The Crazy Costs of College, and a Great Weekend at Colorado School of Mines

He’s a little taller, and his sense of humor has gotten even better. Of course, that’s coming from me, a dad who feels threatened that both of his sons will be taller than he, and a humorist of whom my friend Merlin says, “Mike, you know not everyone gets your sense of humor.” Disirregardless*, it’s true – he is taller and funnier. And we were thrilled to get to see him at Family and Friends Weekend at the Colorado School of Mines.

On the 34-degree morning we left Golden, Colorado to head back to Malibu, the friendly, talkative, cowboy-hat-wearing-self-described-gypsy-souled clerk at the front desk of the Golden Hotel said, “Pretty nice morning, actually. The cold stuff will hit us soon.” It was clearly time for us to leave. We have loved our time in Golden, and like we do when we go on all trips, we discussed what it would be like to live here. The answer – really nice! That being said, we were happy to leave 34 degrees and come home to 70 degrees.

Golden’s one-street downtown is perfect. The old brick buildings make it feel like a mining town, and other than Starbucks, it’s all local owners in the small shops on both sides of the street. The trail that goes up Clear Creek is one of the most beautiful five-mile walks on the planet. And the weather – if you like four real seasons – is fantastic. We have it rough on the coast in southern California. The monotony of seventy or eighty-degree weather can be mind-numbing! Sure, we have the occasional apocalyptic wind, fires, earthquakes, and mud-slide-causing rain. But our weather, except for the apocalypses, is so predictable. Do we want spring, summer, fall, and winter, or do we want to be able to wear shorts 90% of the time? It makes for a great conversation on every trip Jill and I take, and we always decide to stay right where we are.

Jill and I walking up Clear Creek in Golden

We continue to fall more and more in love with the Colorado School of Mines. The school, which is a little more than 6,000 undergraduate engineers and entrepreneurs, is everything a great college should be. Mines students work hard. The school wants every student to have a scientific background that will hold up in the real world, and it shows. Job recruiters are all over this campus, seeking out students who are truly ready to start contributing immediately.  

The party scene, something that defines many colleges, is not a thing here. It’s a far cry from the Delta House of Faber College so perfectly portrayed in Animal House. If you’ve ever spent time in small towns in the Rockies or the Pacific Northwest, you know that beer drinking is less likely to be a prequel to barfing in the bushes; it’s a just way to chill after spending your day doing some really cool activities like rock climbing, bike riding, hiking, coding, or building something awesome. All of these chill towns have their own microbreweries too. Golden has that, plus that former microbrewery turned behemoth – Coors. It’s not work hard play hard at Mines – it’s a work hard, kick back for a few hours, then get back to business place.

It makes me reflect on all that is being written now about the questionable future of college. When I grew up, college was considered the no questions asked key element to any young person’s future. But since 1980, when I started college, inflation has increased prices by over 200%, and post-high school costs have increased by over 500%. College debt is crushing students and their families, and high-paying jobs for a bachelor’s degree are not as prevalent as they used to be. To attend a UC school to earn a teaching credential will costs close to $200K for the five years, and that’s if you can get all of the classes you need to graduate. If you surrendered 1/3 of your after-tax teacher’s salary (which isn’t that high to begin with) to pay off that debt, it would take a teacher over ten years to pay off that debt in full. And that’s with no interest.

The costs for college are out of hand, and we are at a tipping point. Prospective families and their parents are weighing options, and I hope that fewer and fewer students will leave college with a mountain of debt that is almost impossible to repay. Online universities, which offer programs and degrees at a fraction of the cost of in person campuses, are becoming highly popular. The experience with COVID is only making online programs better. And just ask any kid, you can learn anything on your own on YouTube. At the very least, now there are viable alternatives to paying $120,000 to $350,000 for a bachelor’s degree, and whoever is paying for it needs to examine whether or not the cost is worth it.

While online and local options may be less expensive alternatives, there are also other factors to consider. When we were helping Dawson with the college application process, we encouraged him to apply to schools where the level of teaching was regarded as very good. Most college professors are not hired to teach, but there are wonderful professors out there. Dawson was blessed to have mostly outstanding teachers in high school, and he feels the same way about Mines so far.

I also know that, however difficult it is to do, going away to college can be a wonderful, life-altering experience. Separating students from their parents forces them to learn not just academically, but socially as well. And at Mines, there is a good amount of fun for the students, even though the work load is epic.

The Mines sports teams are really good! We went to the football game, where over 4,000 highly encouraging fans watched the #9 nationally-ranked Division II Mines Orediggers win yet another game. I loved that the vibe felt more like a great high school game than a big business Division I college game. We lucked out when we used our general admission tickets to randomly sit down next to the offensive coordinator’s wife, Abby, who is the epicenter of all things Orediggers. I think every person in the stadium came up to hug her at some point during the game. Because she knows everyone, she of course knew my niece’s husband, who used to coach here, and she made us feel beyond welcome.

But the most enjoyable part of the atmosphere had to be seeing the school’s two awesome mascots, Miner the Oredigger and Blaster the Burro, in person. After every touchdown (Mines won 63-0), students would run out with Blaster, who would trot from the end zone to the 50-yard line and back. Two students took turns following Blaster with a shit shovel, picking up after Blaster. I’m telling you, they were busy after all nine touchdowns! Sometime too busy. Blaster is one well-fed Burro with no digestion issues. I saw Miner the Oredigger in the stands, but shouldn’t he have been helping those hard-working students with their shovels? The fans cheered the shit-shoveling student heroes for their efforts, even when the game had to be held up because they had so many different piles to address. You can’t beat that for entertainment! And we enjoyed the flannel-shirt-and-hard-hat-wearing Mines Marching Band. Imagine an irreverent Stanford band that performs John Phillips Sousa pieces in a flag formation and you have a good picture of what the Mines band stands for.

