Cutting the Cord And Hoping for the Best

My oldest son was born in a flood of taco sauce, chocolate, and ice cold coke. After nine months of eating healthy, exercising, popping daily vitamins, sleeping as well as someone carrying a 7 pound parasite can, and, in general, following the guide to a perfect pregnancy, my wife came home from work one day with a 12 pack of tacos, a bag of m&m’s, and enough soda for everyone in the neighborhood. It was the family meal deal before we really had the family.

I think my son knew it was time to make an appearance. Out of dietary self-defense. Any more meals like that and he might not fit down the tube.

And the night he was born I cried–tears of joy, relief, and abject fear that my wife and I had to take responsibility for this human being. He could be a chef, scientist, actor, writer, pro athlete; he might develop a taste for human flesh, torture small animals, or even become a politician. In those first few minutes of life, the possibilities are endless. After all, I was in graduate school studying southern literature, my wife went into labor during an episode of ¬†Baywatch, and he was struggling down the birth canal during Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address. (In retrospect, those last two seem strangely, and appropriately, connected.) We were, as you can imagine, a tad bit worried about those immediate cultural influences. What if he came out looking like David Hasselhoff with a southern accent and a taste for government pork?

I’ll admit, like so many other parents, I also cried last weekend when we dropped that same child off at his college dorm a couple days ago.

Joy, relief, and abject fear are those parental emotions that, we are learning, remain constant.

Joy–he finally used the potty on his own! Relief–no more diaper costs and stench. Fear–what if he has an accident at school?

Just keep adding milestones as the years go by: Joy–he graduated from high school. Relief–he got accepted to college (with scholarships). Fear–what if he has an accident. (Okay. So maybe the fear part is the same every time?)

Admittedly, everyone in our house knew it was time for my son to move out, including him. Don’t get me wrong–we love our son, we appreciate our son, and we value our son. He’s a pretty good kid and we have been lucky that we have had very few issues and problems. He’s relatively well behaved and we’ve never had to choose between paying the cable bill or sending in bail money.

But there’s a reason 18 year-olds are considered adult enough to rent their own apartments, join the military, or be tried as adults. There is a time to pack his bags, box up his valuables, and hope we spent those 18 years wisely. At some point, we have to let him put our parenting to the test out in the real world and hope the lessons stick.

Yet, as we drove away watching him stand in front of his dorm, it’s easy to travel back in time and see him as a little kindergartner standing in the room, lost, scared, happy, petrified, excited, nervous–pick an emotion and I’m sure it was swirling around. For all of us.

But at least he came home 7 hours later.

What, we wonder as we drive away, if he holes up in his room and forgets to go to class? What if he gets lost and can’t find a place to eat? What if he hates his roommate? Gets sick? Depressed?

What, we fear, if he doesn’t make any friends?

How, we wonder, will he ever survive without us?

Because, of course, without us he’ll forget how to set an alarm, become a social leper, and let himself starve in a fit of despair.

Or not.

He’s got 18 years of experience under his belt and I’m pretty sure we covered alarm setting and eating. History tells us he’ll be fine, meet new people, and continue growing up. We managed, after all, to survive after our parents abandoned us to the wilderness of the “real world” and turned our rooms into guest rooms/sewing rooms/anything but a come back and live with us rooms.

In fact, for the most part, everyone tends to grow up. Eventually. Hopefully, his path is easy, but I suspect he’ll grow up either because of us or in spite of us.

We probably need to worry more about whether he will ever visit, not if he will visit too often.¬†Either way, there’s a time to cut the cord and hope for the best.

And the irony of parenting, it seems to me, is that we work hard to become increasingly less relevant to our children’s daily lives. Or, at the least, differently relevant. He doesn’t have to come home in 7 hours. Or 7 days. And, in fact, isn’t the goal that he knows he can but he doesn’t feel like he has to?

I just hope my desk fits under his old window and we have enough boxes for the stuff he left at home.

