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Steve Hansen: Sacrifices made a college education possible

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Posted: Tuesday, July 4, 2017 12:30 pm

When people ask how I financed my undergraduate college education, I tell them my parents paid for it. The response sometimes is: “Oh, you must have come from a ‘privileged’ family.” Such a response is right in line with some college professors’ pontifications these days.

Perhaps they’re right. But a more accurate term for my situation might be a “sacrificial family” rather than a “privileged” one. Here’s what I mean.

My folks grew up during the Great Depression. They witnessed first-hand what economic hardship was like and vowed their children would not suffer this fate. They believed the best way to avoid hard times was through a college education. Their primary goal was to ensure that all three kids would have scholastic opportunity and graduate without the burden of debt.

This was not a pipedream posted on a refrigerator door. It was something my parents worked on every day of their lives until it was “mission accomplished.” For years, they pinched pennies for the cause.

Dad was a Naval officer. While he earned an adequate salary, it was significantly below what many of his private professional medical colleagues were making. Our family cars were Plymouths, Dodges and Volkswagens, while some of his friends were driving Buick Roadmasters, Chrysler Imperials and Jaguar XK 120s.

We had no luxuries other than a 16-inch black-and-white television, which my father keep going for 10 years. This was a time when the average lifespan of a set was about 36 months. We did not take formal vacations. Our summer trips were usually relocations ordered by the Navy.

Mom carefully shopped for food at the military commissary — sometimes a month in advance. Grocery items were stored in a large freezer. Dad sparingly dished out the meals at the dinner table to ensure nothing was wasted.

My mother made our clothes and even home window coverings. They saved money any way they could.

At the time, I resented this frugality. Why were some of my peers living quite well, while we were living the life of sacrifice? As an example, One of my friends had a new Schwinn bicycle, but mine was an old Firestone purchased in a garage sale for $2.

Yet life wasn’t all that bad. As a matter of fact, it was fun and creative fixing up that old bike and even building my own radios. Of course, I didn’t really appreciate what my folks had done for us until years later.

But despite their noble goals and selflessness, there was a downside. I was often told during my childhood that I would never have to worry about the expense of a college education. This unwittingly created a sense of entitlement and quite frankly, a lackadaisical attitude toward my studies. I really didn’t have to compete for scholarships — just keep my parents happy.

In the early 1960s, a yearly full ride at the University of the Pacific was around $3,000. That was a lot of money back then, but over the years, tuition costs have increased far more than the rate of inflation. Government student loans have been a boon to college coffers but a curse to students and taxpayers. Student debt is now $1.3 trillion and growing.

After graduation, I could no longer ask my parents or anyone else to contribute funds for my benefit. Despite offers to help, all postgraduate education costs were self-earned. This time, I took responsibility for personal sacrifices. As a result, all grades improved dramatically.

So, did I have a “privileged” life? Using my parents’ definition, perhaps the country could use more “privilege” — that is, personal sacrifice and delayed gratification coupled with daily goals for greater purposes.

But there certainly are two sides of this coin. Individuals establishing long-term objectives and consistent progress toward these goals can truly experience self-worth, as opposed to being dependent on someone else’s hard work or governmental handouts.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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