Elite Colleges, Entitled Teens and Guilted Parents


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, I’ve tried to let her know how fortunate she is to have UVA as an option – fabulous school.

My reaction

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 doesn’t 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:

4. Some parents are just as mesmerized by elite schools as their children. The college admission scandal is an ugly example of that.

Some parents crave the bragging rights and will jeopardize their own retirement plans to pay or borrow for an elite school. Seriously examine your motivations if this resonates with you!

Next Time

In my next blog post, I am going to share the experience of Illinois parents who faced the same choice with their talented daughter four years ago.

The teenager wanted to attend Northwestern University, which would have been full price, but the University of Pittsburgh had offered her a great scholarship.

Learn More

An excellent way to cut the cost of college is to enroll in my online course, The College Cost Lab. You can learn more here.

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  1. We are full pay but because of jobs live in a high cost of living city. We saved enough in a 529 to fund four years at our state flagship for both our kids. Anything above and beyond was the responsibility of our kids. So oldest high stat daughter applied to only colleges with merit. Just prior to beginning the application process her grandfather died and left a trust that would cover the cost of any elite school in the US…. my daughter decided not change her strategy and received a full tuition scholarship to a top tier LAC. She will graduate debt free with remainder of 529 and entirety of trust. Our youngest son has decided to take advantage of free community college tuition in our city. He will then transfer to state flagship. Both will get a good education and financial start on life. We were very pleased they made these choices.

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    2. What if your child wants OUT of Texas? (Can’t blame her. I do, too.) She’ll most likely get auto admit to UT (only a soph now) and might be interested in Journalism which UT is highly ranked in. (Makes 100% sense on paper to go to UT as all of her AP and dual credit courses will be accepted there — I think UT does this on purpose to get good students — accepts THREES which most highly ranked schools do NOT) I can only hope when the time comes that she gets aid to go elsewhere. Going to UT will be like Texas HS 2.0 since the majority of kids are in state.

  2. in the 80s I went to my local commuter university, graduated top of my class and debt free. I devoted whatever savings I had to law school. I graduated with a law degree with a modest debt that I paid off 5 years after graduation. My parents were immigrants and made together about 20K a year. I worked in college and law school- that was my reality. My parents gave me a place to sleep and food–that’s all kids should expect. My son is in a position where I can pay that 300K school and he can get in those elite schools. In my opinion you go to a decent college on scholarship or for little money, and spend the rest on a house or graduate school. You can’t get by on a college degree in America. Home prices are ridiculous if you don’t want to live in the sticks. Prestigious schools are great for building elite connections that can help you later, but in my life I found most people who are successful are successful because of habits they’ve developed. Undergraduate schools they attended have little to do with their success. Parents save for your child’s school, but I suggest you develop habits in them that will make them successful even if they will have to “sacrifice” and go to their local state school. God forbid if that happens.

  3. The smartest people I know are all old and commuted to cheap local colleges. School was very very cheap in the 1950s and 60s but they still knew they would never be able to afford a private school or living on campus. More than one of these lifelong nerds even took care of their mothers at the time. No one sold them the financially destructive myth that they need to buy things that they can’t afford because it has never been so easy to obtain credit and live way way way outside of one’s means. They would not have been lent hundreds of thousands of dollars because only today would SALLIE MAY and their contemporaries GET AWAY WITH BEING SUCH PREDATORY LENDERS. Only rich people could afford Oxford and its offspring and the fact that commoners COULD NEVER AFFORD IT is what made it a status symbol.

    $100K worth of student loans is considered foolish by FINANCIAL EXPERTS. Modern parents are lemmings who seem to agree with this quote by my broke coworker who cleaned out his retirement to send his kid to a school no better than the affordable one in our town because “We’ve always given our daughter whatever she wants”.
    I had a $400/mo payment on the 30K loan that I had when I graduated from the aforementioned local school. How does anyone pay a $1200/mo or $2400/mo student loan payment? Why does no one mention the payment amount, is it that these parents would pay ANYTHING? Is the money ACTUALLY important when you think your kid should have ANYTHING previously only reserved for the elite? Is this bottomless demand the reason why we have luxury dorms?

    I worked full time in college and paid for all of it myself. After school I took a real job in the trades while most of my friends worked as little as possible while mooching off others. My friends were getting drunk while I was a financially responsible adult. Most of them thought that getting good grades and living in a city on their Dad’s dime made them grown up but I always remembered my old friends who took care of their widow mothers. I don’t care about new cars, phones, or vacations now because I am interested in saving money. Your kid won’t die if he has to commute to a local school in fact he’ll probably be forced to take responsibility for his own life. My friends’ parents all gave them down payments on their houses and paid for their college and I’d say that this idea that millennials need to have things that no generation before them had to have is a ridiculous notion. The reality is that they were never taught that when you’re young you’re supposed to be eating ramen and proud of the beat up car you paid for on your own. People who have everything given to them are way less mature than their (unicorn) financially independent peers. We stigmatize cheap schools and it’s a shame we aren’t stigmatizing 60K/year in debt instead.

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  5. There is no elite college I’ve ever heard of that will take CLEP for credit. Some will take a limited number of AP credits. And FYI, many elite private schools do not offer AP classes — they have their own curriculum. I know because my older daughter, who’s attending Grinnell this fall, attended a school like this; her younger sister is still at the school.

  6. My comment may have been deleted for length?

    The short version is that I think teen-bashing is self-serving and unfair, teens have to navigate their own expectations and the expectations of the adults around them and predict which choices will have the best returns in a rapidly pivoting labor market.

