Debt Ceiling

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9/1/2013

 

Helping your kids contain college costs can set the stage for a happier life

by Fletcher Doyle

A high point for any parent comes when adult children thank you for steering them in the right direction. My wife and I have had that satisfying experience with both of our children, who were grateful we didn’t let them run up debt while pursuing their bachelor’s degrees.

Student debt has become such a widespread problem that loan rates have been debated in the U.S. Congress. The percentage of students taking on debt has increased from 46 to 65 percent since 1993, while the amount of debt in today’s dollars has nearly doubled.

A child’s student debt should be of interest to any father because it carries long-term implications. Leaving college owing a significant amount of money changes a person’s behavior and outlook in life. It sometimes causes graduates to move back home and delay common adult benchmarks such as marriage, having children and purchasing a home.

A study titled “Knot Yet: the Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” by the National Marriage Project reports that 91 percent of young adults believe they must be financially independent in order to be ready for marriage. The study reports that since 1970 the portion of women ages 25-29 who are married has fallen from 90 to 50 percent, and for men from 80 to less than 40 percent. The number of college-educated women in that age group who are married has profoundly dropped in the last decade, from 55 to 46 percent.

According to the study, there is “more drinking, depression, and lower levels of life satisfaction” among those who are not married, including those who are cohabitating. The study further notes that children born to cohabiting couples are three times more likely to see their parents break up compared to children born to married parents.

A culture of student debt and delayed marriage can also affect a young person’s moral and spiritual life. Cohabiting couples often explain their arrangement in terms of economy and convenience, yet the spiritual effects of “living in sin” are real. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center noted that when someone’s personal life conflicts with the teachings of that person’s church, he or she is more likely to change churches or neglect religious practice.

Avoiding all educational debt may not be possible, but you can contain it. Some experts recommend that total college debt should not exceed a person’s first-year salary. But for too many graduates, debt far exceeds projected income. What are parents to do?

In our family, we sat down early with our children to ask what they wanted to study in college and then compared potential career earnings to tuition costs. This may sound like cold calculation, but it introduced them to the discipline of budgeting and realistic goal setting. My daughter wanted to study acting, while my son favored digital media with an eye toward a music career. We limited the schools each could apply to and the amount we would pay. We warned our daughter that an aspiring actress can expect to support herself by waitressing, so she selected the local state university. She graduated early, allowing us to send her to a prestigious London acting school for a year. Our son went to a Jesuit college that provided a generous four-year scholarship.

Pursuing their dreams has not been easy for either of them. But they have a lot more freedom to choose their path — and financial peace of mind — than some of their friends who are saddled with crushing debt.

Before your children decide on college and career, show them how, with budgeting and hard work, they can reach their dreams, pay their bills and even avoid the moral pitfalls of our culture. As my wife and I happily found, they will thank you for it.

FLETCHER DOYLE, a member of Bishop Joseph A. Burke Council 5284 in Orchard Park, N.Y., has been a sports editor and reporter for The Buffalo News for 30 years. He is the author of Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage: 19 True Stories (Servant, 2006).