Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Not under my roof

Parental support until age 18 and no later remains etched in cultural mythology, but fails to correctly describe expectations. The most obvious example of this is college. The FAFSA doesn't operate under the assumption that parental support ends at high school graduation. The expectation I'm referring to isn't that your parents will pay your tuition in full, that the parents of 19-year-olds can afford anything particular, but that it's appropriate to ask them to do so if they can, and that if they can, they will. If you're paying your own way, it's generally because you have to. Even if you're working 10, 20 hours a week, you're probably still a dependent. Parents who can afford to support their 19-year-olds but choose not to - not even to help with tuition at a less-expensive or scholarship-providing school - are not admired for teaching resilience, but considered borderline neglectful. There's an infrastructure in place, if a flawed one, for kids whose parents can't pay, but none for families who've decided that 18 is adulthood, period, principle-of-the-thing. OK, not none - there is the military. But none in civilian society.

Presumed dependence on parents extends further into adulthood, and is no longer exclusively for those who've fallen on hard times. Quite the contrary - many best-case-scenarios involve prolonged assumptions of parental support. If, for example, you wish to go to Harvard Law School, your parents' "resources" continue to enter into the equation until you're 29. The same appears to be true elsewhere as well. Brooklyn Law School takes it further: "Parents’ tax returns are required for all Need Grant applicants, regardless of age and circumstances." Presumably this means even if you're 45, going back to school, and haven't spoken to your parents in over 25 years. The FAFSA considers you an independent past 24, but the law school's own need-based financial aid assumes you don't need money if your parents have enough, or uses family income as a proxy for class. Although it's probably not as involved as all that, which is my point - parents probably are paying for their kids to go to law school. Assessing "need" on the basis of a 26-year-old's Teach for America income probably wouldn't point to the truth.

Unpaid internships - the only "job openings" at so many organizations these days - presumably assume that their unpaid employees are fed and housed, by someone. Even if the company never asks specifically about parents, even if some interns are paying their own way, parents are very much implied. If all unpaid interns were scrambling to work three jobs on the side, unpaid internships would not have proliferated. The assumption that parents are paying has fundamentally changed what it means to enter many careers. And yes, the economy also enters into it, but in the past, if a place didn't have much money to hire anyone, presumably they wouldn't hire anyone, or would hire just one person, as opposed to taking on several unpaid interns.

Planning on spending your pre-settled-down youth in New York? Working in a field other than finance? It will be presumed that your parents pay your rent. It will, which is part of why rents in the city are so outrageous. There's no presumption that the number of people making under $30k a year corresponds to the number of people renting apartments at rates appropriate for that income. Even if you find a place you can afford, landlords will be able to ask for - and get - either a parent-as-guarantor or several months rent upfront (likely borrowed from parents), just, you know, to be on the safe side. If neither of these will be options for you, you'll have to live somewhere far tinier and more out-of-the-way than you can afford, which, if you're not making much, means you'd better be OK with an hour-each-way commute from a closet.

How much parental support into is a phenomenon limited to certain segments of the population - and indeed which segments that is - I'm not sure. Not the entire country (so it's not necessary to comment here that this model does not apply if your parents work at Walmart and you do, too), but not just the Styles set, either. It most certainly doesn't only impact the class of people whose parents can afford to pay for their existences past 18, past 22. My point - to reiterate, perhaps re-reiterate - is not that everyone past 18, let alone anyone past 22, is supported financially by their parents. Rather, it's that this has become, for many, the assumed situation, while at the same time remaining very much unspoken. 25-year-olds whose parents pay their rent are not announcing this on Facebook.

There's a sense in which the new order actually promotes social mobility. If only kids and young adults whose families can't support them into adulthood get it together to find paying jobs, this leaves them ahead of, if not the kids with billion-dollar trust funds, perhaps the ones whose families can pay for a never-ending string of MA programs. Scholarships - grad or undergrad - look good on a CV, but if your parents are very generous, why fill out that Fulbright application? Meanwhile, at colleges that are not need-blind, simply being there and not paying the full ticket price is more impressive than the reverse, above and beyond the sense in which if two people are at the same college, the one who got there from a wealthier family is, all things equal, less impressive. Given that to be a fully autonomous individual, it helps if your parents don't have veto power over your decisions, if their role is reduced to that of advice-givers as opposed to under-my-roof-this-is-how-it-goes-declaration-makers, 25-year-olds who are supporting themselves may have a lower standard of living, but probably feel a good bit better about their lives than those who are not.

But overall, the longer parental support is presumed, the worse things go for the less-wealthy. As bad as it is to be 25 and still under the metaphorical parental roof, your life still governed by those who pay your bills, it's clearly worse still to be 25 and trying to make it in a system that assumes parental support that you're not getting. The presumption of parental support into adulthood ends up trickling down to those who have no such option, but who've bought into the idea that one simply must move to Brooklyn after college, do unpaid internships, etc. The opacity of this new order makes it so that you simply won't know - ever, or at least until arriving in whichever grad program, at whichever low-paid job - that many of your cohort are not living off their salaries.

