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Empty Nest, Empty Wallet
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Empty Nest, Empty Wallet

Late summer is the perfect time to contemplate empty nesthood.

To: Parents, High School Class of 2014

Dear Parents:

The senior high school year passed in a flash, and you got to watch your child sit with a flock of other graduates about to leave high school. Many of us remember that day, thinking of dropping off that same child for their first day of school. It didn’t seem so long ago. But in any event, a whole flock of fledgling adults flew the high school coop. And having flown the coop, you are now to be left with an empty nest.

Late summer is the perfect time to contemplate empty nesthood. Not much happens in Minnesota in August—oh, I know that the major political parties had their primaries; many people didn’t notice. Soccer has receded for most of us and will not reemerge for another four years. The state has finally dried out, and with it come long, languid and still hot summer days.

The State Fair arrived early this year, on Aug. 21, and the 12-day event featured the excited group voice of our recent high school graduates. Those voices will soon fade, summer days are getting shorter and very soon your house will seem bigger.

Many parents report that their child leaving for college first hits them in their garage; a car is either permanently gone or permanently in place, but in either event, a dramatic change. A bedroom is empty, unless a lucky younger sibling has moved up the chain. There are huge piles of high school clothes (including that never-to-be-worn-again letter jacket), which suddenly seem to have been outgrown. That strange sound keeps recurring—silence. And just as the nest is empty, so, too, the high school parents’ wallet.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education reported recently that students graduating with a bachelor’s degree had a median debt of $27,300 last year. That means that half had higher debt. Total student debt now totals more than $1.2 trillion, a 300 percent increase in the last decade alone. And currently, more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed. In fact, and probably due to the unemployment rate, of the outstanding $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, an estimated 7 million students have already defaulted on a total in excess of $100 billion. This is a debt epidemic that affects the vast majority of high school graduates.

Regardless of whether these high school graduates attend in-state or out-of-state colleges, tuition continues to increase at a rate higher than the general rate of inflation. In fact, it is not uncommon for freshmen students attending four-year residential colleges to be hit with total charges in excess of $50,000 per school year. Some “elite” four-year liberal arts colleges are already charging more than $60,000 per year, with no end in sight. When you factor in the continued tuition and cost increase with total enrollment projections—currently at 2.2 million freshmen students—it isn’t hard to see why, in addition to living in an empty nest, we will all be doing so with an empty wallet.

There are no easy answers to this personal family financial burden; savings rates do not increase at the same rate as tuition increases. And then there are the disquieting headlines about the quality of student life that is being purchased with this ever-increasing debt—stories of sexual abuse and rampant alcoholism on campus. Elite colleges and universities are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for sexual abuse issues. A veritable chorus of college presidents has recently decried the culture of alcohol on campuses. All of this makes it more difficult to sell that North Woods cabin—you won’t be needing it anymore anyway—to help finance a college education. These are serious and august concerns.

The beginning of a new school year gives us some perspective on these concerns. Misbehavior by young adults provided with alcohol and no parental supervision for the first time has always been with us. It is my impression that these issues, while serious, have not grown in magnitude, but merely publicity. More attention may help reduce some of these problems. In any event, a college education and being away from home are worth the cost for a number of reasons.

We all know that college graduates get paid more over their lifetimes and have better employment prospects. Your member of the college class of 2018 will come home much changed; somewhat more serious, a little better-spoken, more inquisitive and perhaps grateful for all of your financial sacrifice. The house they come back to will be noisy once again, and generally full of former friends, excitedly discussing their college experiences. This, too, is why we send them away from the nest.

These are the education thoughts we have in late summer, as the days slowly get shorter and new college students start their frenzied goodbye partings from high school friends. Things start getting packed, and envious siblings start eyeing the soon-to-be-vacant bedroom. It is all worthwhile. Enjoy it while you can. The birds start flying away in the fall.

Sincerely yours,

Vance K. Opperman
Looking Forward to Thanksgiving

Vance K. Opperman (vopperman@keyinvestment.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.

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