IN MARCH, I took my first midterms since 1976. At the advanced age of never-you-mind, I was a student again. Along with acquiring notebooks-full of stuff about journalism ethics and history of the media, I’ve learned two other things. One: They still use those little blue books for midterms. Two: It’s hard to be a student.
I’m not whining. I have certain advantages over teenagers. I am not trying to hold in my stomach, snag a mate, get laid, figure out my sexual orientation, determine my political leanings, separate from my parents, conquer homesickness, and figure out how to make macaroni and cheese. I am not trying to find out who I am, choose what I stand for, learn how to walk in high heels, say goodbye to my high school boyfriend, pretend I’m not missing my dog, and learn how to eat on $1.48 a day.
Going to school is full-time, big-time, hard-time work. For every hour of class, there are two or three more hours of reading, studying, research, and just trying to find the dang library. The systems of registering for and getting permission to attend classes, buying books, finding classrooms, and learning what you’re supposed to do once you get there is often obtuse or even secretive. You can only use the library during library hours, eat at the cafeteria during cafeteria hours, and see instructors during office hours—and you can bet most of those hours directly conflict with your classes. Though the University of Minnesota is 400 percent more user-friendly than it was back in the Cro-Magnon era when I was a sophomore, learning to navigate a college and a campus is as complex and challenging as any corporate job I’ve held. At least now, 30 years since the last time I tangled with an admissions office, I can walk into the place and command a little respect. I look like everyone’s mom; they have to be nice to me. But the kids who are in line behind me are barely beginning to climb that learning curve of how to deal with people, organizations, and red tape. Pity them.
Pity them, and help pay their tuition, would you?
Most of my classmates have at least one job and come to class tired from long hours working tough gigs for minimum pay. They can’t keep up with their reading or their course work, and at their level of education and experience, they have to work a week to earn what mom or dad can make in a day. This is a half-hearted way to make an investment in their future and nearly guarantees poor performance. It’s a waste of tuition money, no matter who’s footing the bill.
I am a fan of self-reliance, but I am also a fan of responsible parenting. A friend boasts about the hefty nest egg she and her husband have squirreled away and says “no way is our daughter getting that for college.” Another tells me, “my son’s college is not going to compromise my way of life.” Mom and Dad are home in the McMansion with an SUV in the driveway, refusing to shell out dough for Junior because, gol darn it, they worked their way through school and their kid can, too. But the logic is flawed. If you’ve failed to save up enough for tuition after working full time for 20 years, a kid who earns eight bucks an hour isn’t going to get it done. And tuition costs today are the price tag of buying a house. It’s gonna take a family, if not a village.
Tossing students out into the world to sink, swim, and run up school loans might once have worked, more or less. I’m an argument that it did not, since I left school at the age of 21. It got too hard to compete both in school and at work. Today, it’s even harder. The economy is merciless.
Maybe kids who pay for their own school appreciate it more. But I bet more of them drop out and move home to live in the basement. Sure, some students whose parents pick up the tab might be spoiled or feel entitled or think of college as one big party. But that’s a parenting problem, not a tuition one.
What do we value and what are we willing to risk?
If we claim that we want our children to succeed in life, then we must accept our duty as parents to train them in the knowledge and skill that such success demands. We must educate them. And, no matter what we claim, if we put their educational success at risk, we cannot truly value education. Or them.
It is my responsibility and my honor to pay for my children’s education. It is not easy. I am not rich. There is only one of me and there are three of them. But it is the gift I have to give. I can’t earn their grades for them. I can’t write their papers and read their assignments and learn their lessons. But I can show them that I believe what they are doing is important and hard. It is worth everything they have. And everything I have, too.
This appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine in 2003.