By Dana George
There was a time -- back when my husband and I graduated from college -- when a degree was enough to guarantee you a job. I don’t know if we forgot to read a newspaper, but we essentially promised our sons that a college education would pave their paths to professional success.
Because we married as teenagers, my husband and I paid for our degrees. Not only did we carry the debt of our undergrad work, but we were also responsible for my husband’s two graduate degrees. In fact, at the age of 53 I am still paying off student loans. We did not want our children to feel the pressure of debt like we did, so we promised to pay for each of their bachelor degrees – with one huge caveat. Our deal with them was that we would pay for their bachelor’s degree as long as they went straight into graduate school upon graduation.
We may have been well intentioned, but we were obnoxiously naïve. It is dizzying to consider all the things we did wrong. Our promise filled them with false expectations of employment, robbed them of the opportunity to gain all-important work experience, and caused unnecessary pain.
When, at the age of 26, our son realized that he needed to be back under our roof, we watched a slow, subtle change in him. The weight of the world seemed to rest on our formerly easy-going kid as he left each morning to apply for entry-level jobs. The social life he’d enjoyed while in school in another state evaporated. He literally did not make one new friend while living in our home and quickly dropped contact with old friends. As much as we loved our son, we would have given anything to have him announce that he was going out for the evening with friends. We would have done anything to see him laugh like he once had.
He was embarrassed, questioning every decision he’d made regarding his education, wondering why he hadn’t taken time to gain more work experience. He was also crushingly aware of the debt that he had accrued. While we did pay for their bachelor’s degrees, our boys were responsible for grad school tuition. It seemed like a safe bet, given all the times we promised them that it would pay off.
Our experience of having our son live at home might be different than other people's. True to nature, he was a great guy and did whatever he could to help out around the house. We never felt the “burden” of having an adult child at home who did not want to grow up. The very fact that he did want to grow up, to be independent, is what caused so much pain. He was unhappy and could not find a way out of it. We were heartbroken to see him suffer and to know that we played a role.
It was glaringly apparent that my husband and I were living in a fantasy world and that fantasy hit our children smack in the face. How could we apologize for “not knowing,” not doing our due-diligence, and for operating in an outdated model of what it meant to have a college degree? By failing to face the reality of what our boys would face upon graduating college, we set them up for a couple of really rough years of self-doubt and anxiety.