Accounting for Accountability

I’m generally a supporter of President Obama. He’s far more capable than his critics allow and he’s working in an increasingly out of touch Washington environment peopled with extremists posing as populists. After all, when a variety of congressman spend the weekend telling their constituents they would impeach the president if they could simply find enough votes (evidence be damned!), we might as well kiss any hope of bi-partisanship goodbye.

But I have to say that I’m a little tired of political plans to reign in the costs of higher education spending that completely miss the real problems with higher education. President Obama plans to create a ranking system for America’s colleges and universities and “connect financial aid to school performance, support academic innovation and competition, and make college affordable.”


I’ll readily admit, as I’ve done before, that universities should not be held blameless. We are, according to the latest data, hoarding administrators the way your grandmother collects photos of her grand kids. For every professor we hire, we have brought 10 administrators and middle managers on board. Who needs a math professor when you can hire a Director of Outdoor Activities. (Why do outdoor activities need directing?) Too many universities have swallowed the kool-aid and jumped on the Student Services bandwagon that purports to help little Johnny “transition” from high school to college.

We used to call that growing up and we didn’t need 15 student service personnel to help.

But, it’s also worth noting that the meteoric rise in tuition is related to the equally quick collapse of state funding and increased accountability measures required by accreditors and legislators . At my university, we had to split our financial aid department and our scholarship department because the federal and state regulations have become so complex we need multiple experts for both offices. Doing so required hiring a Director, staff, and paying for dedicated office space. We have to hire a director of accountability to assess our assessment program. Departments are pulling faculty out of the classroom to collect data that shows we need more faculty in the classroom.

I’m not being sarcastic or ironic here.

And don’t get me started on the costs of admitting unprepared, unmotivated, and disengaged students because our meager state funding is partially tied to growth.

We should also note that part of the increased spending on student services is a direct response to legislative mandates to be more competitive. While it pains me to admit it, students visiting our campus are far more impressed with our climbing wall than our award winning faculty. At 18, a teacher is a teacher and everyone has award winning faculty. No place else has championship inter-mural teams, a 2-mile indoor track, and a 4 mile lazy river.

But, and I wish I could sit and have a beer with the President, you can’t create performance measures without admitting that the very nature of higher education is exclusive. We don’t call it higher ed because college profs are sitting around smoking doobies throughout the day. For something to be higher, there must be something lower. As a culture, we can agree that all children have a right to a basic public education. We might not agree what to teach or how, but we do see grades 1-12 as essential and key to American culture.

Higher education goes beyond such an idea. The very idea of earning an higher degree depends on imagining the university as a privileged place one chooses.

In other words, states and the federal government mandate grades 1-12, but everything beyond that is a choice.

So perhaps, as we debate (yet again) how to reform higher education, we might consider creating accountability measures that focus on the people choosing to further their education. In other words, let’s at least acknowledge that the person most accountable for college completion is the student.

Again, I’ll not hold universities harmless here and we certainly can reform certain things we do, but accountability measures must start with the most important actor in the equation. At my fantasy beer-meeting with the president, I’ll propose we create a system for high school graduates that provides the first semester at any public university for free. If, after that first semester the student decides college isn’t for him or her, she can walk away with no debt and no strings attached.

However, if the student agrees to remain in school all federal financial aid comes with performance demands that match or exceed the performance demands we place on universities and professors. Stop attending class, refuse to go to the tutoring center after low test grades, never ask for help–you begin forfeiting your right to federal financial aid, including subsidized and un-subsidized loans. In what other world would a bank (or even your rich uncle) continue to loan money to a high risk, low reward venture? Yet, in higher education we keep letting under-performing students borrow money.

Most importantly, if the university can document your disinterest, the university isn’t punished.

Such a plan would open the doors wide and provide instant access to universities across the nation for every high school student. Most importantly, such a plan would force students to commit and would hold them accountable for effort and desire. I’ll bet, quite frankly, that the savings on the back end (not loaning money or providing financial aid to students we know are unlikely to complete school) would more than pay for the front end costs.

Now, if we could just develop a performance plan for all those politicians designing performance plans.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)