Paying for College - picture of graduation cap sitting on cash

Paying for College: Should Parents Have a Say in Their Child’s Choice of Major?

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Recently, I read an article over at Get Rich Slowly  that stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Essentially, the author asked how much input a parent who is paying for college should have over their child’s choice of major . There was a wide range of responses all the way from “You’re killing her dream” to “I’m not paying for some bulls#*t degree.” Although I’ve already chimed in with a few comments of my own, I’d like to share my own thoughts in a bit more detail here. Afterall, what are blogs for right?

 

A Little About My Educational Background

As somebody who graduated with a degree in Theatre Arts, I think that I have a unique view on this topic. First, the artistic fields are driven more by passion than monetary goals. In my case, my parents never intended to pay for my schooling. It was going to be something that I had to pay for myself. So, while they may have tried to steer me away from the theatre major, ultimately, it was my decision since I was paying it. (Unfortunately, as part of the settlement from my brother’s death, my parents did end up paying for it in the end.)

Being an 18 year-old kid, I wanted to change the world. I didn’t care about money. I didn’t care about fame even – although that would have been nice. All I wanted to do was what I thought I loved, and that was acting.

At the time, the cost of my schooling wasn’t something that was really tangible to me. It didn’t feel real. Like most students these days, I was financing the whole thing. I wasn’t thinking about how I was going to use my degree in order to make money to pay back the tens of thousands of dollars in student loans that I was accumulating. I was focused on following my passion. Of course, my 18 year-old brain hadn’t realized that it takes money to fund a passion. You see, I had forgotten that the term “show business” has two parts to it. Almost all of us were focused on the “show” part when we needed to pay much more attention to the “business” end.

While I would never trade in the experiences I had or the life-long friendships I formed while in college, I would love to have back the $35,000 I spent.  Also, I wish that I would have studied something that would have put me in a better financial situation. If I could go back and do it all over again, I certainly would have chosen a different college major.

The Best Way to Attain an Education in the Arts

Honestly, if I truly wanted to follow my passion, I never should have went to college at all. In fact, I had a professor who flat-out told us that. He encouraged us all to drop out and get involved in the business. “Go out and meet people, carry coffee for the 2nd assistant to the assistant director,” he would say. “If you want to be an actor, go out and act. What are you doing here? There are people your age and younger already making a living doing this. You are wasting your time in college.”

Looking back, he was absolutely right. Success in show business is seldom found through spending time in a college setting. Success usually develops from getting involved in the business and networking with the people who are already doing it. The way to learn is by watching the professionals while you work for them during the day. At night, you can take professional level classes at a fraction of the cost of college. Furthermore, these classes are taught by professionals who are already making a living in the business, which presents another opportunity for networking. So, while a college education is a great investment for certain scientific and mechanical disciplines, in many artistic fields, a college education is neither something that is necessary for success nor is it justified by the expected salary for “working” graduates.

I still have a lot of friends “working” in the business. However, out of the 150 or so students that I went to school with, probably 20 of them are still involved. Most of them do theatre for little or no money. The vast majority of those who are able to “make a living” in the theatre do so on the technical side of things. Still, most of them are living from paycheck to paycheck – one gig to the next. Regardless, we all wasted our money because we spent thousands of dollars for a degree in a field which requires no degree to find work.

The Reality of the Dream

When following your artistic passion, the reality of actually finding a job is much less sexy than the dream. The hours are long, the pay is peanuts, and the jobs are few and far between. For me, reality hit when I had to start paying back my loans. It hit when I went without health insurance for a year. It hit when I was constantly searching for work. Some people love this lifestyle. They love the martyrdom of being a starving artist. I did not.

While I think a parent should be supportive of their child’s dreams, they also need to be realistic. Following a passion is addictive. In many ways, it is similar to a drug. Should parents be expected to fund their child’s lifestyle to pursue other addictions? I don’t think so. Why then should they be obligated to fund an addiction to the idea of fame or passion? While at first glance these addictions may not seem as dangerous as others, the effects that they can have on one’s life can be just as damaging in the long run – albeit in different ways

Although the choice must ultimately be up to the child, the parent can’t necessarily be expected to participate in the decision. They are not obligated to throw money away on an overpriced college education that will be worth very little in the end. The question is how do you encourage a legitimate dream without funding a misguided addiction…and how do you tell the difference?

