Richard Reeves

The Last Tuition

NEW YORK -- This is a big September for the Reeves family. After writing out checks for the better part of 27 years to some of the most expensive universities in the United States, which means the world, we wrote the last one this week. Yes, we owe some loans, but that will take care of itself one of these days.

Catherine O'Neill and I were married in the summer of 1979. We each had two children. Mine were 18 and 16. Hers were 11 and 9. "Ours" was born in December of 1984. That September, the oldest, Cynthia, now teaching elementary school in Florida, went off to Cornell. This September, the youngest, Fiona, began her senior year.

"How is that cute little baby of yours?" asked a friend, whom we had not seen for a while, at a dinner last week. "That cute little baby," said I, "is a senior at Duke and spent the better part of last year in South Africa, at the University of Capetown."

In between, Jeffrey, the actor, went to Drew. Colin, the lawyer, went to Swarthmore. Conor, the film editor, went to Vassar. Because of where we were living and moving around, there were sometimes substantial private school bills before college.

At our house now, we actually get giddy when we talk about no more pencils, no more books, no more tuition. The money we set aside for Fiona's four years was gone in two. That is my personal gauge of tuition inflation. Was it worth it? Twenty thousand pre-tax dollars a year, then 30, 40, almost 50 thousand. The stretching, the borrowing, the worrying, the failed attempts to point the kids toward public universities or foreign universities. Yes, it was worth it, and there are days when I wish we had five more.

So I was an interested reader of the latest study of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which concluded -- surprise! -- that American higher education was becoming more and more unaffordable for more and more families. The report restated the obvious conclusion that rising tuition tends to divide the nation into educated high-earners and less-educated lower-earners.

I don't like that, and I disagree with the conventional assumption, repeated by the center, that everyone must go to college and must complete four years. That idea was a stab at equality that missed, I think, largely because of the idea, both egalitarian and elitist, that there was something wrong with "vocational education" -- something wrong with people who worked with their hands. The idea was bad then, and it still is -- and we should try to do something about it.

Having paid my dues, I believe that American higher education is the best in the world. Other developed countries -- France and Japan, for instance -- have a few first-rate universities and graduate schools designed to serve the state, producing dependable ruling classes, past and future, by basing admission on national tests designed to weed out all but the best, the brightest and the richest. In the United States, from my experience, there are literally hundreds of great colleges, both private and public, and I've seen a lot of them, everywhere, taking five kids around over these years.

There is, as the center report indicates, a crisis in American higher education, but it is a financial crisis. The real crisis in American education is at the junior high and high school levels. That, I think, has a great deal to do with the training and pay of schoolteachers, who simply have no status in our system.

I have no public answers for most of this. Personally, we tried to do the same thing as most parents, the best we could for our children.

But, thank God, we are part of a blessed generation, those of us who grew up in the 1950s. There was a social contract in the United States then, and these two things were part of it: You could work your way through college, any college, because tuition could be met by working part-time and in the summer; and, if you got a steady job and saved a couple of thousand dollars, you could buy a house.

Then we got doubly lucky: Real estate values boomed to the point that we were worth more than we ever dreamed of being, or felt that way, and the evolution of jet travel allowed us to see the world without wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.

I only hope that our kids will have it so good.

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