FLINT - Cartoonists used to - almost universally - draw a rain barrel with suspenders around characters they wanted you to know were poor. Why a rain barrel, I don't know. But the idea was that they were so poor they couldn't afford clothes.
That's me. Or it's about to be me.
Yes, I have a son who will be attending college this fall. Look for me at the parking lot exit to Meijer with a sign: "Will write sarcastic newspaper commentaries for food." Anyone got a squeegee I can borrow?
Some of you may think I'm whining. Heck, six months ago I'd have agreed. College is expensive. Get over it. But what I've learned lately is that college in Michigan doesn't just cost an arm and leg anymore. It costs an arm, a leg and most of your major organs. And that's just for an undergraduate degree. If you have the misfortune to have a kid who wants to be a doctor or lawyer, I recommend you start selling plasma as well. (Eat a lot of spinach - builds up your red count.)
A report this week by the Bridge, an online news magazine published by Center for Michigan, a self-styled "think and do" tank, reinforced what I already knew - that the overall cost of college nationally has doubled in the past decade.
But there's also this: "Michigan families pay more to send their children to state universities than families in almost any other state, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis. On average, from the time freshmen walk into U-M dorms until they graduate four years later, they'll spend $33,860 more than a Tar Heel native would at the University of North Carolina for the same diploma."
The same holds true for other state universities. Why? The report puts it this way: "Not coincidentally, Michigan also gives less money to its public universities than almost any other state."
That's dumb policy and terrible news for the state. Students aren't dumb. They'll eventually notice the price difference. So what happens if our best and brightest start to go elsewhere to college in droves? The likelihood that they stay elsewhere increases, that's what. And this in a state that already has trouble keeping young talent. Not good.
But it's obviously also bad news for kids who stay in-state. Their reward: a debt load substantially higher than their peers elsewhere, and this at a time when student debt is already at an all-time high - an average of $25,550 per student, according to a recent New York Times report.
Kids like my son Sam are lucky. His family is able and willing to help lighten the load. But many don't have that advantage. They'll graduate with huge debt and enter a grim economy where jobs are scarce and salaries aren't high. They're looking at decades of debt. That's no way to start a future.
Expect a run on rain barrels.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.