What Would I Do?

So, do I think that a parent should pay for their child’s college education if their child chooses a major that they don’t agree with? I guess, it honestly depends on the situation. No matter what major a child wishes to pursue, parents should have a serious conversation with their child discussing the merits of what they wish to study. They need to discuss their child’s goals and expected outcomes. Parents should explain their options. Together, parents and children should decide whether the child even needs a college degree in order to pursue their dreams.

In theory, this all sounds great. However, in practice, I’m not really sure what I would do if my child wanted to pursue this sort of a degree. The reason I’m saving for their college in the first place is to keep them from acquiring debt with places like FedLoan. Would I allow them to follow their passion but let them accumulate debt to do it?

I don’t know. I’m tempted to say that I probably would not pay her way. If she wanted to be an artist or an actor, then I’d encourage her to forego school and get working. However, I’d probably keep her money set aside to use for college in case she changed her mind later. In that way, I hope that I could walk the very fine line of encouraging my child while still parenting in a responsible way.

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55 Comments

  1. I grew up in a less “feel good about yourself” time: there would be no college tuition, and if I really loved living at the poverty line then go ahead, make up a passion and follow it. If I have seen the poverty line (I had) and did not wish to return, the ticket out is an education that will result in dollah dollah dollah. As an uncle of mine said at the time: after the rent and groceries are paid, you can follow any passion you have. But only after.

    I’m a geek, so the way I figured it out in high school was: I can spend the hours in the books now and get college paid for with a scholarship, or I can spend the same hours in a job working with (gasp!) people to achieve the same thing, When you look at it that way, books become your friends. It worked.

    My wife grew up wealthy (told ya I got lucky!) so she went to college on her parents’ dime… with a mission to find a husband. (Till her death, my MIL loved telling that to everyone who would listen!)

    Looking back, we both found what we went looking for! 🙂 We don’t have kids, but if we did I’d have no qualms following my parents’ strategy. The missus agrees.

    A single mom friend of ours pretty much had to tell her two kids the same thing, The oldest is on a full ride scholarship and the youngest is on his way to replicate that.

    All in all, I’m not persuaded that kids are entitled to have their parents pay for their college education. I may be biased (and I’ll readily confess to that) but I’ve seen too many kids make choices they regret because they weren’t confronted with adult life realities the moment they entered adult life.

    1. ….”I’ve seen too many kids make choices they regret because they weren’t confronted with adult life realities the moment they entered adult life” TOTALLY AGREE.

    2. Well said. I don’t think my kids are entitled to having us pay for their college at all. In fact, they better be greatful that we are planning to:) The only reason we are paying – at least for part of it – is to help keep them out of debt. Part of going to college is also learning to be an adult. I don’t want to take that away from them by paying their tuition.

  2. I pretty much had the same idea as I left school. Like you, I was told not to bother with theatre or an arts degree. Instead, the advice I received was to get into hospitality. The hours are more flexible and you can easily change shifts to suit your auditions. When I told my parents I was doing hospitality, I was told, “Well, you’ll be doing it at university then”. Apparently not going to uni was not an option. Three years later (and yes, they paid for it) I came home with a Bachelor of Business (Hospitality Management) which qualified me for…nothing. I not only wasted 3 years, not acting, but had to get in on the ground floor in any hospitality job. The only thing the BBus was good for was that it gave me the confidence to go back and do a teaching degree (another career path I didn’t enjoy…kids are cruel). But hey, having BBus/BA/BEd looks good on my business card for personal finance coaching (my new passion).
    Would I pay for my kids degree? Absolutely. You never know where it could lead.

    1. I’ve got myself two bachelors degrees as well. They do look great on a card or resume, don’t they? 🙂

    2. You are very clever, Michelle. This was very well written, insightful, and lots of fun to read.

  3. I don’t know if we’d pay for college – luckily no kids means this isn’t an issue yet. I paid my own way with scholarships and loans, and think that was a pretty eye opening experience.

    1. It really is an eye opening experience, isn’t it. Going to college isn’t just about learning the educational material. It is about becoming an adult as well.

