Friday, August 27, 2010

Two semesters from retirement

Today's Dear Abby finds another question from a parent worried about their irresponsible child, college, and how much to pay for.

DEAR ABBY: Our son, "Jason," has decided to leave college with only two semesters left. He says he's doing so in order to pursue his love of river guiding and outdoor programs.

While he was in school, his father and I paid for his cell phone, health and car insurance, and his rent because we wanted his focus to be on his studies. We also paid his tuition. Jason has a part-time job. Now that he has decided to leave school, our view is that he should find another job and assume these expenses.

My husband and I disagree about who should pay for any future education that Jason wants. If he goes back to school, his tuition will be paid for, says Dad. I think we would be enabling him if he thought we were always standing by to foot the bill.

We are heartsick that Jason has made this decision, but his mind is made up. Any advice from you would be appreciated.

- Unhappy Mom in Mississippi

We don't really disagree with Abby's advice, but as usual, we find t a little short and unsatisfying. In its entirety:

I agree that Jason should shoulder the responsibility for his living expenses. However, do not make any hard and fast decisions about his tuition while you are still angry at him. This situation will surely play out. If and when Jason decides to complete his education, that would be the time to discuss the matter of tuition.

Lulu: It's like with our Frivolous Wastes of Money column: the parents are considering withholding something they want the son to have as a punishment for the son. They're only hurting themselves.

Ashley: It's two lousy semesters. He should just finish the degree. At the same time, it's two lousy semesters' worth of money; a lot, but not compared to what they've already spent.

Lulu: I suppose they think he will make the calculation and realize he should stay in school for free (to him) rather than put it off and have to pay for it himself later. But if he were making decisions according to the calculations, he would just wait the eight measly months to become a forest ranger.

This is why I do think that kids should help pay for college, if their parents do (ie. if they don't get a full scholarship): so they have some personal investment in the cost-benefit analysis. But in this case, I don't think it's just that he's being selfish with the money because he thinks it's infinite. He doesn't seem to want the degree at all. Even if it were his own money, he wouldn't necessarily consider it worth his time and attention.

Ashley: I mean, at some level, if you know you won't use it, it's best not to proceed: sunk costs and all that. But does that really apply to a college degree? It seems like it'll never hurt to have one. A lot of jobs require a bachelor's in anything.

Lulu: Because of classism!

Ashley: For him specifically, it seems like he could use, for example, a BS in Environmental Science.

Lulu: I guess he just feels he doesn't need it. He can do what he wants without it.

Ashley: I can respect the choice not to go to college in the first place, but what I don't respect is if you go, almost complete it, and then drop out. A big waste of time and money, just because you can't make up your mind or you let people push you around.

Lulu: A lot of teenagers don't know their own mind. Maybe he didn't know he would hate college until he got there. It would be nice if you could make that decision snappily, for the sake of your parents' bank accounts, but I can see how it would go wrong. Kid says he wants to drop out to save the parents money, parents say, no, no, don't worry about the money, I just want you to get the degree. Repeat. I respect this kid more because he has a plan - half-baked as his parents may find it.

Ashley: Sure. But what he's doing is not time sensitive. He can't do river guiding next year?

Lulu: I kind of find his impatience charming because it shows he's enthusiastic about this.

Ashley: I don't find it endearing when people drop stuff that will help for sure in order to do something they're "passionate about". I find it boring and immature.

Lulu: Well, there's levels. You can't do it all the time.

Ashley: There are definite points at which it makes sense to change stuff, and if you want to change stuff between those points, there better be a damn good reason, especially when the next point is very close.

Lulu: You don't understand! He's suffocating in this ivory tower of academia!

Ashley: Yeah, and soon he will be suffocating under the pressure of rent payments. How's he going to get out of that one?

Lulu: We'll see. I think he'll be okay. Fly free, little river guide. Either way, his motives are irrelvant. He's made his choice. The parents are asking what they should do.

Ashley: It seems that the husband wants to extend the offer of free tuition if he ever decides to go back and the wife doesn't. So split the difference? Half-tuition? I think it's a moot point because I don't think he'll go back.

Lulu: That's what Abby was saying, too. Address that if and when he decides to go back.

Ashley: Yeah, but a lot of people don't want a possible fight hanging over their heads. She wanted to have it settled now. You can always review your decision.

Lulu: So, sure. Half tuition. But it's probably moot.

Ashley: Moot!

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