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College is for learning, not debt

A year ago, I was where many parents are right now.

A YEAR AGO, I was where many parents are right now. My daughter Monique Olivia was faced with the decision of where to attend college.

I'll admit I was pretty adamant leading up to the choice that many families have to make by May 1, the deadline for accepted students to declare where they will attend college: No student loans.

However, when Olivia started looking at schools that were out of our financial comfort zone, my husband and I realized that this wasn't going to be as easy as we thought. Our daughter is a great student. She took Advanced Placement classes and participated in extracurricular activities. And when she said that her "I'll-be-crushed-if-I-don't-get-in" school was the University of North Carolina, we began to get anxious.

We didn't have enough saved to cover all the out-of-state expenses for four years. Absent any aid, the cost at UNC would have been more than $183,000.

Still, how could we deny her heart's desire? She swooned after a tour of the campus. She bought UNC paraphernalia. Even the school color - light blue - is her favorite.

She didn't get into her dream school. And, honestly, we were relieved.

You might think it's easy for us now to say that we wouldn't have let her go. Yet, trust me, we would have had to break her heart.

Her rejection made the decision of where she would go easier for us. But what if it's not as easy for you? What if your child does have a choice, and that choice is beyond your means?

As you and your child are discussing and/or fretting over which college to choose, perhaps it will help to walk you through the points we made to our daughter to discourage her from ignoring the affordability issue:

We scared her with the long-term effects of a degree with debt. Debt, we told her, limits your choices and early savings.

Are loans a large part of your child's financial-aid packages? If so, later on, while your child's peers are buying homes, starting families and investing for their futures, yours will be servicing debt.

"Though a college education remains the surest path to a middle-class life, evidence has begun to mount that student debt may be far more detrimental to financial futures than once thought, particularly for those with the highest levels of debt: students of color and students from low-income families," wrote Robert Hiltonsmith in a report for Demos, a public-policy organization.

Over a lifetime of employment and saving, $53,000 in education debt leads to a wealth loss of almost $208,000, Hiltonsmith noted.

I understand that you want the best for your child. But if the school your child desperately wants to attend is out of your price range, you may have to be the bad guy.

We explained the monthly impact of debt. Our daughter wants to work with young children in some capacity, perhaps as a teacher. Starting out, she isn't going to make a six-figure salary.

The problem with student loans is that their monthly payments are pushed off to the future. This makes it hard for students to realize how painful the payments may be once they graduate.

We highlighted the benefit of spending less on her undergraduate degree. Our daughter was accepted into the Honors College at the University of Maryland at College Park. She received some scholarship money, and this has helped, along with the in-state tuition, to ensure that she can pay for everything and still have money left in her Maryland 529 college-savings plan. Unused funds are hers to use for graduate school.

We told her to put the college choice in perspective. Many students listen to people who convince them that they will limit their employment opportunities or won't make needed job connections if they don't attend a prestigious institution.

Are there companies, firms or hiring managers who may snub your child because he or she didn't attend a certain school? Sure there are. That's still no reason to make a choice that will cost more than you can afford. There will be other jobs.

If your child doesn't go to his or her top college choice because of the money and gets an attitude about it, does this mean the second choice is wrong?

No. As her parents, we have the experience to know that college is what she makes of it, no matter where she attends.

In a few weeks, my daughter will finish her freshman year. The validation that my husband and I were right on the money came when someone, knowing her struggle with her college choice a year ago, asked her how she likes the University of Maryland.

Without hesitation, she said, "I love it!"