  4. I agree completely. I recently wrote a post similar to this explaining that I have an undergrad in Biology, while no education is ‘wasted’ the degree is essentially a $40,000 nicely framed piece of paper on my wall. I also generally discourage (younger) people I know from making my mistakes. Luckily the 3 people I have ‘counselled’ on the topic (they came to me for opinions in their senior year) they chose different, more successful, routes and I’m so glad. Sometimes you have to make mistakes to learn and grow as a person, something no amount of money can give you, our mistakes are helping more people.

    1. Elizabeth says:

      I’m hate to say it, but I’m glad to see someone mention science. It seems Arts and Humanities take the brunt of the “worthless degrees” conversations, yet I know people with these degrees who are doing very well for themselves. I think what made the difference was that they went into their degrees with a career path in mind, and took advantage of co-op positions and internships.

      1. Ditto. I cringed in the GRS comments when someone mentioned that they should have majored in science. The job options are about the same for bio vs. say, history majors. (Which is to say, you can get a job, but it probably won’t be doing history or biology.)

        I think that highlights one big problem with parents dictating major– the parents who are most likely to try to control major choice are also the ones that have no clue what majors are actually marketable. For instance, one of my friends in college was forced to major in English by her parents because for some reason they thought that would be more useful than math. (She ended up breaking ties with them after college and is happily working in the tech industry rather than for the family business.)

        1. Yeah, there is a really fine line that parents need to walk, IMO. I would never flat out say you’re going to go to school to do such and such. However, I would strongly encourage people to take a different path than I did. Yet, as plunged in debt says, our mistakes help to make us who we are. If you learn from them, mistakes can be some of the most valuable learning experiences of them all.

  5. This is an interesting question. I completely agree that it’s the role of the parent to help analyze the expected outcome and how a specific degree might help in life. Part of that is examining if even a degree is necessary as a part of their career aspirations. If the child can make decent money with a skill, then it may not be necessary.
    Maybe in situations like pursuing a less than traditional degree there’s an agreement between the parent and child that the child will cover part of the loan themselves to help them be more “invested” in it and hopefully avoid them going into it without their eyes open to the possibilities.

    I think another issue is as a parent do you actually pay for your child’s way through college? What priority to you put it at? While needing to save for retirement, what focus do you put on saving for college? I know many out there would say put the college saving on hold and focus entirely on retirement saving. I am not certain, yet, where I stand on this or the questions you pose. But they’re ones my wife and I are seriously discussing. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    1. I think you bring up an interesting point about parents paying for their childrens college education at all. While we are certainly saving for their college, I’m not sure that I’m 100% for or against paying for it in full. I learned a lot just by having to make ends meet when I was in school. It forced me to grow up, although I grew up even quicker after I graduated. However, at the time, I didn’t understand what having debt payments could do to my life. So, I don’t know what is better: pay for school or have them take out loans? Maybe it is the hybrid approach that you suggest.

  6. -Honestly, I will try to influence my children while they are growing up but I won’t tell them what to do in college, and I definitely won’t give them money with strings attached to certain degrees. I don’t have time to delve into all my reasoning, but what I plan on doing (though we don’t even have kids and want to wait for 7 more years!) is help them pay for college, but not the entire thing. Part of their college education will have to be paid by them. I plan on giving them an equal amount, too, such as $5k/semester (honestly inflation will be so high by then I wouldn’t be surprised if that number balloons). It’s their life and their choice of degree. I will help them fund part of it, but I won’t try to dictate what they do with it. Whether that’s a bad idea or not is up for debate, but as of now that’s my plan. It may change in 25 years when my first child heads to school 😉

    1. Fair enough. I think we are in the same boat as you. We are going to pay for part of it but probably not all of it. When it comes to choice of a major, I think that having strings attached is somewhat of a gray area. However, if I’m paying, they had better be going to class, doing well, etc. Those are strings that I’m pretty sure I will attach to the money.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    After reading the debate on GRS and here, I think there are many good points of view. I am surprised that people didn’t mention co-op degrees. (Maybe that’s not a big thing in the U.S.?) If I have kids, I would encourage them to consider programs where work in their field is required — both to help pay for their education and because of the experience and networking opportunities it provides.

