Financial Aid Rewards Those Who Do Everything Wrong (Sometimes)

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I was raised by a guy who graduated college the month before the Great Depression of 1929 hit. He always felt lucky to have a job and be able to support his family. My dad never quite forgot the insecurity he and his family went through during the 1930s. When we were kids during the 1950s, there was always too much food on the table, which I have come to realize was due to the fact that my father and his generation came from a time when one could not be sure of things as basic as food. My siblings and I would take this for granted.

I have always thought that my generation that came of age in the 1960s was able to ask the big questions about the glaring contradictions in our society between who we said we were and what we actually did, when it came to topics like social justice, war, and racism. We did not have to worry about the things my parent's generation did, because of the security we took for granted from the way we were raised. I didn't have a job pressing pants at 12 years of age like my father did. We had time to play, dream, and think, which allowed us to address the big questions about the way things should be and work to make them a reality as we became adults.

For me, the hallmark of what remained one of the foundational principles upon which my parents lived was that you did not live beyond your means. If you wanted something, you saved until you got it with the knowledge that part of the joy and value of what you wanted was having to wait until you could afford it. Implicit in this approach to life was the knowledge that there would always be unforeseen expenses that in addition you had to make allowance for and that if you didn't waste your hard earned savings, you would realize what you wanted all the more quickly. Dad would always say, "Turn off the lights," when we left a room, "We don't own stock in the electric company."

When I first traveled around the United States when I was 17, after my first year of college, I worked in an Italian restaurant in Atlantic City, where Gus, the guy from Naples who owned the place and never took a day off, was just like my dad. He never wasted anything either. I came to understand that this country was built by people who either during the Depression or their country of origin or both had known real hardship in a reality where they couldn't have succeeded even if they worked like animals. It was their willingness to do well over 30 or 40 years of work that made America the economic powerhouse it became in the last half of the 20th century. A real social contract: hard work over time for the promise of ultimate success.

So what happened? Now everybody you talk to wants to make a killing in three to five years and no longer seem to value what they do nor derive any pleasure from what I as my father's son and Gus's ex-cook still find pleasure in doing: the shear joy of hard work and the sense of fulfillment it brings.

I had a realization of just how far we have come from what still seems to me as the recent memory of what American values were when I was a kid in the 1950s and what they are today, when my son got his acceptances to colleges during the last couple of weeks. Along with the acceptance letters came the financial aid package of: outright scholarship, work/study, and federally insured student loans he would get from some of the schools both public and private that he had applied to. What became painfully evident to my son, my wife, and myself in looking at his financial aid package and comparing it to that of his similarly situated socio-economically friends, who had also applied to the same schools, was that my parents' values were not only no longer valued, but there was actually a strong disincentive measured in how much financial aid schools were willing to offer for people who stubbornly clung to my family's passé values. Let's be very clear here, I'm not talking about financial aid to poor people or groups of people who have been systematically discriminated against in the past, but rather the solid and ever shrinking members of the middle class.

My son's friends whose parents were divorced fared far better in financial aid than my son. While there is clearly a greater strain on a family's finances when two households have to be maintained and I surely wouldn't want to penalize a family which has gone through the trauma of a divorce, I don't feel that our family should be at a disadvantage, because we haven't divorced. I must admit that I did talk to my wife about the clear financial incentive that we had, if we decided to end our 25 year marriage. As of this writing, she hasn't gone for my argument. And then of course there is the gross disparity between what we teach in school in courses like Life Skills, where we try to instill frugality and social responsibility in how we teach students to manage their finances when they get older and then do everything we can through credit and publicity to make sure that people compromise everything we have told them not to do.

The present economic collapse, which so far has only rivaled the Great Depression of 1929, which formed my father and might still do far more to us before it is actually finished, was based on getting people to live beyond their means in houses they couldn't afford and which they used as a piggy bank to pay for that which they didn't have the self-discipline to earn over time. Many of my son's friends whose parents make comparable salaries to those of my wife and I actually got much better financial aid packages, because they had maxed their credit cards out, saved no money for their retirement, and generally lived far beyond their means. In inquiring with several colleges as to why my son didn't get a better financial aid package, we were told that the house we had bought almost 25 years ago for $175,000 now had too much equity. The message was clear, either sell it or take out a mortgage that would put us in the same financially insecure place as our son's friends' parents. Do this and we'll give you a great financial aid package!

The silver lining to my present precarious position with LAUSD, which will probably end with my unjust firing, is that I will probably be able to get a better financial aid package next year for my son. So tell me, do any of you think that a bachelor's degree is worth a 1/4 of a million dollars? You know you're getting old when you realize that your own tuition at UCLA in 1969 was $80.50 a quarter.

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