Like many families, we talk about college a lot in our home.
In a recent conversation, my seventh-grader made an offhand remark about how she needed to find a way to earn some money for college. It wasn't the first time I'd heard her say something along those lines.
It hit me that she had internalized my own incessant worry: How would we save enough to send two children, close in age, to great colleges?
The soaring cost of college is the top financial concern for American parents.
In its 2001-2015 Economy and Personal Finance survey, Gallup found that 73 percent of U.S. parents worry about paying for their children's college education. That's a higher percentage than any other subgroup worries about any other common financial concern. The second-highest percentage goes to lower-income Americans, 70 percent of whom worry about paying for medical costs in the event of a serious illness or accident.
The fear of saddling children with years of staggering debt is not confined to lower-income parents: Sixty-one percent of parents making $100,000 or more per year still worry about it. Families who earn "too much" to qualify for need-based aid bear the brunt of massive loans that can mortgage a child's future and eat into parents' retirement hopes.
By some measures, college tuition has increased in cost more than any other good or service in the U.S. economy since 1978, according to a recent NPR report. Student debt has nearly tripled in the past decade to $1.2 trillion, taking a huge toll on young people trying to start their adult lives.
Crippling debt is a loss of freedom. It keeps future generations from entering the middle class, which has long been the engine of America's economy.
The debate between the Democratic presidential candidates over tuition-free vs. debt-free college highlights what a centerpiece issue this has become to the middle class.
Bernie Sanders' overwhelming support from millennials -- exit polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and entrance polls in Nevada, found more than 80 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds supported Sanders -- shows that he's speaking to their concerns. The Vermont senator has proposed that the federal government cover about two-thirds of the cost for states to eliminate tuition at their public colleges and universities through a new tax on Wall Street financial transactions. States would have to agree to cover the remaining third.
Hillary Clinton's "debt-free" plan would have the federal government send large grants to states, to ensure students can pay tuition without loans. States would be required to increase their allocations, while schools would face new constraints on spending. There's a component for family and student contributions, as well.
Both ideas have faced scrutiny for the associated costs and likelihood of getting state legislatures to comply. Republican candidates have criticized both plans as creating too large a tax burden on corporations.
At a time when we've indoctrinated students about the need for a college degree for future success, we've placed it further out of reach. That feels like a cruel joke.
I've told our children about how I worked throughout college and found two or three jobs each summer to help offset my living expenses. My parents kicked in what they could (not much, considering they had five other children to provide for), and I borrowed the rest. My husband worked his way through college, which he entirely self-funded.
We were part of generations that could do that.
We want our children to have the same sweat-equity investment in their future degrees. But we are aware of how much has changed.
Today's average college student, without support from financial aid and family resources, would need to complete 48 hours of minimum-wage work a week to pay for his or her courses, according to an analysis of credit-hour costs and the minimum wage by analyst Dr. Randy Olson.
That's just tuition -- not textbooks, rent, food and other living expenses.
Those who say that this generation's desire for affordable access to college reflects an entitled mentality could not be more wrong. If you were able to attend college when it was affordable yet want to deny the same opportunities to young people today, you are the entitled one.
Their future is also our future. It's selfish and obtuse to shortchange it.