For nearly 50 years, three rules -- potent but unwritten -- have governed the way America's middle class viewed its children's education.
The first was that Sonny and Sissy must go to college at age 18 -- preferably a private one with an attitude -- or their lives would surely be a study in misery.
The second was that their education should end at age 22, or whenever the progression of expensive advanced degrees was
completed. Otherwise, the kids would suffer unmentionable shame.
The third was that the parents of Sonny and Sissy were morally obliged to pay for this academic marathon. Not doing so was tantamount to broadcasting their own disappointing financial achievements.
Maybe it's time for a change in attitude.
Fewer families can still afford to foot the bills for college educations, says Gerald Celente, director of the Socioeconomic Research Institute of America in Rhinebeck, N.Y. They just haven't admitted it yet.
When they do, he maintains, more and more parents will expect their offspring to work -- and not in some token way to earn pin money for another Ralph Lauren sweater.
"This isn't like the '50s, '60s and '70s, when you could look forward to increased
disposable income. Real purchasing power is now back at the 1970 level," Celente says.
Don't expect that to change radically, he warns: The country will be in the doldrums for some time.
As a result, middle-class parents need to move beyond the notion that they owe their kids all the education anyone could need or want, says Atlanta psychologist John Hollender.
"Parents have obligations to themselves, too," says Dr. Hollender, who specializes in career development issues. "In taking care of their own retirement, they're 'taking care' of their children's finances later on."
Furthermore, he and others point out,
young people can postpone going to college while they work and save money. They can work while they are in school. They can also try to get loans.
If it takes longer than four years to obtain a bachelor's degree, so what?
"The reality is, when you're older, you have a clearer perspective of what you're doing," Celente says. "You are going to school for entirely different reasons: for personal gain, not because of peer pressure. One of the major pressures our education system pushes on young people is demanding career decisions at early ages."
Instead, it might not be a bad thing if the typical college freshman were a more seasoned, maybe even compassionate, 20- to 30-year-old. The yield, he says, might be a far more civilized, thoughtful and truly "educated" work force.