Beating the High Cost of Higher Education

college scaleIf you’re a middle-class parent with a senior graduating from high school this year, you’ve probably been deeply involved in the frantic world of college acceptance. You’ve been sweating it out with your kid as he awaits that all-important letter from his school of choice. You’ve played the role of the patient counselor, but the truth is you’re just as anxious as your young college-student-to-be.

You’ve spent the past 12 years watching, encouraging, and helping your child (when you can understand the assignments) to study, read, and complete all of his homework. You drove him to music lessons, sports practices, and community service assignments because you were told by the college counselor at his high school that he needed extracurricular activities on top of great grades. You paid for professional classes to help him boost his SAT score, and when invited, he joined the National Honor Society, the National Honor Roll, and Who’s Who Among American High School Students. You hung every plaque, framed every certificate, pinned up every ribbon, and displayed every trophy to remind yourself that you expended this effort knowing that every bit of it would look great on his all-important transcript for the ultimate prize–scholarship money.

But, alas, now that you have sweated over accurately filling out the FAFSA, you’ve discovered that your child, although deserving, is not eligible for any Federal, state, or any other need-based aid, which (you also discovered to your chagrin), is what the majority of the large awards are based on. You make too much money. (You could argue that $69,000 for a family of four is no real money, but save your breath. That’s the ceiling in some states.) If only you had a lower-paying job, more children, or were deeper in debt, that same high school senior could be looking at a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious university. Because you have worked hard to provide, you are now looking at dipping into your retirement fund to help with his higher education. (You’re as old as you are because you judiciously waited to start your family until you were in a better financial position to provide a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood and a childhood with at least some frills.)

And that great kid of yours is now rewarded by having to take out loans for his higher education. He will then have the grand privilege of looking forward to his first 10 years out of college paying those loans back while he holds down the great job for which he has been prepared, plus paying a decent amount of taxes to that same state and federal government who wouldn’t help him get where he is now. Parents, what were you thinking?

Well, fellow parents, as I faced this dilemma, I joined my son Matthew on a search for private, merit-based scholarship money. We found the search frustrating, as each of the wonderful organizations offering this money has tons of different requirements, long forms, and many applicants. The competition is fierce and Matthew’s registration and move-in date kept moving steadily closer. Would he get the scholarships or not? I was losing my fingernails fast.

I finally realized that I was approaching it all wrong. Instead of chasing the money, I needed to send Matthew to a different institution. I needed to send him someplace where the cost of his education, room, and board would be covered by the state and federal agencies of the great land in which we are proud citizens. And since I know you get what you pay for, I wanted to find an institution on par with the $30,000 per year I was looking at paying for him to attend his chosen university. It was my good fortune to be watching 60 Minutes several weeks earlier because I got my answer.

Yes, 60 Minutes spotlighted just the kind of institution that, I decided, would be perfect for my son. It’s a place called Pelican Bay. The show talked about its entrepreneurial “students” who were running national corporations while still in attendance. What a head start on life! I want my son in a place where those around him are forward thinking, self-starters — people who see barriers as challenges and let nothing stop them from reaching their business goals. There was the young man who had taught himself a whole new language in order to better communicate with his colleagues. And there were art “students” who wove intricate messages into their masterpieces — messages only those really in tune with the times could decipher. Matthew would be able to network with these guys and more (early on, his report cards received the coveted comment “works well with others”) who operated independent empires and who were more than glad to allow him to align himself with them as each group would jockey to bring him into their circle and teach him what Pelican Bay had taught them. Such fraternity!

I leaned toward the television. At Pelican Bay, Matthew would gain incredible business savvy. He’d know the ins-and-outs of insider trading, financial frugality, slick communication skills, and creative time management.

I was fascinated. Upon searching Pelican Bay’s website, I found more intriguing incentives in terms of an educational environment for my son. The website promised that Pelican Bay fosters “an innovative, collaborative environment that provides meaningful educational and vocational training.” That’s exactly what I wanted for Matthew. It also incorporates “medical and mental health services in day-to-day operations.” Fabulous! Free health care.

The more I read, the better it got. Pelican Bay provides “secure housing” and has established that “violence is unacceptable” and backs this up by holding residents “personally responsible for their actions through behavior-based multi-level programming.” In this age of out-of-control school violence, what a comfort this is for a parent. This settles my fears about releasing him to the dorm.

Pelican Bay is an extensive 275-acre facility with a $115 million budget, workout facilities, laundry facilities, and optical services, just to name a few provisions.

Now here’s the best part: Every resident of Pelican Bay receives a full ride financed by the government to the tune of $30,929 each per year. That’s free tuition, room, board, medical, dental, and visual for as long as is necessary, all on the government’s dime. Such a deal! As a taxpayer, I’m paying into this system anyway; how can I possibly pass up taking advantage of such an incredible business educational opportunity for my son?

The minor detail that Pelican Bay is a state correctional institution may deter some parents, but the benefits just seem to far outweigh the risks.

Of course, my home state of California and the federal government could question the logic of paying over $30,000 a year, for 15 years to life, over paying $30,000 a year for four years to educate upstanding young people who have the real potential of becoming contributing, positive role models in society. They could question the validity of a system that believes middle-class kids are less deserving of starting life after college out of debt. They could question their support of a system that punishes parents who have been diligent and balanced in their spending habits for 18 years. Those questions could be asked, but the student loan system is riding safely and securely on the backs of these middle-class kids who obviously have admirable work ethics or else they wouldn’t meet the requirements of acceptance to the excellent private universities across this country.

Before I sent for the Pelican Bay application, Matthew and I continued to scout merit-based scholarships. (Did I mention he was the valedictorian of his class, carried a 4.2 G.P.A., and planned to major in Film Production with a view to bring values-based motion pictures into mainstream Hollywood?) He and a few of his friends are in the same looking-forward-to-the-loans boat.

If anyone has a better idea for these kids, please let me know. Otherwise, parents, take my advice and follow my lead. Look into the outstanding, educational, vocational, and personal growth opportunities afforded free for your child at institutions like Pelican Bay. Believe me, when they go there, they will never be the same.