So what's to be done? Unless there's a revolution, life will be different until 18 in wealthy families than poor ones. Private schools will go on existing, some neighborhoods will go on being safer than others, etc. And any kind of law telling parents how much they can hand over, and until what age, isn't feasible. And any movement on behalf of the theoretical rich kids whose parents cut them off would be beside the point, because a) that's not many people, b) these are people who still have cultural capital, perhaps enough to make up for what they lack in need-based scholarships and an ingrained work ethic.

What could change is, college could be funded by tax dollars, not tuition. This would still mean that wealthier parents would make greater contributions than poorer ones, but would change the structure according to which it's your parents paying - or not - your tuition. It would also mean that non-parents would be paying for college, as would the parents of kids who aren't college-bound, although more probably would be college-bound under this system. What would also likely occur is, the cost of running a college would drop, because things like perma-landscaping projects and state-of-the-art gyms would probably have to go. This is, however, never going to happen.

6 comments:

PG said...

The presumption of parental support into adulthood ends up trickling down to those who have no such option, but who've bought into the idea that one simply must move to Brooklyn after college, do unpaid internships, etc.

Surely this is somewhat peculiar to people in particular fields, though -- the fields that tend to correlate heavily with writing confessional essays, perhaps. When I didn't get into Teach for America, it didn't even occur to me to cast about for an unpaid internship. I probably could have gotten my parents to pay my rent if they'd been satisfied with the internship, but I don't think that's what anyone pointed me toward. Like, when employers were coming to campus, I don't remember any of them saying they were offering unpaid internships. Even the low-paying nonprofit and government job offers I got still paid at least minimum wage. (Though what the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics offered me to live in San Francisco probably would have necessitated either food stamps or living under an overpass.)

Is it that the college job recruitment has changed so much and employers offering unpaid internship are more welcomed? (If so, just since the beginning of this recession?) Or was it always different for people who had committed to working in arts/ literature/ fashion, so that if I'd been paying more attention I'd have noticed that some of my classmates were neither going to grad school nor getting actual paying jobs? Of the only two people I can remember from college who are now full-time writers, one has been grinding out actual journalism (as in going to war zones) for the past decade; and the other had a paid editorial position for a scholarly magazine at first, and then has been living on a series of poetry fellowships, prizes and royalties.

What could change is, college could be funded by tax dollars, not tuition.

What does college look like in countries where this is true? The only college campus I've even briefly lived on outside the U.S. was in the UK, and they're transitioning to a much heavier student contribution model of higher education.

India's public universities don't require much tuition, but they're demonically competitive to get into. Parents might not have to pay college tuition, but those who can pay plenty beforehand to produce a kid who can get into the college: for private school tuition, tutors, exam cramming sessions, etc.

Obviously America is a much richer country, but I think if college were wholly tax supported, there would be many fewer "seats," as they say in India, and obtaining those seats would become more competitive -- and as in India, there'd inevitably be private colleges springing up to take those who weren't smart enough for IIT but whose parents can afford to pay. (Given America's preexisting set of private colleges, probably a few at the top with massive endowments like Harvard could afford to skim the cream off the kids who could get into the state schools and still offer them a full ride.) And the shortages would make other social battles like affirmative action even more bitter. You haven't really seen someone decry affirmative action until you've seen a Brahmin get going on caste reservations in state universities.

Also, I don't know if any countries with mostly tax-supported higher education have the U.S. model of a liberal four-year education before getting a professional degree. It's easier to get taxpayers to pay for college if you can say, "Out of this will come all your doctors, lawyers, teachers, et al."

Phoebe said...

PG,

Yes, as I said in the post, this doesn't apply to everyone. And you make a good point re: the overrepresentation among confessional-essay writers. But my sense is that these days, more than when I'd just graduated, unpaid internships are common even in NGO-ish fields, i.e. not just fashion magazines.

"Of the only two people I can remember from college who are now full-time writers [...]"

These sound like two incredibly successful and ambitious people whose careers are not remotely representative of humanities grads, or even those who are professional writers. Poetry especially - if this person never even taught to pay the bills, that's unusual.

"What does college look like in countries where this is true?"

In Belgium, which probably has more in common with the U.S. than does India, it seems to work out OK. There are different tracks, some vocational, but to go to the academic one as a first-generation college student doesn't, as I understand it, have the same earth-shattering significance as doing so in the States, precisely because college is free.

"Also, I don't know if any countries with mostly tax-supported higher education have the U.S. model of a liberal four-year education before getting a professional degree."

