BOSTON — Start now.
This seems like the appropriate fatherly wisdom to impart to my firstborn this spring after he steps off the podium, sheds cap and gown, and savors the brief glory of graduating from an institution of higher learning.
Because he doesn't have a clue.
Don't get me wrong. This is one smart fella, despite his conviction that the essence of life dwells in the offensive lineup of the Denver Broncos. Bright student, clear-headed, focused, knows how to dance, takes after his mom in numerous other ways.
But his college failed to impart the most important lesson of all.
How to pay for college.
Tuitions are rising 6 to 7 percent a year, about twice as fast as inflation and much faster than wage increases. Read the articles starting to the right for all the unsavory details.
I predict that in the future, the entire curriculum at every undergraduate college and university in America will start with How-to-Pay-to-Be-Here 101 and end, four years later, with You-Still-Owe-Us-Buster 1,000,001.
Instead of sports and the Chess Club, students will help build new facilities, harangue alumni, and research new ways to formulate or disguise cafeteria food. All academic study will occur in the second year of graduate school. I think we all know what happens the first year - more intensive tutoring on tuition.
Be sure to read Guy Halverson, Toni Call, and Laurel Waters, on Pages B6 and B7. They offer clear advice on when to start saving for college.
Think about it - 20 grand a year for a private college; 30 thou to add the H-bomb to dinner party conversation (as in, "Oh yes, we sent Bubba to H-arvard.")
You tend to look at your children when they return home for summer break and think, "Do you realize that, thanks to you, I've been using the same computer for six whole months. I could've put high-test gas in the minivan. I could've taken your mom with me to Maui!" This isn't good for family relationships.
But do colleges care? Not hardly. They raise tuitions more often than President Clinton has been accused of impropriety and, I'm convinced, put all the money in stocks.
Harvard University, for example, has an endowment of $11 billion. Granted, it's the biggest such fund in the US.
But it gets invested in the financial markets and, in fiscal year 1997, earned 26 percent. You have to go to Harvard to learn how to achieve that kind of performance while still charging $30,000, and rising, every year to attend a university with $11 billion in the kitty.
I didn't go to Harvard, so I can't explain it. But it seems clear that higher finance and higher education are inextricably intertwined.
No such skepticism applies, of course, to my son's college. No, his future alma mater is a wonderful institution of the highest academic, moral, ethical, and, yea verily, generous character. Wonderful place. Lovely people.
And he still has 4-1/2 months to go, which means I have 135 days of grovelling for financial aid. If I don't make the final tuition payment, he stays behind and cleans erasers for 345 years.
So to avoid the same fate for his progeny, I will counsel him to start - the day after graduation - saving for college for his kids. And if he doesn't have kids, he can take the money and buy something nice for his wife. Like New Zealand.