The college admission season is winding down at this time of year except for this part:
Parents are stressing about how they’re going to pay for the college that their children want to attend.
Spring is when I hear from parents who are being guilted by their children to spend dangerously more than they should for a brand name research university.
I heard a story recently from a concerned dad in Virginia that fits this pattern.
Here’s some background:
The Virginia parents are retired, but have a high Expected Family Contribution, which means the formula says the household can afford to pay full price even at the most expensive colleges.
Their youngest child is a smart teenager, who received acceptances from Cornell University, University of Southern California and University of Virginia.
Being from a high-income house, she qualified for no financial aid from Cornell, which doesn’t provide merit scholarships.
She received a $10,000 merit scholarship from USC, but that would barely nick the price of this school which would cost the parents roughly $300,000 for a single bachelor’s degree.
University of Virginia, with in-state tuition, would be the affordable option for the couple.
After putting two kids through college already, the parents have just $40,000 saved up for this third child.
What the teenager wants
Despite the difficult economic reality, this teenager believes she is owed the opportunity to attend her first choice – USC – because she worked hard in high school. Here is what her dad shared:
Our daughter wants to go to USC and is amenable to going to UVA but not happy about it. She feels like she will be with her high school classmates and that she worked hard to have a chance with USC and Cornell and would be falling back to UVA. Of course, Ive tried to let her know how fortunate she is to have UVA as an option – fabulous school.
What irritates me when I hear stories from understandably stressed out parents is the sense of entitlement that some teenagers possess. (I heard from another affluent parent while I was writing the post whose son got into his in-state university with a scholarship, but he wants to go to Emory University that gave him zero money.)
These teenagers seem to believe that excelling in high school means their parents should bankroll a bachelor’s degree at an elite university regardless of the cost. And sadly plenty of parents will cave and do just that.
Acing high school, however, doesn’t give teenagers the right to endanger their parents financial security just because they want to attend a trophy school.
And as a practical matter, studies have shown repeatedly that where high-achieving, high-income students attend college doesnt matter!! The odds are great that these students will fare well financially regardless of whether or not they attend the so-called golden ticket schools.
Admission to elite schools typically only make a difference for low-income and first-gen students. These underprivileged students usually attend community colleges and nearby state universities.
In the Virginia case, the University of Virginia is an excellent research university. She would not be falling back on UVA!
The best strategy
Here is how I would suggest parents approach this issue:
1. It’s important that parents set their children’s college expectation early. Parents should tell their teenagers that excelling in high school doesn’t mean that they can attend whatever expensive college they can get into.
2. This is the wrong message to tell kids:
Honey, apply to the schools that you want and we’ll find a way to make it happen. Only take this approach if you are willing to accept that this could ultimately turn into a six-figure mistake.
3. If money is an issue (and it usually is), the potential net cost of college must be a factor before a child starts the college hunt. No school should be considered as a serious candidate unless parents have run that college’s net price calculator.
If you don’t know what a net price calculator is, here is a blog post that I wrote about them: