When the student loan program was introduced in Canada in 1964 it provided thousands of young people from families of modest means, like myself, the opportunity to pursue their educational dreams. Most students lived as frugally as possible in sparse accommodations using milk crates as furniture and eating tuna and peanut butter to get by until their next care package from home arrived. They found jobs in summer, which rarely paid enough to fund another complete year of education, but they saved as much as possible and supplemented their savings with another loan. When the four years or more were over, they found work in their field and began their careers, paying off their loans month by month and gradually saving up for that first car that wasn't a rusty Datsun 210 or first home which was often their last home until they retired. Student life was simple and a bit of a struggle, but it was also fun and didn't seem to carry quite the financial weight that it seems to now. Paying for one's education provided an excellent transition into adult life and its inherent responsibilities.
If the television commercials of the past decade or so are to be believed, the onus is now on parents to save for their children's post-secondary education. One such ad depicts a man running and jumping over financial obstacles. A narrator says, "At fifty I didn't think I could ever retire. I had a mortgage, a struggling business to keep afloat and kids to put through university. But with the help of (insert financial institution here) I finally did it." Apparently, it is no longer perceived to be enough to house, clothe and feed one's children until they reach the age of majority, we are expected to provide for them beyond that in order to save them from accruing massive debts of their own. Here is where I hold up my hand and say, 'Wait a minute,' because unless I win the lottery, my kids are paying their own way through life, and I should not have to feel guilty about that.
I advised my boys to begin saving for college in Grade eleven, putting half of their income from their jobs in a savings account. After his high school graduation, my eldest son, Ian had the wonderful opportunity to spend five weeks in Europe. The invitation came quite suddenly from a friend and he decided to spend his savings to go on the trip of a lifetime. We contributed what we could afford, which wasn't much, but he appreciated us helping him with the cost of his food. The trip was a life-changing experience for him and he came home not quite sure what to do next. He very much wanted to move to the city before too long, so, taking my advice he decided to take a year off, stay home and work to save again for college. He managed to find work in a local coffee place and by the following September he only had to take out a small loan to help fund his first term. He found a part time job at a music store in the city to help with his living expenses, but then was unfortunately laid off from his job in the low season. Through friends, we found him a good temporary job, and on a trip to visit him, we treated him to supper at a favourite Italian pizza place. He informed us that he had decided not to return to the college after Christmas. He resented the idea of borrowing more money for another term of college courses he felt he was just taking for the experience of it. He told us that unless he knew exactly why he was taking courses he didn't see the point in going into more debt. The news was a bit tough for me to swallow, but his dad and I understood his reasons for his decision. He wanted to work and be free to pursue his musical ambitions in the city. He knew what college was like, believed it had provided him with a good introduction to life on his own, and could go back at some point if he knew it would benefit him in a real way. When he came home for Christmas he received a call from his former workplace, the music store. He was offered a full time job. He took the job and has since been very active and happy doing what he is doing at this stage of his life.
Our second son will be off with his prized violin to study orchestral performance at a university in Vancouver this fall. Between the scholarships and bursaries he earned in high school and all the savings he has accrued working at a local cafe during his year off, he will be able to fund his first year. After that, he will most likely have to rely on student loans. Each year it will cost him many thousands of dollars and I know he will apply for whatever scholarships become available. He will also work in the summers and save as much as possible. It will certainly not be easy. The average summer job earns a student ten to twelve dollars per hour, and they are lucky to save enough over the summers to cover their tuition and books. Living expenses in Vancouver are high and I certainly feel the pressure to help our son in any way I can.
Admittedly, sometimes I wish my husband and I could afford to put our kids through school, to give them a financial headstart, but I know such a plan is unrealistic for us and the way we have chosen to live and support each other. Furthermore, and at the risk of appearing callous, I ask why we parents keep extending the rights of our children to claim us as their source of funding when they are adults? If we truly have the means to fund their educations, pay for their fancy weddings and give them a down payment on their first home, then perhaps we should, but if we do not, then I would argue against the belief that we should feel obligated to sacrifice our own happiness to do so. My husband I have done and are doing our best to live good quality lives with our children - putting them in sports, music and drama lessons, feeding them nutritious homemade food, spending time with them and supporting them emotionally - while putting away a little for our own retirement. I had to make my way through school and make decisions in my young adult life based on the reality of my own financial situation, so why should not my children? My husband agrees. He started working in high school to pay room and board to his single mother, worked his way up into a successful retail career and then finally went to college at the age of twenty-seven.
As parents of moderate means we will support our children in the following ways as they enter the realm of adulthood: we will deliver the occasional care package to our sons, and if they run short of money for reasons other than they have spent too much on unnecessary things, we will do our best to help them. We will attend as many of their concerts and events as we can and cheer them on unobtrusively from our seats. We will let them know it is lovely to have them home for the Christmas holidays and will cook their favourite things. We will let them live at home rent-free in the summer if they choose to come home to work and save for the next year of college or university. We will be here for them if they need to call home and talk out a problem or give us some good news. In other words, we will continue to be their mom and dad who love them.
Yes, life is hard for kids in these days of pricey educations and an uncertain job market, but it was a lot harder before social programs, student loans, and flexible course schedules came along. My kids, like many others out there, are smart, creative and full of energy. They can do this! And I'm going to let them.