Like millions of others across the country, our family embarked on a new adventure this fall, sending our oldest son off to to college and praying that he remembers all the good things we’ve taught him (and that he forgets all the bad).
For some reason, I never really imagined this day would come. Sure, we’ve spent the past 18 years trying to prepare him to be a good and productive citizen in the world. But as a mother, I don’t know if I will ever truly be prepared to let go.
Thankfully, our son is ready – not just for college, but for life.
Whatever happens in the future, God-willing, I know he will land on his feet.
How can I say that with such confidence? Because I had the privilege of watching him prepare for college. This past year, my husband and I witnessed a transformation in our son that could only come from taking responsibility for his own future.
We saw first-hand the look of concern when he realized the cost of college for his first year, even after having obtained a full tuition scholarship. We watched that concern turn into determination as he began working long hours so that he could afford his room and board. We were impressed as he sacrificed nights out with friends, purchased little and kept close track of his account. We felt the pride he took in his accomplishment as he watched his savings build up over time. And the moment I heard him say, “I am not going to get a student loan,” I knew he had achieved victory over a culture that had spent an entire election year telling him, not only that everyone needs a student loan to afford a college education, but that those student loans should be forgiven and college should be “free.”
The Eleventh Commandment
Paying for our kids’ college has become almost the eleventh commandment of parenting in our culture. I know a lot of fine parents who do it. And I’m certainly not knocking them for it, because I also know a lot of fine kids who’ve been the recipients of the generosity of those fine parents.
But in our case, not paying for our son’s college has been a great decision. It may not have started out as some genius parenting move. But in hindsight, I believe it may be one of the moves that has benefited him most.
That said, this responsibility is not something we threw at our son last minute. Long before our kids were out of elementary school, my husband and I decided that we were not paying for college. There were essentially two reasons for this. First, we didn’t believe we’d be able to afford college for six kids without having some serious financial struggles. Second – and I’m embarrassed to admit it – I was the poster child for “entitled” teens when it came to my own college education, and I did not want to see that side of me in my own children. More on that later.
Needless to say, our kids have all been told from Day One that we will not be paying for their college; and so far the first three have taken us seriously. Please don’t read this post as an arrogant pat on our proverbial backs. I am the first to admit that there are plenty of things my husband and I could do better as parents.
But thankfully, in this area, it appears we may have done something right.
I’m sure a key component of our son’s success was the voice of Dave Ramsey wafting through the airwaves of our house day after day. NO DEBT, NO DEBT, NO DEBT, NO DEBT has been a message our kids have heard loud and clear for many years. And while, if you are a Dave Ramsey fan, you know that one of his steps to Financial Peace is, in fact, Saving for Kids’ College, we have always told our kids that paying for college is not our job.
Bucking the System
Our message to our children? You may call it harsh. Our kids call it love:
If you work hard, you will be rewarded with scholarships and job opportunities. But if you don’t care enough about your own education to work hard and earn it, then why should we be willing to foot the bill?
I don’t think we ever worded it quite that way. But that was the message in a nutshell.
Face it. While there are some children with learning or other disabilities who might have greater challenges in the grade department, the majority of kids are perfectly capable of performing above and beyond – both in school and out. Whether they do or not is pretty much up to them.
And you know what?
So far, our three teens have worked hard.
They have owned their educations.
As I mentioned above, our first graduated this past spring with high honors and was offered a full tuition academic scholarship to a state university this fall. And he’s not some amazing anomaly in that way. Many of his friends and relatives received academic scholarships as well.
Also mentioned above, our son is responsible for his own room and board, which is a pretty steep requirement, considering freshmen are required to live on campus and – based on our income – he wouldn’t qualify for financial aid. But he was undeterred. Once he realized he was just under a year from graduation and nowhere near secure enough to get through school without a student loan, he kicked it in gear, with nary a word from Dad or Mom.
I will admit, I was a little surprised at first. This was a kid who always wanted the latest gadget and the nicest clothes, and he ate out virtually every day through the first three years of high school – all of this with money that he’d earned through part-time jobs, of course. He had never been a big saver. Despite all our talks about being prepared, I did think he might have to learn the hard way that he would indeed be responsible for his own education.
But I was wrong. Thankfully, our son did have an appreciation for the value of work. As in, he knew where to go if he wanted money. And boy, did he go. That kid spent all summer and much of last year working for a local landscaper. He worked more hours than I’ve seen any teen work in my life. We’re talking 12-14 hour days, and several 80 hour weeks. He came home filthy, day after day, often seven days per week, with grass-infested socks that virtually destroyed my washing machine.
But he was happy.
Not only did he save enough money for the coming school year, but he also had plenty left over to purchase his first car. He opted to treat himself by paying cash for a 2007 BMW. I should add that as a result, he also obtained his own car insurance, for which he alone is financially responsible.
