Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

The College-Parent Panic

Campus of the University of Iowa (Wikimedia)

As a dad of soon-to-be-college-age teens, I recently took a tour of the historic University of Virginia grounds. As my group strolled toward the Rotunda — an elegant building that our guide informed us was designed by Thomas Jefferson — I had a bit of a panic attack. 

Reality hit. My kids are leaving. These traitors are abandoning my wife and me faster than Jefferson abandoned Monticello when he got word the British were on their way. Probably for good. And probably for far away. 

No, I won’t be spending my remaining days surrounded by an adoring family, meting out nuggets of hard-earned wisdom and clever anecdotes like some ancient patriarch. By next year, my kid could be pondering grad school and leading her own tour of captive parents, selling them on the great vegan meal options. 

Of all traditional responsibilities of parenthood, sending your children away has to be the most emotionally jarring. Even more jarring than the moment they handed me — a man whose claim to adulthood could have been summed up as “I guess he makes a living, right?” — a brand new human being to raise as my own. 

Just when you are really getting to enjoy their company, when they finally get your Godfather and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off references, they literally drive away. And you’re the sucker who risked his life to teach them how to do it.

What kind of pitiless world demands this of parents? More specifically, what kind of pitiless world asks parents not only to chase their children away but to fork over tens of thousands of dollars for them to attend a decadent four-year progressive sleepaway camp? (I should never have read I Am Charlotte Simmons.) 

If I’ve learned anything spending inordinate amounts of time arguing with strangers on Twitter, it’s this: Many professors are quite ridiculous. So ridiculous, in fact, that a few years ago I began keeping track of some of the most morally outrageous and intellectually bankrupt tweets sent out by academics from prestigious universities so that I could build a no-way-are-you-attending-this-crazy-college list. 

The project was short-lived, unfortunately, since the list was filling up with so many notable institutions that I was nervous the only school left for my kids to enroll in would be the Southwest Utah Online School of Fashion. 

Parents might spend 18 years of their lives inculcating kids with classical-liberal ideas and teaching them solid Judeo-Christian values, but universities will make sure you’re spending Christmas dinner arguing with a fourth-wave feminist about intersectionality, whatever that means. There’s nothing you can do about it. 

Or at least this is the future I was imagining as I listened to a rising-sophomore UVA tour guide prattle on about the virtues of the Latinx a cappella club and intramural dodgeball. College tours, to say the least, do nothing to mitigate my concerns. The guide was an amicable 19-year-old political-theory major who had been clever enough to get out of working in the school cafeteria. What was most puzzling about the experience was that fully grown adults — men and women who’ve taken tax write-offs, who’ve been warned about their cholesterol, and who are at the age where they occasionally make grunting noises when standing up — were raising their hands to ask this teenager questions. 

Can we see dorms, pretty please, one parent inquires.

I’m sorry, responds the tour guide, while I’d love to show you some of the rooms, there are safety concerns that prohibit it — which, loosely translated, means, “You think you remember how it was, but the shambolic destitution in this building would simply shock you.” 

It doesn’t really matter. If we were genuinely responsible adults, we’d raise our hands and ask for this kid’s parents’ cell number so we could figure out why they’re dropping $100,000+ on a political-theory degree — and how the rest of us can avoid this fate.

And by “fate,” of course, I mean personal bankruptcy. 

Higher education, as you have surely heard, is extraordinarily pricey, and average parents and students spend lots of time applying for potential aid and scholarships to avoid indentured servitude. Looking at the price of colleges is a sticker shockwave. 

Years ago, when my children were still infants, a coworker advised me to try to make less money in the years running up to my kids’ high-school graduations, as a dip in salary would make it a lot easier to obtain financial aid. Ha ha ha, I thought. 

Nowadays? Well, put it this way: When I recently read a story about a bunch of wealthy parents in the Chicago area who had legally disowned their children — this way, when the kids applied for college, their financial needs would be weighed without their parents’ income — I was neither outraged nor indignant. I was definitely impressed. Disowning your kids to pay for college? Genius.

Then again, poverty on a technicality or outright fraud might not be your path. You might prefer to lower your expectations. After all, odds are good that you don’t have a little Marie Curie on your hands. No offense. Why put all that needless pressure on your child, or yourself? Almost anyone can get into an average school, and an average school is an affordable school, and affordable schools are almost certainly as decent as any other. 

Maybe the key, as our sensible tour guide noted when asked about his college-search experience, is not to “freak out.” After all, in ten years, who will care where these kids earned their journalism or sociology or psychology or political-science degrees? They’ll probably all be working for automated-kiosk-manufacturing companies, anyway. 

This article appears as “The Priciest Passage” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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