  8. My cousin was a theater arts major, switched from pre-med, and now manages a theater. Her parents are lawyers.

    We think class has something to do with it. Upper SES kids have the luxury of thinking of college as a coming of age experience rather than as job training. And really, employers hire from all sorts of majors– most people don’t end up doing what they majored in on the job. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/another-comment-on-doing-what-you-love/

    1. That is absolutely true. Employers do hire from all sorts of majors unless your field is specialized.

      Also, I think you touched on another important topic with your “class” idea.

    2. Elizabeth says:

      Good point! In Canada, there’s a certain clout associated with going to university rather than college — yet many people get university degrees then go to college to learn an employable skill. College is a lot less expensive than university, but many students are pressured into university first.

  9. I am going to make sure my kids are introduced to everything possible and let them make their own choices. As parents we can;t really tell our kids what they can and can not do for the rest of their lives.

    1. I absolutely agree that you can’t dictate what your kids are going to do with the rest of their lives. However, this really doesn’t have anything to do with controlling their lives. It is more about spending your money in what you deem to be a worthwhile way.

    2. You may not want to, but the world certainly will

  10. This is such an interesting topic. It makes sense that parents should think about the cost-effectiveness of this very big financial decision and picking a major has a lot to do with that. However, I’ve seen people with degrees all over the map and some (even with arts and humanities degrees) are doing very well for themselves, while others (with more ‘profitable’ majors) still haven’t found a job. It really matters how much drive you have – your major is only one piece of the puzzle.

    1. It is a huge financial decision isn’t it. I don’t think we realize how big of a decision going to college is when we are 18. I’m thankful I decided on an state school instead of some of the private schools I was looking at.

      Looking back, for me it is less about the money and more about the time. I wish I had that time back. I would have used it differently. Of couse, that period of time really made me who I am today, so I guess there would be a trade-off there.

  11. If I were to pay for my (eventual) children’s college, I don’t think I’d tell them what major they’d have to choose. Although, if there were getting a degree in music or theater then that would be a different story.

    The only thing I imagine doing is having a GPA stipulation they’d have to meet. To add to that, I’d also require they carry some sort of part-time work.

    1. I totally with you on the GPA stipulation and the part-time work. I don’t think you really can tell somebody what career to choose. You can’t make them do anything. However, you do have control over your money. Yet, the more I think about it, the less inclined I am to withhold that money. If they wanted to be an artist, I would encourage them to go and do art instead of school, though.

  12. My parents didn’t pay for our university education, but they have a part in what we went to school for. Education has always been really important so they wanted to make sure that we made the right choices. All 4 of us worked throughout school.

    1. That is a good point. Regardless of whether or not a parent is paying, they should be involved in guiding their child’s choices at that age. While they are still an adult, most 18 year-olds still have no idea of what being an adult means.

  13. My parents certainly had some input – whether I wanted it or not! It’s a tough call – it’s your hard earned money out there, but there’s no point in forcing your kid to study something they’ll hate.

    1. I agree. It is a tough call. I’m glad that I don’t have to make it for several years.

  14. My parents had some input, as in you want to have multiple options available to you. I of course picked the high priced music school (in a foreign country when the exchange rate was killer). I do not regret anything. Sadly the arts are being rapidly extinguished in favour of cost cutting and formulaic crap.

    The work I do get is not because of that degree (which is just another piece of paper you can hang on your toilet… nobody cares what school you went to, they only care about how you can perform) it is entirely thanks to the people I know.

    That said, my dad taught me long ago that it was very important to invest for your future. Which I have done, but it’s now turned out to be investing for my present. Since a good chunk of my fixed expenses are now funded from my investment gains/dividends/distributions.

    School can be very beneficial for the essential connections that lead to paying work in the future. But it’s hard to quantify exactly how much. Much like every aspect of the arts. It’s not the art itself that generates the money… It’s the “economic impact” of the businesses that benefit from the artist that are the true benefit.

    Sadly the “bean-countologists” can never put that value on their ledgers, so our funding gets cut and cut and cut.

    I’m investing for my son’s education… I don’t care what he wants to do provided it’s something he can enjoy passionately and pursue whole-heatedly.

    Without passion, life is meaningless.

