torah all sustain the soul, while finding a spouse, learning a trade and swimming speak to the physical survival of one’s children.  We could also read into the list temporal (physical, this-worldly )and eternal (heavenly) survival.

Could the right college possibly provide my son with spiritual and physical fulfillment?  Is that what I’m hoping for?

In the recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa question what it is that undergraduates are really learning, and how exactly we would know:

In a typical semester … 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.

Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor?

Remember Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know, I Learned in Kindergarten?  I’ve always found the title apt.  I would add, and if you didn’t learn it in kindergarten, don’t worry, it’s on the web!  If the findings of Academically Adrift are correct, than wouldn’t it be absurd to spend something approaching $50K/year if my kid wouldn’t really learn anything?  I don’t expect my son’s intellect to grow considerably; he’s already smart enough (smarter than I, the real measure between fathers and sons).  It’s not the money either, though according to the Wall Street Journal college grads should still expect a considerable pay bump over high school grads, between $450K to $1 million over a lifetime.  I’ve been so deep in debt because of my own student loans that  such numbers feel like Monopoly money.

What I really want in a college for my son are “mastery experiences” that build him up and opportunities that will deepen his understanding of the world and of his place in it.  College is not the only place finding one’s causes and path in life can happen, and there are no assurances in the calculation, but as it stands right now, college still seems like the best bet, besides, who knows, there may be puppies.

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