Our son is happy – he’s in a spectacular place, he has made good friends, he is confident that his degree will lead to a job that he will love, and he’s keeping up with the demanding classes in his schedule. Yes, the costs are high, but we believe this is an investment that he is making the most of. We loved every minute we had with him, and we’ll see him soon when he comes home for Thanksgiving.

Have a good day, y’all,

Mike

* As I wrote back in my blog post on 9/20/21, “I know “disirregardless” is not a word, but it’s a word we use in our family as a way of criticizing those who choose the word irregardless, instead of the proper regardless. If you read my blogs, you know that I’m a bit of a grammar snob. Sorry – not sorry. Of course, the English language adapts to misuse, and now if you look in the dictionary under irregardless, you will find that it means the same thing as regardless. As Miriam-Webster states, “Remember that a definition is not an endorsement of a word’s use.” Whatever, Miriam-Webster. If you won’t criticize the misuse, we will, disirregardless of your unwillingness to take a stand!”

Taking My Youngest to College

That was it. Dawson gave each of us a long and hard hug, picked up the last bit of dorm room essentials from our double Target run, turned around, and walked off to his dorm in the Colorado School of Mines. Oredigger Camp – his three-day orientation – starts tomorrow. He is fired up and ready for this new phase of his life.  And we’ll see him again in November when we come back for parents’ weekend.

Jill and I are truly excited for Dawson, but right now, sitting in our room in the Golden Hotel, we are also both so sad. Sniffling and journaling, there is no talking. Kind of pathetic – I know. But we both knew taking this time would help us.

It’s been an amazing journey – 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days, since his birth in the hospital. I still hear about that day. Jill’s water broke around four in the morning, about two weeks before her due date, and she called the doctor who said we should go to the hospital right away. I told Jill I just needed to go to work for about an hour, as I was leading a large professional development session that day and needed to give some notes to those who would now be leading it. She did not like it, but she acquiesced. Not the best call, I know. It was a quick delivery, but a little more painful because of my delay. Mark that as exhibit ZZZ in the case of Mike being an imperfect husband and father. Why does that list keep growing?

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s been 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days – and I’ve loved all of it. Dawson has been a source of joy and inspiration in our home. He has been a remarkably easy-going kid, and as he progressed through high school, he began asking us to relax boundaries we had set for him.  I don’t remember ever saying no – he earned our trust all along the way. Watching Dawson grow and become the man that he is has also been incredibly special. He is known as a super smart science student, a talented gamer and programmer, someone with a wacky sense of humor, a quiet leader, and most of all, a remarkably kind human being. I like to think I helped with some of those attributes, but in reality, he is filled with so much from his mother.

Dawson and I had quite the journey to Colorado. We took four days to drive over 1,500 miles via the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. And of our 23 hours of driving, I think Dawson sat behind the wheel for 18 of them. He wishes he could have driven all of those miles and hours.

Packing up the rental car and posing in front of a smoky Grand Canyon

Jill let us have our time together, then she flew into Denver yesterday. We picked her up and together, we all drove to Dawson’s new home in Golden, Colorado. After a family dinner, Dawson left us to join thirty or so other freshman who had arranged a Meet-up via Discord, a social media app too obscure for most adults. I still haven’t figured out Facebook! He got back to our hotel room long after Jill and I had gone to sleep. It was a great start to his college career.

Today was move-in day. We are so impressed with the Colorado School of Mines. They had volunteers out the kazoo greeting students, carting their room contents into the dorms, smiling, and confirming our belief that Mines is the perfect college for our aspiring computer scientist son. Jill thankfully took over as we helped Dawson set up his room. We unpacked everything, figured out where it all seemed to work best, and determined what else we needed. It’s a good thing Jill was there. If it had been just me, I would have given Dawson a thumbs up after we moved the boxes and duffle bags into his room and said, “You got this!” With Jill leading the effort, his traditional, ordinary, and very non-air-conditioned room ended up looking pretty darn good. The tables, crates, chair, and containers from the Lakewood Super Target fit perfectly, and Dawson’s dorm was nicer than any college room I ever lived in. I told my son that guys can be pretty darn worthless when it comes to making things look like home. And even though he was ready to jump into this without our help, Dawson admitted that once again, he’s better off because of his mom’s help.

Dawson putting together his computer, and Jill making his dorm room into a home

And now he’s settled at Mines, and we fly back to Malibu tomorrow – just the two of us. A week ago, I was ready for this moment. Then, as my youngest son and I drove through the deserts and mountains on our way here, I was reminded of how much I would miss everything about living with Dawson. We laughed at Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, an inane podcast that truly representsour kind of humor. We listened to a lot of pop punk music, much of which I knew, but I did not know until our trip that Dawson knew the words to so many of the songs! We talked about important topics, and about silly ones. It was all sublime. I found myself getting more emotional as we neared Golden. And even writing this, I can barely see through my tears.

I know our relationship, and our friendship, will only grow. That’s what I have experienced with my now-30-year-old son Ryan. But I will miss the daily interactions and joy that dominated this portion of my life with Dawson. I miss it already, and it’s been about an hour.

On to hour number two. Wish me luck.

There he goes . . .