The Promise of College

I tell two family stories when I talk about the importance of higher education.

The first story covers three generations of teachers in the family. My father’s mother, born in 1897, became a teacher because when she graduated from high school that made her one of the most educated people in her tiny North Carolina hometown of Boone Township, Watauga County.

My mother, born in 1921, became a teacher by going to a two-year “normal school”—teacher’s college—in Lewiston, Idaho (now Lewis-Clark State College), in the years just before World War II.

My older sister, born in 1952 (whoops, I told!), became a teacher with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho and continuing education every summer in order to stay credentialed.

The second story is about my dad, who started out sweeping floors at Potlatch Forest Incorporated (PFI) in Lewiston in high school. He went to war, became a bomber pilot flying B-24s during World War II, then returned home and went back to work for Potlatch.

He didn’t take advantage of the GI Bill; he and Mom had already started their family (hi, Eldest Brother!). By being accepted to Officer Candidate School, which back then was pretty much a college-boy gig, he proved he had the smarts and ability, but it wasn’t in the cards.

Dad rose to become manager of the lumber mill in Lewiston with supervisory responsibilities for a number of smaller mills, which explains why I’ve been to places like Santa, Idaho. He took plenty of continuing self-improvement courses, such as Dale Carnegie public speaking training, but no formal degree program.

At some point Potlatch’s management approach shifted. They moved their headquarters to San Francisco for a while. They became Potlatch Corporation instead of PFI. And Dad—who, unlike their corporate honchos, had never gone to college—was approaching retirement age.  He was given a transfer to Spokane and finished out his time as a vice president of sales and shipping. Fancier title, but I’m betting less responsibility.

Dad’s life represents a success story. He worked hard, rose through the ranks, and supported a family of six children.

He also represents the importance of higher education, because at some point, without it, he topped out. And his career arc is not one you’d be able to repeat today if you graduate from high school but don’t go on to some sort of postsecondary education.

He knew that, and his life dream was to have every one of his six children graduate from college. We all did. Two of us have master’s degrees.

The older kids worked their way through college. He was able to pay for my undergraduate education and my younger sister’s, joking all the while that his “second litter” of children (born when he and Mom were in their 40s, which made them “old” parents!) prevented him from taking early retirement. He actually went on after retiring from Potlatch to work for Gabor Trucking Company for a while running their Spokane dispatch office, which I’m sure was driven by the tuition pressure.

And today—facing the worst economy of my lifetime and cuts in state funding for higher education that could represent a four-year total reduction of close to 70% of state support for Washington State University (where I work) by the time they’re done with this legislative session—I don’t know how I will pay for my daughters’ college education.

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  1. Just wondering why it is necessary that you pay for your daughter's education. My parents had nothing and I worked my way through undergraduate and graduate school later in life while raising a family. Not the most optimum method but I did get it done and came out the other side with much more appreciation for its values vs. if my parents had paid for my ride.

    Perhaps the answer is to help with your child contributing as well - again only n=1, but that is how we did it with our son.

    Which ever way you choose, I realize that it is not easy, and appreciate the dilemma that you and your bright daughter face.

  2. I believe there needs to be more emphasis on personal saving for college. We started putting money aside for college over 20 years ago, and it was "sacred cow" money that we never touched or "dipped into" to pay for other things. If we didn't have the cash for the other things, we did without. The harsh reality of today's economy and rising higher education costs is that the average person can not expect to pay for their child's college education with current income. Saving money is essential. It is tragic that college is out of reach for so many. Why have we as a country allowed that to happen?

  3. I for one am not paying for my two daughters higher education. They will benefit from the degree, they will pay for it. That being said, I have been and continuing to pay for parochial and G-prep (which is more a month than the first and second mortgage put together) to ensure that they get the best leg up. I continuously reiterate to them that I do not care what they do for a living as long as they are happy and fulfilled doing it. Nice post, enjoyed reading it.

  4. This post reminded me that although my daughter is only 6.5 years old, I need to start thinking about her post-grad education now. I came from a situation where my parents paid for my undergrad with the help of a few scholarships. I worked for EWU and managed to get my Master's in Ed for fairly cheap with the employee discount. However my ex's parents did not help pay for his college experience which added up to $60,000 worth of loans before we turned 30. I do not wish that kind of debt upon my daughter at such a young age and I know the cost will be even higher by then. One way or another I need to start saving now to help her then.


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