Again, in Belgium, no - law school is part of college. And I'm not sure why that's such a problem, or why a compromise couldn't be struck that would throw a few general-ed courses in as well, in exchange for college being free/tax-supported/take your pick.

PG said...

There are different tracks, some vocational, but to go to the academic one as a first-generation college student doesn't, as I understand it, have the same earth-shattering significance as doing so in the States, precisely because college is free.

But is college the default expectation the way it is in the U.S. today? My high school didn't even manage to graduate more than 3/4 of my freshman class on time, but of those who did graduate, they claimed 2/3 were going to college (albeit community college for many). Are full-time tenured professors paid a lot less in Belgium? American colleges already seem to be relying pretty heavily on low-paid, no-benefits adjuncts to teach the first and second year courses. If taxpayers were going to pay for the same number of people who currently go to college to keep doing so. Also, do people go away to college as much there, or are they more likely to go to college near home and live at home?

It just seems like sending even half of your entire population of 18-year-olds (and I vaguely assume Belgium has better high school graduation rates than Texas) to college, wholly on the taxpayer's dime, would be an expensive proposition. I suppose it's cheaper if not every college is expected to offer everything and students don't take a core curriculum but instead take all their courses in one subject. (I know the British model is not general-ed; is the Continental one?) Then the humanities-oriented college doesn't have to pay for science labs, and the science-oriented college doesn't have to pay for literature professors.

I think it would be a significant switch in higher ed in the U.S. for people to have to know what they want to do when they start college and to be fairly certain of sticking to it. Does Belgium have a big group of people go into college pre-med, then get wiped out by higher level organic chemistry and end up a history major instead? I think I was a little more focused than the average, and even I didn't know I wanted to study bioethics until I saw the course descriptions, or major in economics until I enjoyed a summer school course in it. (My high school econ class was ridiculous; it was squashed in with U.S. government and the Reagan-worshipping teacher only taught us supply-side economics, which is nonsense in itself.) On the other hand, I suppose an expectation of knowing what you want by the time you go to college might also diminish some of the American tendency toward extended adolescence.

Phoebe said...

No way I could answer all of it, so going with some...

Yes, more students live at or near home. It's a small country, though, so even "far" is a short trip away. But even students who live in student housing - and here it's the French case I'm more familiar with - are just living in a tiny room with no frills. And it's not just that there aren't luxury suites with A/C or whatever - there isn't organized on-campus anything, no dorm social life, no extracurriculars, no sports teams. I mean, people still socialize and work out, but it isn't something done at college. A college that's really just classes - and huge, impersonal lecture classes followed by an exam, at that - would be a whole lot cheaper to run.

"Does Belgium have a big group of people go into college pre-med, then get wiped out by higher level organic chemistry and end up a history major instead?"

I believe something like that is the case, but no Belgian here at the moment to confirm. You do pick a major early on, but might fail out of it, which doesn't mean you get a job bagging groceries instead, so presumably switching majors is possible.

"I think it would be a significant switch in higher ed in the U.S. for people to have to know what they want to do when they start college and to be fairly certain of sticking to it." and "On the other hand, I suppose an expectation of knowing what you want by the time you go to college might also diminish some of the American tendency toward extended adolescence."

I think a great deal more is decided by age 18 in the States than we might imagine. By the time you start college, you probably already know if you have the math skills for something incredibly math-intensive. If you want to major in a foreign language/foreign literature, the courses will be structured to allow you to start from 101, but prior knowledge (or already knowing you're good with languages) is incredibly helpful. Studio art, creative writing, you probably have to make the cut to even be in the major. Much is decided for you, effectively. True, you might find yourself torn between history and polisci, but I'm not sure what terrible damage would be done if one had to decide at 17 and not 20 which of the two to go with.

PG said...

A college that's really just classes - and huge, impersonal lecture classes followed by an exam, at that - would be a whole lot cheaper to run.

Sure, but then you might as well go to online education so there isn't even the no-frills dorm room to have to rent, or the college auditoriums and lecture halls to maintain -- at least for any course that doesn't require labs.

I wonder if American college education ever was like that. On-campus socializing and organizations seem to have been important at least by the postbellum era, if not even earlier. Important at the British colleges from which ours were descended, as well, maybe partly because some of them were in relatively sleepy towns like Cambridge. From what I know, most of the major Continental centers of learning were in cities. Less connected to monks preserving manuscripts and then to preparing young men for the clergy, perhaps.

Phoebe said...

No, online education wouldn't be the same - not according to the article you've linked to:

"A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there."

Which is how it works. It's not that without a massive, well-funded social/extracurricular infrastructure, students have no social/extracurricular lives. They still go out, play sports, etc.

I think we might not picture this so easily, because our (Americans') impression of a no-frills college experience involves older students with jobs and families, or unusually burdened 18-year-olds with full-time jobs and huge family responsibilities. If the kids are 18-22 and give-or-take middle class, they don't act like modern-day monks.