Have you talked to your kids about college today?
by Jayson Boyd
Recently, my wife and I dropped my eighteen year-old daughter off at her dormitory on the campus of Washington State University in Pullman. Amidst all of the obligatory congratulations, pats on the back, and inquiries as to how much we’ll miss her, I am struck by how much it goes against the odds. I’m not talking about winning-the-lotto odds or anything, but statistically speaking, we weren’t supposed to get to this point. Kids whose parents lack college degrees are half as likely to go to college out of high school as kids of parents with degrees. In fact, the best indicator of what a kid would do after high school used to be the income of the parents, but now it’s the level of education of the parents.
My daughter was born to a 20 year-old father who hadn’t graduated high school, and a 19 year-old mother who limped her way to the finish line on her diploma. Going to college was not a consideration for either of us; but, true to form, none of our parents had college degrees either.
I take responsibility for me not being serious about my education when I was a teenager, but looking back, I can also see where our society let me slip through the cracks. It’s one thing to tell a kid that he ought to get a college education, but it’s another thing entirely to give him a sense of what being a college student actually looks like. As a parent, one of your duties is to prepare your kids for what’s to come. We don’t begin to talk to them about kindergarten on their first day there, and nary a pupil has begun middle school without at least the knowledge that he or she will have multiple teachers and classrooms. Parents prepare their children despite knowing that they’re going to school regardless of what they think about it. College shouldn’t be any different. If anything, kids should be even more prepared for college because it is they who make the decision whether or not to attend. It stands to reason that parents that attended college themselves are better suited to talk about college with their kids. My advice to parents who didn’t go to college? As the adage goes, fake it till you make it.
Basically from birth, my wife and I conditioned our daughter to assume that she’ll be going to college after high school. We did this by doing the things that a proud alumnus would do: We took her to events and games on the UW campus, we all wore Huskies clothing, we watched games on TV and made sure she saw the commercials for the school. My wife and I even had our wedding ceremony at the footsteps of the Suzzallo Library. When she was young and was having a tough time with something, she’d say to herself, “Huskies never quit.” From a young age, she envisioned herself as a college student.
Last summer I took my youngest to a football game at Notre Dame. She was ten at the time. I gave her a list of games in various locales, and she chose South Bend, Indiana. When we were leaving the stadium I encouraged her to take a last look around to soak it in, and she replied, “No need, I’ll be back in eight years.” Mission accomplished.
We Americans like to tout our social mobility, the idea that anyone can become anything in our society. We often regale ourselves in the stories of someone going from ‘rags to riches’. It often makes for an interesting tale, to be sure. I don’t like bursting anyone’s bubble, but the truth is that these stories don’t happen as often as we allow ourselves to think it does.
In fact, social mobility in the U.S. doesn’t rank very well against our OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) brethren – we’re near the bottom. What’s really sad, though, is that we don’t have any idea where we stand. We perceive our mobility to be high even though it isn’t. People in the U.K., meanwhile, are under the perception that their mobility is worse than it actually is, a common misperception in much of Europe, as The Economist pointed out in February.
Researchers have seen a correlation between social mobility and economic inequality: The more mobility there is, the less inequality there tends to be. They call this the “Great Gatsby Curve”. According to the OECD, the best way to increase mobility, and thereby decrease inequality, is to focus on educating the public. I believe this to be true. If we want a strong, equitable society, we need to start there.
Paying for a college degree is a good topic for another article, or many articles, but while we may stress about that, we shouldn’t overlook the benefit in talking about and preparing our kids for school.