Berko: Finding the strategy to afford college
Friday, October 11, 2013 7:00 AM
Dear Mr. Berko:
My wife and I are both 47. We have one child, who will be graduating high school with good grades next year. We both work in the hospitality business, where the pay is low, but in the past 17 years, we have saved $14,700 for our son’s college education, an advantage we never had. We owe it to our son. We need your help in making a decision on what to do to pay for the remainder of our son’s college costs. 1) Sell the 11 acres west of Estes Park, Colo., that my folks left us 12 years ago. The land is worth about $41,000. 2) Remortgage our home, worth about $125,000, which I mostly built and has a $23,000 mortgage. Together we make $72,000 a year and have individual retirement accounts and two 401(k) retirement plans, which are worth nearly $51,000 (enclosed), and we could sell some of that retirement money, too. We read your column every day, and now we need your advice.
G.W., Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
I know Estes Park, Colo., fairly well, and the Big Horn Restaurant, on the west side of town, serves some of the biggest and best homemade cinnamon buns I can remember tasting. You may be able to smell them from your property line, so please don’t think about selling that acreage. Congratulations on those retirement funds, but don’t you dare touch them, or I’ll forbid you to read this column every day. You haven’t asked for investment advice, but I’ve emailed some suggestions that should improve your plan’s performance. Meanwhile, here’s some of the best advice (even though it’s free) you will get, so read on.
Most colleges have become corpora of cliques, cabals and turf wars – morphing from respected universities – needing funds to educate students for a bureaucratic wasteland of redundant public employees and needing students to support swollen payrolls. Colleges have become political toys of their respective state legislatures. Imagine annual athletic budgets of $100 million, student-to-employee ratios of 3-to-1, $169 million for a 300-student dorm, $246 million for a 40,000-seat football stadium and hundreds of millions for student union buildings and play centers. So colleges have to lower their admission requirements to attract more students. Then they have to dumb down grading standards so students can remain paying customers. Today many kids take six years to get a degree. Employers know that today’s college graduates are probably defective merchandise because they derive from an increasingly larger and less qualified pool of applicants. Colleges mass-produce graduates as the auto industry mass-produces cars, which are all lined side by side, like emperor penguins, on dealers’ lots. Jobs go begging because there are too many poorly qualified applicants. And when your lad seeks a job at Amalgamated Industries, brandishing a diploma from Lame University, the HR department wonders, “Will this kid have to be retrained if he takes more than 45 minutes for lunch?” Most kids lack the maturity to benefit from a college education, and most colleges (and parents) are unable to provide that maturity. Insist that your lad join a branch of the armed forces, which will arm him with the maturity, the social and communication skills, the job training, the personal responsibility, the discipline, the work ethic and the experience that employers want before they invest in a new employee. If your boy qualifies, the service will pay for his college education and graduate school. And given a choice between hiring a 22-year-old college graduate (even with two years of work experience) and hiring a guy with six years in the armed forces, most employers would choose the latter in a Minnesota minute.
You don’t owe your boy anything except love, but you have an important responsibility, which is to provide yourselves with at least a modestly comfortable retirement. And if you shell out important retirement dollars so your boy can play school on some college campus, then you won’t have enough money left to play church bingo on Thursday nights when you hang up your tools.
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