July 2, 2022

Between Us: The $40K Binge

By Trish Bennett

Only 30% of students enrolled in liberal arts colleges graduate in four years.

Some years before the term “helicopter parent” insinuated itself into the lexicon of higher learning, a father and mother took to the road.

Among the flotsam and jetsam of “college necessities” crammed into the Ford Country Squire station wagon was their son and heir who, perhaps for the first time in his 18-year existence, had—at his father’s insistence—organized his own belongings without his mother’s aid.

Roughly an hour into the four-hour trek to school, dad squinted into the rear view mirror, scanned the hodge-podge of electronic and sports equipment and the vacuum cleaner (mother’s one allowed input), and dryly inquired, “Michael, where are your clothes?”

Having put in time a) as an undergrad; b) as a parent of undergrads; and c) as an undergrad professor, I’ve evolved the thesis that parents of college students often confuse the proverbial brake and the spur when dealing both with their students and the institutions they’re attending.

That is, the tendency can be to obsess over picayune details and to snooze at the helm when confronted with issues that may threaten their students’ success and wellbeing.

Reading Craig Brandon’s new book “The Five Year Party” well before the car departs for campus can be a helpful beginning. Subtitled, “How Colleges Have Given Up On Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It,” Brandon’s book makes some bold and disturbing accusations.

Among them: That many universities fail to exact minimal standards of scholarship (as in read the material, complete the assignments, participate in discussion); dumb-down grade averaging; and, by becoming de-facto education-free zones, thus over charge parents for under-serving their students.

(The book’s title refers to studies noting that today, only 30% of students enrolled in liberal arts colleges graduate in four years.)

Further, Brandon, a former education reporter as well as a former college instructor, notes that many campuses are so awash in sex, drugs and alcohol that they make National Lampoon’s 1978 classic “Animal House” look like a nursery school romp.

Alas—and here’s where the spur/brake confusion comes in—many Class of 20-Something parents tacitly accept the idea that their kids’ “rites of passage” include such infantile behaviors, and that they’re powerless to do anything about it: as if pulling the purse strings closed was not an option.

At the same time, if parents do get wind of unacceptable or failing grades (it’s an “if” because the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act passed in 1974 makes grade reports the property of all students over age 18)), the same people who turn the blind eye to their kids flagrant waste of tuition dollars often aim righteous indignation at professors who reward their students’ non-study habits with C’s or D’s rather than A’s or B’s.

Prior to setting off for campus, then, it might be useful if both parents and students examined closely their expectations for the university experience.

To expect hard-working adults to furnish unlimited sex, drugs and rock n’ roll to their progeny at the rate of $40,000-plus-a-year might, for example, be considered a tad excessive.

It’s also reasonable that parents are entitled to some evidence that, in return for hard-earned dollars spent on her behalf, their child is returning that enormous favor and working diligently toward the purpose of college, which is to learn to think.

To exact such minimal standards of a student is hardly helicoptering; it is responsible parenting.

So much for the spur.

As to the brake: It’s also responsible, as Brandon notes, for parents to hold universities to their stated purpose of education. A trenchant question parents might want answered, Brandon thinks, is how many of a given college’s professors send their children to their own institution.

If the term “responsibility” has cropped up several times in this piece, it’s because I think it’s time that the on-going bad behavior by  some universities, students and parents comes to a halt.

If universities, in the quest for enrollment dollars, decline to exact minimal scholastic standards and turn blind, deaf and dumb to outrageous, even dangerous undergraduate behaviors, then they should retool tuition and call it a cover charge, restyle themselves social clubs, and replace professors with professional bouncers.

If students actually confuse “trying hard” with producing decent scholarship, and regard gratification bingeing as a means to that end, then they should defer college until they can discern the difference.

If parents doff their roles as mentors and leave value instruction to high schools and colleges, then parents leave themselves little recourse to demand credible grades, much less adult behaviors, from their offspring.

“Responsibility,” after all, means accepting obligations and making good on them. It’s about owning our own actions. And finally—how novel when discussing education—
responsibility is about being smart.

Trish Bennett is an award-winning journalist and the former assistant editor of Main Street News.  She holds a master of science degree in journalism and was adjunct professor of media history at Quinnipiac University before relocating Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Her latest work appears in the up-coming volume of “This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women” slated for publication in association with National Public Radio this Fall.  She can be reached at pwbennett@verizon.net