My best friend Clint is a very bright guy, though he always had trouble applying himself. He went to his mother’s alma mater Southern Cross University, a conservative Christian university in my home state of Delosa and initially majored in Music Education to become a music teacher. Despite his smarts, he struggled a bit to balance his newfound freedom (his parents were a little too protective of him at home) with his academic responsibilities, but the former usually won out. But all was not lost until he decided that he was going to change his majors from Music Education to Music Composition. The reason he gave was that he would do better following his passion rather than being forced to take classes that he didn’t want to take.

The results were disastrous. His grades never improved. It took him eight years to get through and he ended up nearly $75,000 in debt, despite the fact that his first four years were paid for. Clint is certainly to blame for his own failures, but I believe a lot of it could have been avoided had his parents prevented him from changing majors in the first place. He may have graduated, he may have dropped out, but he would not have a financially worthless degree with several years worth of earnings to pay back.

Capella wrote a great post on a New York Times article on parents subsidizing their kids’ fancy New York lives and a spectacular discussion ensued in her comments. There are at least three areas of interest in the post, but first I want to tackle the main subject of Capella’s post: how appropriate is it for parents to attach conditions to the financial support they give their children. Most of the commenters lean towards it being inappropriate most if not all the time. I disagree.

I think back on Clint and my other friends where the parents did and did not intervene at crucial points and with only a couple of exceptions the ones where parents did intervene ended up much better off for it. And I honestly believe that all of the parents had the moral right to intervene, even when they did so wrongly. As long as they’re footing the bill I believe that they get to call the shots.

If Clancy and I have children*, they’re not going to get $100k from us (or whatever college costs 20 years from now) to major in basket-weaving or comparative literature. I believe that we’d be doing them a disservice by subsidizing a degree that will take them out of the economy for five years and give them a degree that is completely unmarketable. If they want to major in computer science or engineering or business, they’ve got my blessing.

Some degree of flexibility is important in all aspects of parenting. Parents that have a pre-determined that they will insist their kids will follow are likely to have a lot of problems. Though within their rights as parents, withholding money unless their kid goes to their college and chooses their major is almost certain to backfire even if that’s what they otherwise might do. I might have gotten a military economics degree from the University of Delosa like my father did, if given the choice, but it would have a bitter pill to swallow and the chance that I might have failed there where I would otherwise succeed.

I don’t mind an English degree so long as it’s a double-major with an education degree so that they can teach or involves a masters degree in something marketable. If they want to major in philosophy or political science or psychology in order to get into medical or law school, then that’s fine provided that they continue to make the kinds of grades that will get them accepted. If they major in something like physics and plan to go to graduate school, it’s possible that we can come to some sort of arrangement. One way or another, though, I’m going to know how they intend to make a living majoring in whatever they’re going to major in or they’re going to pay for it themselves. That’s not blackmail, that’s responsible parenting.

Beyond college, I think that the same is true if they’re going to live life in The Big City on our dime. Life requires making tough decisions and one of those decisions will be to accept the conditions of our support or decline our support. I’ll love and support them (emotionally, if not financially) either way. We will love them if they choose to to cohabitate with a lover over our objections, but we’re (probably) not going to pay for it. But to allow them to accept money and then demand autonomy is to give them a sense of entitlement that would do them more ill in life than good.

When she was working her way through high school, Clancy wanted nothing more than to escape the influence of her father. This motivated her to make sure that she did well enough in school to get a full-ride scholarship out-of-state (despite being ineligible for need-based financial aid). Her parents were happy to help, but she knew that taking their money meant that they could exert a degree of unwanted influence in her life (as it did with her sister, wherein they insisted that she major in finance in addition to French, her preferred line of study) and that propelled her to be self-reliant well ahead of most college students and independence she achieved ultimately helped her relationship with her dad, which is now rock-solid.

Autonomy is earned, and that’s one of the most important lessons parents can teach their children.

* – always a risky hypothetical as she and I discuss the issue of having children.

-{Note 1: None of this post was run by my wife, who may have some… uhhh… different ideas about this. Really, though, she’s more the stickler about much of this than I am.}-

-{Note 2: I’m not talking about attaching strings to every bit of money given and I only consider big gifts, not a sofa or even an old, used car, as being worthy of attaching conditions}-


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17 Responses to He Who Pays The Piper Calls the Tune

  1. Peter says:

    I face this issue a few years ago when my stepdaughter started college. Having agreed to finance her first two years in order to ease the loan burden she’d face after graduation, I considered whether to condition my assistance on her studying a marketable subject. I finally decided not to impose any such conditions, though it’s hard to say precisely why.

