skip to Main Content

College is Free

I know it’s out here somewhere. The college our daughter has been looking for.

And as we make our way down endless highways and byways in search of it, my odometer might as well be racking up dollar signs instead of miles. Here on a spate of college tours – several days’ worth of interstate driving, horrible campus parking options, and cheap hotels where we barely have the time to lay our heads – it’s hard to get my mind off the money her education will require.

Relax, I keep telling myself as I breathe deep and summon every other meditation trope to help me keep my cool and distract me from how much four years of her sashaying across some campus is going to cost.

But here comes one more breathless campus tour guide ready to give me the same smooth sales pitch we hear everywhere we go.

Don’t you know? Everything at college is free!

You hear this almost as soon as you are herded into every college’s patented, packaged, prefabricated admissions orientation. First comes the whiz-bang video that gives you the bird’s-eye view of the campus and all its stately buildings. Now the camera lingers over the interior of the campus fitness center, where any piece of equipment that might suffer a scratch is allegedly replaced with a brand-new machine. Footage of the student union shows crowds of apple-cheeked kids with trays piled high with food and drink.

To hear our always-backwards-walking tour guide tell it, you only need to flash your magical student ID card and get on with your day. No money changes hands; no credit or debit cards need swiping; no receipts are issued for you to keep track of. You could go the whole year without ever needing pockets in your pants.

And then I get what the guide – who forgets I have a hefty mortgage to pay – wants me to believe. College isn’t just a place you go to learn. It’s apparently a 4-year, all-inclusive resort that caters to your every biological, nutritional, and cultural need.

Think of Sandals. Think of Beaches. Think of the Grand at Moon Palace Cancun. Any sun-drenched destination in the Caribbean where you have full run of the place, stay up till all hours, and pay for stuff only with beads, if you have to shell out at all. The college admissions folks paint a picture of those kinds of oases: Just cough up tuition, room and board in one advance chunk, and you may as well throw on your Birdwells and huarache sandals because everything is now on the house.

It’s a ridiculous notion, of course, but just watch your child get sucked in by it. Don’t fret about walking to class, because transportation around campus is free. Care to try your climbing skills on the rock wall outside the student union? It’s free. And now that you’re on the campus meal plan, everything you could possibly think to eat is included. And yes, you can go back for seconds! To hear the tour guide tell it, it’s the 24-hour buffet at Secrets Wild Orchid Montego Bay, but with a non-alcoholic bar that never closes.

And this is supposed to make me forget about my mortgage?

Back in my college days, college cared a lot less about you. First-year roommates were assigned at random, and if you were stuck with some kook who partied till dawn and stole your toothpaste, those were the breaks. But today’s students use elaborate online systems to match themselves up with roommates with the same interests, sleep habits, and personal quirks. Sort of like eHarmony, but for fussy undergraduates.

The dorms you lived in back then were also not of your choosing. Beds were essentially army cots, and towels had the fluffy heft of handkerchiefs. But would you believe that kids now get to choose rooms based on how often they care to have the campus staff clean the bathrooms? And the way the tour guide talks, clean clothes are always a priority. When I was in school, I might have visited the laundromat once or twice a semester. Things are different now. One college we visited offers the kids personal laundry services. Huh? Do they also leave a mint on your pillow?

Wherever you turn on today’s campus, a bonanza of food choices awaits, with name-brand restaurants offering scaled-down versions of their chicken, barbeque, and Tex-Mex dishes. In those more pedestrian days of my own college career, one monolithic, Soviet-style food conglomerate doled out everything on your plate, and pity the poor freshman who arrived one minute after the kitchen closed. Add in the endless snowstorms, and it was like spending four long years being schooled in Vladivostok.

For our soon-to-be high school senior – still not fully aware that she’ll need to help fill the college pot – the real world will elbow its way in soon enough. (Want the campus career office to help polish your resume as you close in on graduation? Free! But shouldn’t it be?)

But between now and then, I’m hoping my bank account can shoulder four years of what ought to include parasailing, scuba diving, marlin fishing, hula dancing, and swimming with dolphins before returning my girl to me an all-out Gidget, able to ride the wild surf as well as the Big Kahuna.

Of course, I know she won’t really be coming back, because the wider world awaits. And as we keep rolling down the highway looking for a school that won’t leave our savings in tatters or my girl under a mountain of debt, I know it’s only a matter of time before she sails away for good. So for now, I’m just going to keep thinking about that tour guide’s sweet-sounding, all-inclusive pitch.

Don’t worry, Dad: Everything is free.

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. The father of two, Tony has written the DadZone since 2009.
Back To Top

There are reasons 17,000 families have signed up for the RFM eNews

Exclusive Contest Alerts | New Issue Reminders | Discount Codes and Savings