The Nation's Pulse

College Nightmare

A parent's, that is.

By 7.17.08

Last night I had a horrible nightmare. I dreamt that someone woke me up and told me they were going to charge $2,100 to my credit card. They needed to purchase a new laptop, printer and assorted equipment. Not to worry, I would be getting a rebate of several hundred dollars.

Upon awakening this morning, I came to understand that this was no nightmare. My son and wife were up late purchasing a new laptop (or was it a MacBook?), on line, as required by the very fine state college he will be attending in the fall. There were also some nifty extras which, for a song, came with the package deal.

My wife had come into our bedroom where I was already sound asleep, woke me up, and wanted to make sure I was OK with this purchase.

What was I going to say? In a deep sleep, barely conscious, I said the only thing a devoted father and loving husband could say in the circumstances: "How much?" After listening to my wife's assurances that my son, the youngest of my children, really, really needed, not just the computer, but the extra equipment at such a great price, I think I mumbled something like, "Well, in that case...."

The purchase was put through immediately.

THE TELLING OF THIS TALE may make it sound as if my wife and son were taking advantage of me. In fairness, we had talked about this purchase before -- at a substantially cheaper price, sans all the bells and whistles. My son had to work late at the local restaurant where he is trying to pay for some of his education, and I leave the house fairly early in the morning for work. A deadline to place the order was rapidly approaching. Thus, this nightmarish episode, in what seemed like the middle of the night, actually took place before midnight. Still, it was a jarring experience.

I recall touring a Big Ten campus with my daughter, our oldest child, fifteen years ago. The student guide bragged that the university had ample computer labs for which a student only need purchase a single computer disk to completely cover her Internet and word processing needs for basically nothing.

Another guide described an all-women residence hall on this campus as an "alternative" living arrangement. My daughter took a pass on that school.

Four years later she went to a law school that insisted on every student getting a laptop at their own expense. Based on my recent experience as an adjunct professor of law at a nearby law school, this allows law students to stay in touch with Drudge, play Solitaire, and e-mail their friends, spouses, and significant others while maintaining a watchful eye on the professor in case he starts to veer in their direction. Some do take notes, I think.

So in a decade and a half, we have come from buying a computer disk for a pittance to having to buy a whizbang computer with printer and special celestial death ray to assist students in...well, what exactly? Surf the net during class? Bury a professor in useless information without any coherent analysis or contextual understanding? Crank out thousands of words for a paper presumably graded by the number of pages?

ALL RIGHT, I AM BEING a bit of a crank, but that is my job as a husband and father. Isn't anyone exerting any kind of cost controls at these colleges and universities? Year after year, our institutions of higher learning manage to jack up tuition, room, board and fees at a pace that usually exceeds the rate of inflation by a factor of at least two or three.

I recall the Norman Rockwell painting, "Breaking Home Ties" (1954) which depicts a father, probably a farmer or rancher, sitting on the running board of his old car, waiting at the train station with his son, their faithful dog's head in the boy's lap. The son is heading off to state university, as indicated by the decal on his precisely one suitcase. He also had a few books as part of his kit.

Today you need to rent a mini-van to cart all your kid's stuff off to college. And don't forget to bring the cell phone, rent the refrigerator, and refresh the wardrobe.

Students are too young to be weighed down with all these possessions, and parents too poor.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.