  2. Abel says:

    We’re not paying for a dime of our kids’ education. If they want to live at home and attend a local university then we’re okay with that but we stongly believe they should come up with their own way to pay for college whether it be through work, scholarships, or loans. A lot of this has to do with the fact that MG paid for all of her schooling and I paid for most of mine.

  3. Webmaster says:

    Will,

    remember, were it not for scholarships, I’d not have managed to come to our college. I would probably have wound up staying at home, going to the local college. Not that my parents were the “we’re not paying for anything” types, but they had my brother and sister (both in private high school because the local school system was ranked, believe it or not, lower than Colosse ISD on the national scale) to support as well, and the money simply wasn’t going to be there.

    Getting a student loan might have worked, but it would have racked up a pretty big debt (especially going out of state) and covering housing would have been even more expensive in most of the places.

    Paying for one year out of my own pocket was do-able, at out of state rates. Being in-state for tuition considerations is a pretty big deal; one of the main issues I have with offering “in-state” tuition to people sans citizenship and the legal right to be present while those who come from, say, two states away get the shaft.

  4. trumwill says:

    Abel,

    The thought crossed my mind that if a kid was expected to finance his or her own college education that he or she would be more inclined to take it seriously rather than as some exercise in self-actualization, but by and large the experiences of my peers don’t bear that out. The ones that got loans were just as likely to treat it as “free money” than those whose parents paid for it and those that worked through it were weighed down by the responsibility to the point that many of them broke down and quit (and I think they would have made it through under different circumstances). My ex-girlfriend Julie’s need to work was a huge factor in her inability to make it through (though there were certainly other factors involved).

    On the other hand, I worked while attending school and the work experience I got proved to be almost as valuable as the degree insofar as getting an entry-level position was concerned. And Utah, from what I observed and recall, has an institutional set-up more conducive to a student-body with other responsibilities, presumably because Mormons aren’t as strongly encouraged (or encouraged at all) to hold off marriage and children until after college.

  5. trumwill says:

    Web,

    Clancy got a similar deal from the University of Koroa that you did from Southern Tech (and Sotech made her an offer as well). When you’re on scholarship your parents aren’t in a position to make demands, obviously, though you ended up majoring in something (theoretically) marketable anyhow. I’d assumed, though, that had it not been for the scholarship you wouldn’t have paid out-of-state tuition because you would have gone to school closer-to-home.

  6. Webmaster says:

    Will,

    that’s not necessarily the case. For the degree I was looking for, the in-state colleges (except for the private ones, which charge an arm and a leg anyways) aren’t very good, and I’d have been strongly tempted to try to make out-of-state tuition work “somehow.”

    The theoretical marketability of my degree? Oddly enough, many of those who graduated with me pretty much had only two choices – go on to grad school, or find a government/part-time position and go on to something like business school. The degree itself is marketable, but the new-grad experience tainted by a glut on the market from past years, all of whom have more experience.

  7. Peter says:

    The theoretical marketability of my degree? Oddly enough, many of those who graduated with me pretty much had only two choices – go on to grad school, or find a government/part-time position and go on to something like business school. The degree itself is marketable, but the new-grad experience tainted by a glut on the market from past years, all of whom have more experience.

    If you don’t mind my asking, what degree is it?

  8. Abel says:

    Will,

    I think the overall problem with college is that there are a lot of people that are encouraged to pursue a degree who aren’t college material. You’re right that there will be people who won’t take it seriously whether or not they pay the bill or Mom and Dad do, but there’s an underlying assumption in American society that you can’t be successful without a college degree. Too many people go to college who have no business or interest in being there but attend simply because that’s what society has told them is the important or right thing to do. I have friends and family members who did this but would have been better suited for a vocational education, military service, or something else entirely.

    Anyway, I’m glad you posted this. I’m basing my next two FreeCapitalist columns on the ideas you generated in this post. Thanks!

    Abel

  9. trumwill says:

    Web,

    Did you intend to major in what you majored in? I thought it was pretty widely available.