I will admit that I am a proud Mama. But I am not sharing this with you in order to brag. I know too many amazing parents and I don’t feel qualified to comment one iota about what constitutes great parenting. Instead, I am simply here to share what the responsibility of paying for college has done for our son.
The American Dream
Through this process of working and saving, our son has become a man. And he feels like a man. He knows that he earned the grades that brought him a scholarship. He knows that he earned the money that has allowed him to live in a great dorm and pay for his food and books, his phone and now even a parking pass. No one handed him a ticket to prosperity or success. He can honestly say that he owns his education. And he stands a little taller because of the investment of sweat equity and patient saving that he has made toward his future. Even more, as a result of his accomplishment, he now feels empowered to achieve just about any goal he sets for himself.
The amazing thing? Our son’s success is no one-hit wonder. We have witnessed this maturity in our next two children as well. They’ve heard the same message from Dad and Mom. And they have the added benefit of witnessing the fruits of their brother’s labor. They want those fruits, and they, too, have been putting in the labor.
One of the greatest things we can teach our children, aside from the love of God and neighbor, is an appreciation for hard work. And in this world – a world where we are knocking down every barrier and squashing every potentially character-building experience – an appreciation for hard work is sorely needed.
In not a small way, our son has already experienced a piece of the American dream. It doesn’t matter what you start with. It doesn’t matter where you come from. In our country, if you are willing to sacrifice and work hard, the sky is the limit.
When I hear politicians and college students complain about how college tuition should be “free,” I cringe. It is not simply a book or a class that that provides an education. Even more profound are the effects of the blood, sweat and tears students invest in the process.
I ought to know. I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
Entitlement is Not a Virtue
Remember when I said I was the poster-child for entitlement? Well, I certainly wasn’t raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. Even more shameful was my behavior because I was raised by a single mother. My mom worked very hard to keep food on the table, and as much as she would have loved to make it happen, she could not afford to send me to college. Unfortunately, no one in my family had ever been to college and I never really thought about what it would take for me to go. There was no serious discussion about saving or scholarships (and if there was I didn’t listen); I just assumed I was going to college when I graduated from high school.
Imagine my shock when my mother broke the news during my senior year that we could not afford a 4-year college and that I would have to attend a community college the following fall. Nothing against community college; but I was surrounded by friends who were going to attend universities and rather than appreciate the opportunity, I felt cheated. Eventually I did transfer to a university; but I took every advantage of my mother’s generosity while I was there. You see, my mother was so proud to have a daughter in college that she probably would have sacrificed her food or even her electricity just to make sure I was comfortable. When she visited, she brought groceries. She sent money when I complained of being broke. One summer she even paid my rent while I worked PART-TIME. She did everything she could possibly do to help me succeed. In effect, my mother owned my education.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about my mom. Her generosity was limitless. But I took great advantage of her. At the time, I didn’t appreciate her sacrifice one bit. I felt “entitled” to a college education. And other than studying for my classes, I was expected to sacrifice for very little to obtain it.
Fast forward a few years. Shortly after my husband and I were married, I was admitted to a Master’s Program. I was smart enough to know that this part of my education rested squarely on our shoulders – no longer could I depend on my mother. That being the case, I got to work applying for scholarships day and night – something I had never done in my undergraduate career. I worked. I studied, pushed myself. For my efforts, I was awarded with a graduate assistantship, which paid for a majority of my program. My husband and I lived on a tight budget, saving for books and living on little so that we didn’t go into debt while living on one income. My hard work paid off in many ways. I was nominated by a professor for a national “student of the year” award in my particular program, and I received a well-paying internship just out of college that led to a great full-time position. Last but not least, I graduated without one cent of student loan debt.
When I stepped out into the world after graduation,
I was proud of myself.
I stood a little taller.
And I felt a lot more confident.
For the first time, I had owned my own education.
This sense of accomplishment was something I had not experienced during my undergraduate years. But I wanted it for my kids.
Through my experience, I learned that when things were handed to me, it was very easy to take advantage. And the more I accepted, the harder it became to stand on my own two feet. I took, and I didn’t think twice about it. Not until I was forced to do things for myself.
I’m sure there are many kids who benefit from their parents’ generosity and who appreciate it immensely, never taking it for granted for a moment. But as I look around at the culture, I am pretty sure there are many more whose undergraduate experiences resemble my own.
Again, please do not take offense to this post as braggadocios or judgmental. I share our son’s financial success simply to offer what I think today has become a minority perspective. College is doable. And it is something our children can accomplish for themselves. Without loans. Sure, this might be a challenge if they opt for a private school; but regardless, isn’t it possible that we pay our kids a disservice when we carry them through the first adult thing they do?
We opted not to carry our son. And we are pleased to see that he is standing pretty securely on his own two feet. He might not admit it, but I’m willing to bet that preparing for his first year in college might just be the most rewarding experience he’s ever had. And I’ve no doubt that it will lead to many more.