Stop coddling your kids with excessive college costs

I was in Toronto recently doing radio interviews and saw one of my viewers sending out an article he had just read about the popularity of the University of Toronto and its costs to a “middle-class family” who wants to send their kids there.

He said he and his wife were proud of their kids for getting into the university with such a high average score in high school, but then he mentioned the $50,000 per year tuition there, the $57,000 per year living costs, and the 15-kilogram daily backpack he had to lug around as he accepted a new MBA.

Readers will recognize this challenge all over Canada.

More than that, my recent visit brought to light a failure of any sort to effectively communicate the benefits to the middle class of having such a world-class university located in this part of Canada.

There was certainly room for pride, the high-scoring kids mentioned having been in one of Canada’s best high schools, but also $50,000 per year for a university education is not the best bargain for a middle-class family.

Parents of kids in the sixth grade should get this. Most kids in this grade do not think much about the cost of the college degrees that will carry them to the workforce.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a cover story that cites a study by the Project on Student Debt at Georgetown University. The study shows that the average postsecondary student who graduated from a four-year college last year left debt-free with about $35,800 to start. That student now has an average of more than $36,000.

The average debt at the start of graduation is about $30,000 for first-time borrowers and $52,000 for new graduates. So, we are very far from what might be more acceptable to an intelligent child who doesn’t know the price, and until you discover that the solution to that is a $55,000 computer science degree or a $42,000 history degree, you’re probably keeping your children in school too long.

As a student aid adviser myself, I suggest that parents might take some careful measure to tailor their financial aid requests for a school that has a significant resident tuition rate at a lower rate than the provincial tuition rates where a student might want to go.

But parents need to ask themselves if a child is ready for a four-year education, is this the only thing that is available and will this be enough of a product to sell to those that want to buy.

There are other education alternatives like online degrees, however, it may not be an affordable option for more than a few students.

And it may not be realistic to suggest that a child who plays five sports and plays music is ready for a university education.

Young people are also very socially and emotionally and intellectually tuned into the world today. They are even interested in exploring the college option other than at a state university in the U.S. This can be done at a four-year college or community college with much less cost than a four-year university degree.

The financial aid system can and should be adjusted to reflect the real choices that are available.

A big outlay of money for the college education for the next child is not as good as, or at least is less than, that for a less well-equipped young person.

For example, my wife and I are raising our four-year-old child who is excelling at school at a private liberal arts school at a low cost to our family, yet our son has been invited to full tuition on the University of Toronto with him, even though a three-quarters-class equivalent school could be found with a price tag of approximately a quarter of what he is now paying. This is a huge waste of the financial resources that should be available for children in low-income families that need them the most.

We are working on an education plan for the fifth child in our family and it is not so cut and dried as we might think it should be. That’s how the world works today.

Thomas L. Rhodes is director of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Policy Institute. He served in the U.S. Department of Education in the George W. Bush administration.

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