    1. What a great reply! Thank you:)

      I absolutely love the arts and I think that they are an essential part of any culture. They represent who we are as a people. They are a mirror into which we can look and see the best and worst of ourselves. Often times, they serve as a way to teach hard lessons through the guise of entertainment.

      Without the arts there is no variety to life. When the arts are silenced, we are often silencing the all-important voices of dissent. Unfortunately, when there are budgetary cuts that must be made, rightly or wrongly the arts are some of the first things to go.

      Still, whereever there is life, there is art…and the true artists will keep performing regardless of how much money they have.

  15. I love these LONG answers to your awesome question. Here’s mine:

    I believe that my kid should choose something they’re passionate about, but it’s my job as a parent to show them the economic reality of life. My daughter was excited about journalism. We read several posts about people graduating with no jobs and student loan debt. Then we read about how some majors pay better than others.

    I would never tell my kid to do a job they’d hate. Because I have strong beliefs about doing what you love in life (I’m proof that you can do this), I should be encouraging.

    In my case, the numbers were enough; she also loves the science of the brain, and has now decided that becoming a brain surgeon would be as fun and a hell of a lot more lucrative.

    So, I just led the horse to water. She decided to drink. If she wouldn’t have, I know I did my job: to lay out information I would have wanted my dad to give me.

    1. I love these answers too!!!

      In the end, I suppose all you can do is “lead the horse to the water.” As I write this and think even more about it, my view on paying for college is constantly evolving. I would never insist that my girls take up a major that I chose. That seems terribly unproductive and would probably lead to them doing the exact opposite.

      I really like the way that you approached it with your daughter. I assume that is the same way we will handle things when our turn comes around.

  16. I’m not sure if we will fund our daughter’s college or not. We’re saving money, but I also think it makes you work harder if it’s not all a free ride. We’ll see when she’s older. I hope to have the discussion with her about finding a career she can make a living from, whether it requires a degree or not. I would not have her go to college just for the sake of going to college if she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do

    1. More than anything, I think that is where I would probably draw the line. I like the idea of a gap year as well. However, that always leads to the risk of the child not entering college at all.

  17. We put 2 kids thru college and funded all of it for them. We did this ’cause when we went to school we were broke AND hungry and working like crazy. Just made us cringe to think of our kids having to do that. We didn’t dictate what their majors should be, but we certainly guided them with practical realities. And we also let them know how long we had saved for their education and the sacrifices that entailed. Both are extremely grateful – as well they should be ’cause it was a lot of sacrifice and it did take a long time.

    1. I hear you…I was also broke and hungry. Of course, the money I did have I wasted on things like booze. I hope we are able to do the same thing you did and put our kids through college as well!

  18. I went to school twice now and both times I paid for it myself and after many years it finally paid off as I work in a field I love. With the RESP for kids now most kids who have parents paying into this fund will or may have enough money to pay for their kids education. I don’t think that a parent should take away or dismiss a child’s dream as “not good enough” for them because the child will have to live the life. Everything in life happens for a reason and one path might not open all the right doors but it may open one just enough to get you where you want to go even if it is in another direction. Many people, myself included have changed careers as my second stint at school was a success. We need to teach our kids about finance early and lead them not tell them what they can and can’t do. You can’t hold their hand forever and we all learn from our mistakes. If we don’t believe in our kids, who will. Mr.CBB

    1. I have also changed careers and been in school twice. The second time, I really found what I wanted to do…at least for now:)

      I think you bring up a great point about teaching our kids about finance early. Perhaps that is the key. If they understand personal finance, they are far more likely to consider it important when making a decision about their future profession.

  19. I’m still on the fence about this. I really don’t know what we’ll do. Heck, I don’t even know if we’ll get an ESA or not. But I agree, there are actual numbers to support the fact that there are many worthless degrees. I think trusting parental wisdom is something I would like my kids to grow up with, but who knows.

    Gah, I can’t even come up with a solid opinion on this, so I’ll just stop now!

    1. LOL! My opinion seems to be as flimsy as a wet noodle as well!

  20. Similar to you I did a Fine Arts degree with a major in Film. Looking back it would have been more practical to do a major in Communications, and maybe I would have done things differently if I could do it over, but I definitely don’t regret it. Film was and still is my passion, and those 4 years were some of the best in my life. It may mean I have to work a bit harder to work in the field of marketing since that’s not my degree, but I wouldn’t give up my arts degree and those great years for anything. I also paid for the whole thing myself (a bit of help from my family near the end, but it was a 5 year degree). And my parents always encouraged me to follow my passion whatever it was.

