Paul Casper, a marketing manager in Eugene, Oregon, bought his first house at age 29, shortly after his wife, Peggy, gave birth to their baby girl. That daughter is now 30, shouldering a mountain of college debt and working an hourly job in high tech. She and her fiancé had to postpone their wedding this year because his tech job got outsourced and he hasn’t found another yet. Paul thinks she’ll be lucky to own a home by 40, even with two incomes.
“When I was 29, I made about $3.75 an hour,” he says, “but gas was 25 cents a gallon and $5 bought a week’s worth of groceries.”
Casper’s generation of white-collar parents bought into a version of the American dream in which their children’s future would be brighter than theirs had been. Instead, many of these parents are now struggling to help their kids remain in the class to which they were born.
Used to be that if parents could just get their kids through college, they were home free, and their kids would be self-sufficient. Used to be these parents could find some reasonable way to pay for college—save some, borrow some, get their kid financial aid and a part-time job. But with income falling further and further behind the cost of living, parents can pay just a fraction of their kids’ tuition, or none at all. Their only option is debt—some for themselves, but even more for their offspring. Kids end up crying out about their post-college debt, but most of their parents have sacrificed a lot to get them that degree, however mortgaged it is.
When colleges calculate what parents can afford to pay, says Kalman A. Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke, “the expected family contribution is not what a family can pay but what the parents can finance through current income, liquidating assets—former income—and borrowing money from their future assets. Colleges charge what the market will bear, and they don’t care if you end up in the poorhouse later. They got their money.”
If you’re “lucky” like Queens hairdresser Carol Viola, whose son Joe is now in med school, your parents will die young—at age 70 or earlier—and maybe even leave you money for your kids’ education. If you’re “unlucky” like Penny Banker-Mertz, a tax preparer in Bay City, Texas, your parents will live long enough to eat up their assets with expensive health care. The money Banker-Mertz planned to use for her son’s tuition is now going to pay for an assisted-living facility for her late husband’s mother. “As my son so crudely put it,” she says, ” ‘Does Grandma know she has to be dead for me to go to college?’ ”
For Angela and Edwin Brown of Cornersville, Tennessee, sending their four kids, now 25 to 31, through college required herculean efforts. Edwin worked as a tool-and-die superintendent while Angela piled on jobs as a school secretary and a clerk at the chamber of commerce. She worked at the layaway counter at Wal-Mart and labored in a factory that made cosmetic pencils. She and her husband also borrowed money.
The Browns’ kids also worked during college and took out loans. One son took seven years to graduate. “We were scared to death about his debt. It was $30,000, and we were afraid it would be more,” she says. “But I knew that for them to go to college, there had to be debt. I felt we did our part. Now it was time to do theirs and pay off the debt.”
Some parents co-sign their kids’ college loans, thinking they’re buying them an express ticket to a better economic status. But when the great jobs don’t materialize, the parents find themselves stuck with the bills.
“Lots of parents are resentful toward Dartmouth,” reports that school’s loan counselor Gloria Comstock, “because their kid went to a great Ivy League school and is still unemployed.” When the Dartmouth class of 2003 graduated, she says, only 40 percent of the Tuck School of Business’s class had jobs, a not untypical number.
Shirley Ariker, a sixtysomething academic in New York, bemoans the “hand-to-mouth quality” of the lives of her 35-year-old daughter, a teacher, and her son-in-law, an artist. He depends on pickup work, which is in short supply in the current economy. Ariker has helped out with clothing, groceries, and when the baby came, day care, but her daughter refused her offers to pay for health insurance. Ariker was appalled that for several years the couple went without. When their baby was born, they enrolled her in a low-cost health plan.
Looking ahead, she sees the economic gap only widening and the middle class shrinking. “When I finished college,” she says, “I had an open world filled with possibility, and so did my brother and sister and cousins. Our kids’ sense of possibility is narrower.”
Besides her daughter’s child, she has six other grandchildren through her four stepchildren. “Seven grandchildren,” she says, “and not a single one of their parents can afford to pay for their college.”