As the mother of a freshman attending one of the schools on the list published in the Sunday Star Tribune, I read with great interest the article about the “sticker shock” that accompanies tuition and room and board fees at our state’s private colleges (“Private colleges try to soften $50-60K ‘sticker shock,’ ” Oct. 18).

Sadly, there is sticker shock all around — and, I believe, there is a system in higher education that accepts debt as a way of living and being for most students and families.

It is deceiving, though, to cite debt load for students without also referencing debt load for parents.

We applied to my son’s school on the single-parent income of his social-worker mother, and with him working as a prep cook at a local restaurant. After providing information about my income and financial assets (such as they are) and his income (which plummeted after he quit his job to begin college), it was determined that our family responsibility for his four-year education at said college would be in excess of $120,000. This was after financial subsidies/grants were applied by the college.

My son will indeed graduate with about $20,000 in debt from government loans. My debt related to his higher education will be around $90,000.

This debt load will impact the equity I have spent 18 years building in my home, and it will affect when I will feel financially able to retire.

As a mother and one who believes strongly in the value of a higher education, I accept this as an investment in my son’s future, and in the future of our society. I believe, though, that we live in a place and time where the costs of a higher education are a runaway train, unmanageable and unattainable for many, burdensome for most.

I am not an MIT-educated engineer who could blithely ignore costs as we explored school options for my son. In the end, he is at a private school because it is the best place for him, for a variety of reasons, but also because the kind of public higher education that I received many years ago is now as expensive for families as a private college education subsidized by the school.

For my son to pursue his educational goals, both public and private options put me — one who has not lived extravagantly and one who has always maintained a minimal debt load — in a position where I must be concerned about my financial future and with a debt load that is significantly larger than my mortgage. This is despite 25 years in a full-time career serving others, and after living comfortably in a “middle class” socioeconomic status for all of my adult life.

I am not complaining about my general life circumstances. I consider myself privileged relative to many in our society. Still, there is something wrong with a system in which debt, lots of it, is the norm, and in which people who work hard all of their lives, in part so that their children can go to college, cannot see an end to it.

 

Susan Williams, of White Bear Lake, is a social worker.