Opinion by Jeff Bleich
Last week, my wife Becky and I carried several boxes of books, clothes, bedsheets, and two boxes that were apparently filled with free weights and rocks, up 5 flights of stairs. It is a rite-of-passage we’ve been through twice before with our sons. And now one final time, as we delivered our daughter to college.
We waited in lots of lines: at stores to get last-minute supplies, at the school cafeteria, at college buildings to pick up orientation packets. We assembled things and hung them on the walls. While we waited for Abby’s room-mate to arrive, I described various ways that duct tape and WD-40 could fix pretty much anything in their room that broke. (I also promised not to do stuff like that in front of her roommate). All too soon, that moment came — other students asked Abby if she wanted to head across campus. With a long hug we nodded and said it was probably time for us to get going, too. It was both everything I’d always wanted, and the thing I never wanted — to see our daughter begin college, and to see her leave home.
We suddenly felt the enormity of this moment. From the time Abby was born, it is what we’ve worked for. For 18 years, every month, I’d set money aside for this. It defined the choices we made: the jobs we took, the places we’d lived, what we spent and saved, and the nights we stayed up worrying. Our parents did the same for us, as did all of the other anxious parents we passed in the stairways today. Soon, like them, we’d lose the daily companionship of someone we loved, and our central mission as adults. Like an athlete crossing the finish line and knowing that they would never run this particular race again.
But there was something else gnawing at me this time. We’ve dropped three different children off at college over the past decade. But the stakes suddenly feel different now.
My parents had always known that by sending me to college, I’d have a chance for a life that was bigger and fuller than theirs. I’ve always had the same certainty. Even as college costs kept rising faster than wages, I kept that faith. I realized I’d have to pay more than my parents had, and that the competition would be tougher for my kids than it had been for me. But still, with the right education, I was sure that just by working hard at school, they’d do better than we had.
Now, I’m not so sure. I’ve got great faith in my kids, but Iess faith in the system. Besides being a dad, I’ve also taught, studied education policy, and even served as Chair of the largest university system in the world — the California State Universities. So I know it’s not as simple as when my parents dropped me off for college. Now, everyone needs more than a high school degree just to avoid falling behind. It could be vocational training, or an apprenticeship, or community college, or a 4-year college, but they are all expensive. The cost of being wrong about your choice is a lot greater than when my parents did this. Most of us can’t afford a do-over.
Now we worry about how our schools stack up against the rest of the world. It’s hard to know even what kinds of jobs there will be in four years, as machines take on anything that is risky or repetitive. It’s even hard to know how long their education will be good for. They will likely live much longer than any of us have, and they’ll need more careers to fill that time. It won’t be enough to keep doing exactly what our parents did with the same assumptions that they had.
We can hold tight to our children, and to our rituals, but technology keeps marching on. And its time we started preparing our children differently. Maybe starting with an elevator.
Jeff Bleich Chaired the California State University Board and is a Trustee of Amherst College. He is a candidate for Lt. Governor of California.