    1. That’s awesome! Like you, I don’t regret it. If I would have known what I know now, I probably would have done something different though.

  21. Wow, is this a tough one! What a great topic.

    Honestly, I wanted to be a rock star, but instead I became an engineer (thanks to a lot of encouragement from my Dad). Today, my buddy that was “in the band” with me is still doing it and it just seems ridiculous. I’m a grown man now with a grown man job that actually contributes to society. And I get paid well. Good thing I listened to my Dad.

    1. Yeah, I have a lot of buddies who are still doing it…and not getting paid….

  22. Great question, but have you met an 18-year-old who actually wants their parents to tell them what to do in college? I think, handled incorrectly, this whole thing could lead to a miserable college and life choice or at best, a strained relationship between parent and child.

    1. You’re absolutely right. If you do it the wrong way, it could be disasterous. That is why you certainly can’t tell them what to do. You have to guide them.

  23. I’d discuss it with the child and get some real world professionals to back me up. (No use trying to convince a teen they’re wrong as their parent.) But I don’t think I could tell my child what to study…even if I was footing the bill. A college education is a gift….and if you’re going to give it I feel like it should come with as few strings attached as possible. Kids already hold enough resentment towards their parents. We all do. Merited or not. I would never want holding my child back from pursuing their dream to be one of those resentments. Whether they fail or succeed.

    1. I actually agree with you. It would be hard for me to tell my angel face daughter that I didn’t support her choice!

  24. I would teach my kid how to invest and then set them up putting aside money every month at a young age. Then they could do what ever they wanted and know that they will be financially stable later in life.

    I was going to get a degree in theatre, but had someone at the university tell me to go to acting school instead. I dropped out of school, moved to Hollywood, waited tables and took acting classes.

    I am always grateful for that advice as I make my living as an actor to this day.

    1. Troy,

      That is awesome! I got the same advice you did from one of my professors, but I didn’t follow it. I wish I had. I would have saved a lot of money and ended up in a lot better position within the industry.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts!

  25. I am in a very similar situation. I decided to go to a private institute for Illustration because I enjoyed drawing in high school. When my family and I signed up for loans, I agreed that I would be responsible for paying off the loans after graduating even though they are technically in my parent’s name. After being in college for three years, my parents have signed for 60k of student loans while I currently have 20k. Unfortunately, we still have at least 30k to go.

    Even though I am obligated to pay those loans, there has been a great amount of tension between me and my parents because of the finances. I want to cut my loses and work towards something more fulfilling and practical while my parents are still relentlessly fighting for my “high school dream”.

    Its a really tricky situation and I hope that, after everything’s said and done, my relationship with my family will be able to recover at the very least.

  26. You could do what my parents did, “We’ll pay for your major, any major, but after college you’re a self-feeder.” =)

    That gets most kids thinking about how to be independent after school ends. Speaking of art. There are a lot of artists right now making middle-class incomes, even making six figures right now. You just have to be really great at marketing yourself particularly on social media. Most artists don’t really learn business skills.

    They don’t learn anything about marketing, or social media, etc. Then they wonder why no one buys their art and then they end up hating it. You don’t learn business because you love business, you learn business so you can keep doing the things you love. Or they give themselves a ridiculous deadline like, “I’m giving myself ONE year to make it.” Or they quit their job the first year they start out and have to go back to corporate in 6-12 months.

    It’s more realistic to give yourself 4-5 years to make it. It used to take artists 20 years to make it but social media has broken a lot of the gate-keeping that used to be there in the art industry. For example, artists no longer have to go through the gallery system unless they want to. Instagram is basically the new gallery. I do think that artists these days have opportunities that we’ve never had before in the history of time. We’re living in a golden age. Especially for artists.

    There’s a really great book about this, “Art Inc.” by Lisa Congdon, she’s a successful illustrator and she’s not just a teacher, she actually does art for a living and she’s really good at it. Anyway a lot of people don’t realize how much social media and the internet have opened up opportunities for creatives. =)

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