Is Higher Education the Next Economic Bubble to Burst?

It has begun. The annual frenzy of parents trying to get their kids into college. What’s wrong with this picture? It’s the parents, not their charges who are bearing the brunt of what is a daunting and disagreeable business of getting into college. These parents have been derisively dubbed “helicopter parents” for hovering over their children lives. But let’s consider for a moment what they are facing.

If you are reading this and are over 35 the process went something like this: you took the SATs or ACTs, went to College Night in the gym at your high school, sent out your applications, and got a fat envelope with an acceptance letter and you packed your bags. Done deal. That’s ancient history, my friend.

Today’s college-bound families face a maze of a process that is less than transparent. Given the price tag, $140,000 per private institution for a Bachelor’s degree, a college education is the second most expensive asset for families after their homes. Sobering, no? That’s why a recent survey of students found that over 80 percent of college freshmen believed their parents played an appropriate role in helping item get into college. What 17 year old could handle something so weighty without some guidance?

Some might worry that this generation of high schoolers are too willing to cede responsibility for a job that should rightly rest with the kid. If the process looked anything like it did way back when, that would be a fair critique. But let me give you a first-hand glimpse into the rigmarole. First, colleges vie for the applicants with the very highest grades and test scores. That’s crucial to their rankings over at U.S. News and World Report and the Princeton Review. Then they have to make sure your kid will accept if offered a seat. Why? Because if a kid is offered and declines, it can also hurt the college’s rankings. So some colleges will not accept a kid who looks like he/she may have too many suitors. Finally, the big state schools which are the most affordable receive so many applications, they simply run them through the computer to select the very highest scores. Forget that some applicants are first chair violinists, award-winning writers or have volunteered at the local homeless shelters. As an admissions officer at University of Illinois told a group of parents, “Look, this is a numbers game.” Not exactly heart warming to parents who have done their best to raise well-rounded children.

So parents find themselves having to get involved to give their kids a fighting chance. I learned this all first hand. My son is a college freshman. I confess I am a busy working mom with zero time to wrangle with the unwieldy system higher education has become. And when my son went on college visits to scout his favorites, I put cash in his hand and dropped him off at O’Hare with my best wishes. (By the way, this horrified my peers, but the college admissions people loved me for it!) But in the end, I had to get involved. It was all too overwhelming.

So, the recent news that Harvard will roll back tuition, oh sorry, grant more financial aid, is an indication that the system can no longer hold. Yale and Michigan are following suit. The status quo is a triple threat crisis: the process is too frustrating, it’s a lose-lose for parents who are both tax payers and consumers, and it’s way too expensive. No longer the ivory tower on the hill, higher education is the next dark cloud resting on a bubble.