    Regarding the degree’s marketability, believe it or not I saw an absolutely huge market for it in Deseret. It was mentioned by more than one coworker as one of the best fields to get into in the area. I hear ya on the market glut, though, as I graduated with an IT degree right as Colosse’s tech bubble was bursting.

    The in/out-of-state tuition may be something that Clancy and I have to consider with our kids, if we have them. There’s a chance that we’re going to end up in a western state with relatively few collegiate options wherein they’d have to go out-of-state to get into a number of fields. For the most part Clancy and I would intend to only pay for in-state public school tuition, but that may not be the case if they have to go out of state in order to do what they want to do. With any luck in that case there’ll be a university with a scholarship program like Sotech’s or Koroa’s that they can get into so that we could sidestep the issue.

  10. trumwill says:

    Abel,

    I actually agree with your critique on the universality of college, even though I disagree with the conclusion that you draw from it (different experiences, I guess, different conclusions). In fact just earlier today I was mulling over a post on the mistake some parents make by insisting that their kids go straight to college after high school.

    I just read the first column and look forward to the second.

  11. Spungen says:

    Why is music education marketable but music composition isn’t? Is it because only the former allows you to teach? I’m surprised to find out the grading is so tough.

  12. Webmaster says:

    Will,

    “widely available” it may be; good schools are still hard to find. Particularly, many schools don’t treat you like a person until you’re a grad student.

    I’ve a friend (Sharon) who’s trying to go back and get her degree right now, and she’s pretty much stuck looking out of the state she lives in, which means living for at least a year to get residency before she can even remotely afford tuition anywhere. The degree she really wants to go for (which is actually marketable) is impossible to find except for one school in the state capitol that’s a party school more than a serious place, and she really doesn’t want to go there.

  13. Peter says:

    For the degree I was looking for, the in-state colleges (except for the private ones, which charge an arm and a leg anyways) aren’t very good

    State university quality can be an issue for people in many Northeastern states, where there is a strong tradition of private higher education and the state universities can be relatively obscure. That certainly was the case in Connecticut, where I grew up and lived until ten years ago. While the University of Connecticut has always had fairly good academic standards, until recently it was scarcely known outside the region. Graduates looking for jobs in other parts of the country often found themselves at a bit of a disadvantage for that reason. Things have gotten easier for UConn graduates now that the basketball team has raised the university’s profile.

    I now live in New York, where the same problem still exists. The SUNY system has some reasonably good campuses, in academic terms, but they’re little-known outside the Northeast – in fact, outside New York state. I haven’t heard any stories about SUNY graduates being disadvantaged in the job hunt (I’d heard plenty about UConn when I still lived in Connecticut), but no doubt many exist.

    On a slightly different note, some years ago I worked in Connecticut with a woman who’d graduated from Ohio University. She said that even in Ohio itself OU was totally overshadowed by Ohio State, and it was a source of endless confusion everywhere else.

  14. trumwill says:

    Why is music education marketable but music composition isn’t? Is it because only the former allows you to teach?

    Yeah, if he’d stuck with that major he’d be a teacher right now earning $30-40k/yr rather than a pawn shop clerk earning $17k.

  15. trumwill says:

    On a slightly different note, some years ago I worked in Connecticut with a woman who’d graduated from Ohio University. She said that even in Ohio itself OU was totally overshadowed by Ohio State, and it was a source of endless confusion everywhere else.

    Yeah, most people don’t know that Ohio U exists. My dad and I actually thought it was a private school (forcing the main public school to become Ohio State, as in Pennsylvania with Penn and Penn State).

    It’s amazing what a good basketball or football program can do for a university.

  16. Peter says:

    It’s amazing what a good basketball or football program can do for a university.

    Applications for this past fall’s freshman class at George Mason University were of noticeably higher quality than in past years and the numbers were greater too. Almost certainly, this was a result of the university’s trip to the Final Four last year.

    My hunch is that in the case of football, merely playing in D-1A is enough to boost/maintain a university’s profile, even if the team isn’t particularly good. Basketball is more complicated. So many schools play in D-1 that it’s necessary to have a fairly good team in order to get a profile bounce.

  17. trumwill says:

    My hunch is that in the case of football, merely playing in D-1A is enough to boost/maintain a university’s profile, even if the team isn’t particularly good.

    Well, that’s not the case with Ohio U, but generally you’re right. Having a Div-IA team makes a pretty big difference. Being in a “BCS” power conference makes an even bigger one, though.

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