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The Real Cost Of College

Estimates of the cost of a four-year college education range from $50,000 to over $300,000 depending upon the institution.  Before taking out that second mortgage, many parents are naturally drawn to consider prudently just what their hard earned money is going to provide for their children.  The calculus typically involves consideration of a school’s academic reputation, the fit of its academic programs with the gifts and needs of the child, and possibly some familial allegiances that have spanned the generations.  Less often considered – to the detriment of what is much more critical to a child’s well-being – is the social milieu and campus culture; more specifically, the institution’s non-institutional activities, particularly those that involve alcohol and drugs, and their attendant impact on sexual choices and relationships.

Campus Culture And Expectations

It should first be stated that there are colleges and universities that set policies and expectations regarding student behavior which encourage lives of meaning, purpose and virtue.  However, sadly, this is not the majority of institutions, which fall more in line with those described by author Vanessa Grigoriadis in her recent publication Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus [1]:

College in America is a cherished secular space…. [A]nywhere else in the world…most students live with their parents and go to school for a career, not a party.  [In America, college is] a place for students to try on new selves – personal, intellectual, political, sexual. 

She writes about the problem of sexual assault on campuses and notes that social media’s blurred boundaries respecting what constitutes a “friendship” leave many young persons confused and naïve regarding what it means to know someone well enough to become vulnerable with them, physically or emotionally.  Despite their unsteady state, however, surveys [2] consistently show [3] that the majority of students on college campuses are sexually active and for those that are, having multiple partners is the norm.

College students today are less socially developed than were those of previous generations: they have dated less, and they swim in environments where binge drinking is the norm and sexual experimentation followed by shame or regret [4] is common.

As bad as this looks, others have characterized the circumstances as far worse.  Lisa Wade, a sociologist writes the following [5] in her recent book American Hookup [6]which is based on years of campus research:

[I]n today’s hookup culture, developing an emotional attachment to a casual sex partner is one of the biggest breaches of social norms….  [T]here’s a dichotomy between meaningless and meaningful sex…and students have to prove that they’re not emotionally attached to their sex partners, and in fact that they care less than the other person.

Uncounted Costs

Some may wonder if the situation is really so bad, if it is so different from what was experienced with the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.   Research traditionally has shown that even after the “explorations” in college, the vast majority of people still want to get married [7], causing some to conclude that there is no harm in the casual or intoxicated encounters that people have in their youth; that the commitment-free sex (and its inevitable coarseness) is a way to assuage the sexual appetite in those years between entering college and becoming established in a career.

However, more recent data raises concerns about such conclusions.  Sociologist Mark Regnerus notes in a recent book [8] that between 2000 and 2014 the number of Americans aged 25 to 34 who were married fell from 55 percent to 41 percent.  While the decline may be attributable in part to cohabitation, such uncommitted relationships are more likely to break down than result in marriages.  “For the typical American woman, the route to the altar is becoming littered with failed relationships and wasted years.”  And many are not making it [9] to the altar at all.

Dr. Regnerus posits that sex has become “cheaper [10]” in some ways than ever before, but this cheaper sex is costly sex, in physical, emotional and moral terms.  Unwanted sex forced by the subtle pressures of campus cultural expectations, sexually transmitted diseases, risk of future infertility, difficulties forming attachments when one decides to “settle down” and impediments to trust because of past indiscretions or infidelities—suffered or perpetrated—are just some of the challenges that are being unknowingly fostered by the prevailing attitudes on American college campuses.

Carolyn Moynihan concluded her recent article [9] on campus hookups stating that:

by consenting to a debased sexual culture both women and men are setting themselves up for failure at the “career” step the majority want most: the exclusive, lasting, loving relationship of marriage.

It is difficult for any teenager beginning college to consider the implications for the future of his or her choices in the moment.  The usual suspects all might contribute to poor decision making: a desire to fit in, need for affirmation, feelings of invincibility, lack of formation in the truth, buying into the dominant culture, the list goes on.  Although “adults” chronologically, these young people are in need of perspective and guidance.  Parents or other trusted mentors need to provide, proactively, not only needed information about the potential physical and emotional costs of a dissolute lifestyle, but also the connection and affirmation necessary to provide the foundation for successful future relationships.