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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

September 19, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Sticker relief: First thoughts of a new public college parent

“Here’s the bill for Western,” I told my husband this summer, waving a piece of paper in the air. “Tuition and fees are going to be $8,965.”

“Per quarter?” he asked.

“No! We’re in the state school system now. That’s for a whole year.”

I’ve been covering higher education in Washington since 2011, and I’ve also experienced college as a parent through the filter of my daughter, who’s been at an out-of-state private college for the past three years. But this fall, my son becomes a freshman at Western Washington University, and for the first time I’m the parent of a student in the system I’ve been writing about.

Here are some first thoughts, all related to that bill:

We’ve paid a small fortune to send our daughter to school in Los Angeles, so while in-state tuition is not the bargain it once was, Western still seems like a fantastic deal by comparison. On the other hand, our daughter has gotten extensive academic career counseling, ample room in her schedule for internships and now a semester-long class to help her prepare her resume and practice interview skills. There was never any trouble with getting the classes she needed, or tutoring when she had trouble with a computer science class. She’s on track to graduate in four years, like 67 percent of students at her college, and she’s got a very specific idea of what she wants to do when she graduates.

We wonder how that experience will compare to Western.

WWU campus (Photo by Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times 2011)

WWU campus (Photo by Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times 2011)

My son has only the vaguest notion of what he wants to do when he graduates. Federal statistics show only 38 percent (38 percent!) of first-time, full-time Western students graduate in four years – although the six-year graduation rate, 69 percent, is above the national average. Too many students, I hear, make late decisions to switch their majors, or can’t get into classes they need to graduate because the classes are full. But some of them also drop out (or “stop out,” as higher ed folks like to call it).

One of the striking differences between K-12 and college is that you don’t know how your kids are doing academically unless you press them to report to you, and that worries me. Granted, my son is 18 years old now, and technically an adult. He’s supposed to figure it out by himself.

But still. I’m footing most of the bill. I will no longer be able to check his grades on the web or hound him about missing assignments.

And while I hammer him about what classes he’s signed up for and ride him to make sure he understands that he must study every night if he wants to keep pace in college, he has just one question about Western: where he’ll be able to store his downhill skis.

We move him into his dorm room on Sunday, and classes start on Wednesday. It will be a sweet but sad moment for me and my husband as we remember fondly our own college years and hope he’ll enjoy college just as much as we did. But we’ll also be wondering if this mid-sized state school will light the academic spark and provide the career planning he’s going to need to master his future.

Stay tuned  I’ll be writing more about his freshman experience at Western, and my experience as a parent in our state system, as the year progresses.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Annals of a college parent, higher ed, Western Washington University


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