Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
“Oh my, you certainly have your hands full!” said the lady in line behind me at the grocery store. She asked the kids’ ages, and when I reported that they were 7, 5, 4, 2 and seven months, she shook her head with a sympathetic smile and said, “I bet the thought of paying for college keeps you up at night!” I almost agreed as a knee-jerk reaction. I’m a fan of lying awake at night and worrying about things that I can’t control as much as the next gal, so you’d think that college tuition would at least occasionally make an appearance on the rotation. But it really doesn’t. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever once felt worried about the financial aspect of my kids’ future studies.
I was lucky: I went to a relatively inexpensive university and got in-state tuition, so my parents were able to fund my entire education. My husband, on the other hand, had the opposite experience. He was raised by a single mother who struggled to put dinner on the table each night, so she wasn’t able to give him a dime toward his education. He got an undergrad degree and two graduate degrees from some of the most expensive schools in the country, and had to take out enormous student loans to cover the costs. For many years, our student loan debt was equivalent to the mortgage on a small house.
So I know how great it can be to have your parents fund your education, and I also know how difficult it can be to have student loans. Yet I still don’t give a second thought to the fact that we’ll only be able to offer minimal support to our own kids in their college years. Here’s why:
1. It incentivizes them to live at home longer. Our kids may need to live at home and take classes at the inexpensive local community college before transferring to a four-year school. That’s not a bad thing; in fact, given the cultural climate of a lot of college campuses, it may be a really good thing. As many traditional cultures have found, having children live at home for the first few years after high school can help them stay family oriented as they transition to their new lives as adults.
2. It motivates them to work hard. My husband knew from the start that he would have to get scholarships in order to help pay for his undergraduate education, and so in high school he took his studies very seriously. A little pressure can be a good thing to help teens channel their energy in a positive direction.
3. It teaches them not to worry about their own kids’ educations. My husband never saw his mom worry about paying for college. Even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to offer any kind of financial support, she approached the issue with a hopeful, encouraging attitude, and trusted that it would all turn out fine through some combination of prayer and hard work. She passed that positive attitude on to our family, and I hope that our kids are able to pass it on to their own children as well.
4. College isn’t for everyone. It’s very important to me that each of my kids grows up to be a lifelong learner, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll all go to college. One child might be passionate about a trade where his or her time would be better spent in an apprenticeship than in a university; another might be called to a religious order that doesn’t require a university diploma. Until God gives me that crystal ball I keep asking for that will show me my children’s futures, there’s no point in stressing about what may or may not come to pass.
5. Student loans aren’t the end of the world. I say again: As someone who has spent plenty of time writing four-figure student loan checks month after month, I am intimately familiar with how much that kind of debt can weigh you down. But God can bring good out of anything, and student loan debt is no exception. In struggling with those payments, we learned a lot about living simply, avoiding debt, and trusting God to provide, and those important lessons have had a lasting impact on every area of our lives.
6. The landscape is changing. It is so exciting to watch all the new options spring up in the world of education. Sites like Khan Academy and MITx have revolutionized the way people of all ages learn at home, and now those changes are spreading to the university world as well—you can get full degrees through online coursework at Penn State, Arizona State, Texas A&M, and dozens of other respected schools. Soon there will be a plethora of high quality, low cost alternatives to our current higher education system.
So, to answer the lady in the grocery store: Nope, I don’t worry about paying for my kids’ college educations at all. That’s not to say that I don’t want to help them—I certainly would if I could. But I can’t, and I have a feeling that it’s all going to work out.