Tuition forces parents to pull all-nighters, too

The estimable Elsye Daugherty would answer the phone at midnight and present the house contract an hour later. A buyer's whims and needs were not subject to my mother's sleep requirements. She would roll from bed and go to work. The rest of us slept.

For three years, she put three kids through college by selling residential real estate. We kids had no special talents that afforded us grants. Our family had no obvious need that allowed us aid. We paid the full share. Rather, my mother did. House by house, midnight to midnight.

It's something you don't think about at 18 or 19. But now's a great time to bring it up. Every kid who thinks his parents are:

(a.) Stupid

(b.) Crazy

(c.) A pain

(d.) All of the Above

needs to ponder this while packing for college. There is no love greater than the sacrifice a parent makes for his or her children. For most parents these days, paying college tuition is at the top of the sacrifice list.

I went to Washington and Lee, a private school in Virginia. I left home armed with the same grudges and resentments most 18-year-olds harbor against their folks, and buoyed by the same relief at being out of their house. I had no idea what my freedom cost them.

If you want to attend Washington and Lee this year, it'll cost $28,500. That's $22,900 for tuition and fees and $5,600 for room and board.

College costs are oblivious to inflation rates and a tough economy. Higher education is deemed such an essential piece of the success puzzle, colleges feel justified in routinely kicking middle America in the teeth.

The College Board says tuition for a four-year public school climbed 9.6 percent last year, to an average of $4,081 a year. Private school rates advanced 5.8 percent, to $18,273. That's before beds and breakfasts and books and fun.

Imagine doing that for three kids at once. "Did I gulp at the tuition for Washington and Lee?" Elsye Daugherty asked this past week. "No, because we wanted you to go there."

My parents told all of us they'd pay for any school we wanted to attend. "Parents have to make that commitment," my mother said. "If a kid will do his part, parents have to do theirs."

That meant 60-hour weeks for my mother between Christmas and mid-June. "It was nothing for the phone to ring at midnight. It was expected of you, as an agent, that once you wrote a contract, you presented it immediately."

So while my father worked the 9-to-5 to keep us all afloat, my mother worked 60 hours that lifted us to our dreams. "It was important to us to get you kids where we thought you needed to be," she said.

She takes no great credit for this. It was just something she did as a parent.

My wife's father worked a shift in the steel mill by day and made service calls after dinner, fixing people's washers and dryers, to pay for his two daughters' college. He quit the day my wife graduated.

So it goes. Maybe you are packing for college for the first time now, thanking God you don't have to deal with your parents anymore. Here's hoping four or five years from now, if you are lucky enough to graduate without a mountain of debt burdening your future, you'll look at your folks and see the love. There is none greater.


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