My oldest daughter is now 13, and as any parent of a teenager will understand, my thoughts have begun to contemplate college. Well, not college as much as college tuition. The cost of higher education has gone through the roof over the past few decades and it has far outstripped inflation. When I went to college in the early 1990′s, the total annual costs for both room and board for me was less than $5,000. Now that would barely cover your book fees at some places. Some are saying that college expense are in a “bubble” which may soon burst. Whatever the case may be, it is a serious issue for all parents.
As a Catholic parent, there are other factors as well. I don’t have any inclination to help pay for tuition at a state-college which is anti-Catholic in its teachings and campus life. Nor will I send my hard-earned money to a “Catholic” college which thinks the Catholic tradition started in 1968 with the rejection of Humanae Vitae. So I’d prefer to help pay for a college that is authentically Catholic. Yet those colleges are not cheap (I can’t afford to pay the whole tuition), and I don’t want to saddle my children with huge amounts of debt as they go out into the world.
So what is a middle-class Catholic parent to do? I don’t have any answers (I wish I did!), and I think every option has its positives and negatives.
Option 1: Send my child to an authentically Catholic college for four years and allow them to get into significant debt.
The advantage here is that the child gets four years of life in a great incubator for real life. They are away from the home learning how to live on their own, yet are also in an environment that supports living the Catholic Faith. However, if they are in serious debt when they graduate, they add significant stress to their lives which will affect their career, even vocational, choices and their marriages. This should not be taken lightly.
Option 2: Send my child to a community college for two years and then allow them to finish their degree at an authentically Catholic college.
This has the advantage of being significantly less expensive. I know of families who chose this route and their kids were able to completely pay for their first two years on their own through working, and then the parents were able to completely (or almost completely) pay for their final two years. Thus the children were not saddled with excessive debt going into life. But the disadvantage is that they miss much of the “college experience” of living at an authentically Catholic college, and this could have a great impact on how they live their lives as Catholics going forward.
Option 3: Skip college or only go to community college.
To most middle-class Americans, this seems like a terrible decision. But is it? The “value” of college has in many ways been overblown, and as Catholics, we should not be making our decisions based solely on how much mammon we can gather in our lives. There are many solid careers that one can have without a four-year degree, and for the entrepreneurial among us, college might just slow them down. But of course the child would lose many of the benefits of an authentically Catholic college, such as the deep bonds they form with their fellow students that can last a lifetime.
In my own case, I don’t know what we will do. There is a good chance, in fact, that we might do something different for each child, depending on their personality and life goals. But no matter what we choose, I’m going to always remind myself that the most important goal in life is getting into heaven, not Harvard.