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2017-06-25 11:16:02
Your Money: Does God Want You to Spend $300,000 for College?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the remarks he prepared for his parting address to the University of Notre Dame class of 2017, Rev. John I. Jenkins urged the graduating seniors to turn and applaud their families.

Father Jenkins, the Notre Dame president, did not end up delivering those words, though. Earlier on, the featured commencement speaker, Vice President Mike Pence, stole his thunder by issuing a similar order. And Mr. Pence did Father Jenkins one better by explicitly noting how many checks most of their loved ones had written to the university.

Anyone contemplating the full cost of attendance at what is arguably the nation’s most prominent Catholic undergraduate institution probably wonders just how big those checks are for four years here. Families with teenagers starting this fall can expect to pay close to $300,000 over four years, assuming costs increase 3 percent or so each year. Even families with incomes over $100,000 who qualify for financial aid will still probably pay a whole lot more than they would at their flagship state university — easily $50,000, $100,000 or $150,000 more.

All of which invites an obvious question: In what holy book is it written that we owe anything like this kind of expenditure to each of our children?

Father Jenkins, 63, would seem like an excellent person to ask, and not just because of his priestly collar. While he is not a parent, he is a son, one of 12 children who grew up in Omaha. And while his father was a doctor, his parents put the dozen children through Catholic schools and then expected them to spring for half of their subsequent college educations, that way teaching them something about value on top of the lessons in values.

So Father Jenkins, a onetime prom king, went to work, starting his freshman year in high school. “I probably had to lie about my age,” he said. He began as a busboy at an International House of Pancakes and then moved to a hospital job and a post office position.

In college, he found work at a slaughterhouse that paid $5.50 an hour, enough to cover his $2,000 share of Notre Dame’s tuition through summer wages alone. He still hitchhiked to South Bend once in a while to pinch pennies, though.

No such path is available to undergraduates now. It would take more than 4,000 hours (or 100 weeks of full-time work) at prevailing campus wages to pay for half of the annual rack rate at Notre Dame today. And while only 30 percent or so of the students pay the full price, even the ones with large financial aid packages work only a fraction of that amount. Loans loom large, as does the role of parental savings, with many families contemplating the right amount to set aside each month while their future undergraduate is still in utero.

So I asked Father Jenkins to point to some of his favorite religious readings and teachings that might shed light on the question of just how much hustle, sweat and sacrifice families should expect of themselves.

We spent the most time talking about a part of the Catholic Catechism that discusses the family in God’s plan. “Marriage and the family are ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children,” it reads.

One question that bedevils most families with children who can afford to save something is whether they should prioritize retirement savings or college savings. The passage here seemed to echo that line of inquiry and answer it squarely: Providing for the financial security of a surviving spouse in old age is on an equal plane with shoveling money away for tuition payments.

God’s plan here would then conflict with the traditional financial planning rule that says that it’s best to save for retirement first, since it can be harder and more costly to borrow (say, through a reverse mortgage) for retirement than it is to borrow for college. Thus, better to make sure that the last to die in a two-person couple will do so with dignity, right?

“I would challenge the assumption that it’s the spouse who comes first,” Father Jenkins said, speaking of what actually goes on in the real world outside of the Catechism. “I would think that it is children first. Many parents I know would give their lives over their child’s lives.”

Given this instinct for actual sacrifice, wrecking your retirement projections to pay five figures more each year for a private college that your teenager falls in love with doesn’t seem like such an unlikely outcome.

Father Jenkins said it was humbling for him to see the financial sacrifices people make to afford a Notre Dame education. But as I pressed him in his book-filled office under the iconic Golden Dome, he could not quite bring himself to advocate trading retirement security for tuition savings.

“What do I want to say?” he said, putting his head in his hands, pausing and closing his eyes for a moment. “I guess if it’s a comfortable second home in Florida,” he continued, a smile creeping over his face, “versus education, I’d encourage them to think about the value of education in that person’s life. But if it’s my wife who is going to be left alone and penniless should I die if I don’t do more, that should be taken into account.”

Elsewhere in the Catechism, we picked apart what at first felt like a bit of social justice boilerplate. “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.”

In the context of college costs, it takes on added meaning. Notre Dame guarantees to meet the financial need of the students it accepts, thus helping them get “their due” if they are smart enough to gain admission. But does the high list price that many families pay represent a sort of cross-subsidy that they should actually feel good about, one that makes it easier for the university to grant money to others?

Like many other schools with large endowments, Notre Dame does remind families that the cost of educating its students is actually higher than the retail tuition price. That means everyone is on scholarship in a sense. “I don’t think it gives people a great amount of solace,” Father Jenkins said. “But I’ve said it before.”

In theory, the endowment might support a full price of $50,000 instead of close to $70,000, but that wouldn’t be in keeping with another Catechism passage that notes the “scandal” of excessive economic disparity. “If you make it $50,000, you’re subsidizing the wealthy at the expense of what you could do for poor or middle-class families,” he said.

Alas, we found no writings that addressed a related question head on: How can one justify spending (or borrowing) $10,000, $20,000 or $40,000 more per year at Notre Dame than one might at a flagship state university?

Father Jenkins did not quite attempt such a full-throated justification and said he would never want to make anyone feel bad for choosing a lower-cost option. “I don’t want to appear to be saying to that family, ‘You don’t care about your kids,’” he said.

At Notre Dame, such upselling hasn’t been necessary that often. In the past three years, an extraordinarily high 56 percent of students who have been accepted to the institution have chosen to attend. Still, Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment, said he had been noticing in recent years that those among the 44 percent with six-figure incomes who applied for financial aid seem to be choosing cheaper schools a bit more often.

So to other families who are likely to face similar questions of value in the coming years, Father Jenkins suggested that they ask themselves whether a school has the potential to be transformative. Here, he is stacking the deck a bit, given the edge he might have at a faith-based institution to effect such wholesale personal changes. Still, the gauzy possibility that a place may turn teenagers’ brains inside out and help them connect with a tribe, a spouse, a lifelong mentor or all of the above has caused many parents to dig deeper and feel really good about it.

But if you’re looking for an absolute edict one way or the other in the Catechism or a guarantee in Notre Dame’s institutional data on student outcomes, Father Jenkins cannot help you.

“There are dimensions to this that transcend this sort of analysis, and parents raising children have to make those decisions all the time,” he said. “Obviously, there is no instruction book that comes with your kid.”

Come on, I protested. Not even the Bible?

“Not even the Bible,” he said.