    If a family has moved to a elite area and enrolled it’s daughter in a public school with wealthy peers, and the parents have encouraged the child to conventionally excel (allowing the parents to brag about the daughter’s academic success and acceptance at competitive colleges), then they discourage the daughter from taking the path her peers are taking, that is a whole family issue. It’s not about an individual “entitled” youth.

    There are many options available for reducing the cost of an expensive college, including working and saving during a gap year and using CLEP and AP credits as transfer credits to erase a year or more of tuition. I’d like to see less blame of young people and more lateral thinking in the current discussion on college debt.

  7. I used to cheerlead these articles, but these days I find them overly simplistic. It’s rare to find a truly “entitled” student. Often these young people are just trying to navigate the sea of uncertainties and differing pieces of advice. None of us really know what ROI the different college options will have, with certainty, in this changing economy.

    What complicates things is that parents often swap horses midstream on them — the parents that are thrilled to have their daughter apply to and be accepted at USC are suddenly stern Puritans when it comes to attending the school. Parents who send their children to elite public schools (maybe by buying a home they can’t actually afford) are suddenly distressed when their kids want to mirror the lives of their peers after high school graduation by buying tuition the student can’t afford.

    I’d love to see a more diversified approach to these issues. How about a gap year — not the fancy “I went on a cruise for a year and called it a gap year” kind, the kind where you either earn money or earn application items that will make you look appealing for scholarships, the kind where you spend a year learning what you really want to get out of this college thing?

    How about applying to more than two or three schools? If the daughter doesn’t want to go to UVA, maybe there’s a reason beyond her “entitlement”. She may simply want to attend a school that will give her a network after college but that is not in her home state — lots of teens would like to branch out and not be so close to home.

    How about earning a year of credit with concurrent education or CLEP and AP testing? A quick Google tells me USC might accept up to two years of transfer credits, a truly bright student with a good work ethic (as the article indicates the student is) should be able to substantially cut the cost of her tuition this way.

    Thinking outside the box doesn’t always work, but flogging a young person for wanting exactly what her family seems to have set her up to want seems kind of counterproductive.

    1. I know I’m late to this party, but what I think needs to be discussed is not cost, but value. You have to look at the field the students wants to study; what the employment potential is; and what schools produce the better outcomes in that field. When you look at the ED college scorecard, there are significant differences in outcomes in terms of pay between colleges. We ran this gauntlet a few years ago with our daughter and she and I spent a lot of time reading Lynn’s articles. In the end we did a best value calculation which told us that even if it were free, attending the in state school would be more costly in the long run vs the out of state school due to job outcomes. Yes, it was costly and yes she has significant debt, but she is well into her career path and after only one year is well ahead of the 10 year average for the in state school.

      Outcomes really need to be included in this discussion.

  8. Thanks Lynn for this article .If parents knew they couldn’t afford full price tag at an university then why would they allow their kids to apply in first place .This discussion should happen when applications are being sent .I have seen many parents in this limbo.

  9. One thing no one has addressed is that the parents had two older children and basically spent all the money on those kids. It seems only fair that the youngest would expect as much. To be fair the parents should have budgeted equally for the three children so they did not run out of money for the third. There is no information on what they spent on each of these, but they may have gotten their top choices. I agree that UVA is probably at least as good as USC, but am not sure the parents are acting fairly. Also parents who have a high EFC can generally afford to pay the costs, though it may have some effect on their lifestyle, and force them to make some sacrifices such as delaying buying a new car or going to Europe. I understand that $300,000 is ridiculously high for a USC education, but feel the parents needed to divide their money more fairly. If the parents did spend way more on the first two, perhaps they can compensate the third teen by leaving a greater inheritance or some other way of admitting a mistake in being fair to her.

    1. Yeah, but life isn’t always fair. And no kid is entitled to an expensive college. Maybe they did pay equally for all their kids…..we don’t know that. Maybe they had some hardships…also, it was mentioned that the parents are retired, maybe they weren’t retired when the other kids were in college? Who knows? Also, Virginia is a great school and having a debt free college education can’t be beat..

    2. You don’t know what the parents spent on the other kids and it would be nice to know but believe me parents with a high EFC cannot always afford to pay the costs. The FAFSA does not take into account where you live. We live in Los Angeles which is one of the most expensive cities in the country. We live here because of work, and the value of our small little house would be a mansion in most other parts of the country. In our case, our EFC was grossly inaccurate. We only let our son apply to schools that give merit aid, which limited his choices but was the only way we could make it work.

    3. We don’t know for sure if they spent all their money on the older kids. Also, they may not have been retired when the older kids were in college. Also, no kid is really entitled to their parent’s money. Parents deserve to use some of their money too…

    4. I think your comment reflects the fact that the college debt issue is largely one of the middle middle and upper middle classes. You have parents who have (in many cases) become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and feel like they are poor if their IPhones are two years old. Often the parents are deeply in debt already. Expectations all around are dysfunctional. Of course, I have no idea if this applies to the family in the example, obviously it very well might not, but I think the general issue reflects this.

  10. UVA is not a fall back school. Heck, I’d be thrilled if I got into UVA and it was my instate school!

    In my area UVA along with Michigan is the dream out of state public for the all the high achieving kids! They all clamber to apply and get in there!

    Also, you could write basically the same article about a kid from say Wisconsin or Florida who really really wants to go to Virginia, but they FIN AID is too poor and they would have to take out too many loans. They also got into their instate flagship at UW-Madison/Uni Florida which has given them a generous scholarship and has affordable instate tuition..but oh no, the kid can’t go instate…it’s a fallback school, all my high school friends are there…

  11. University of Virginia is a fallback school? In what world?! I’d be thrilled if I got into UVA and it was my instate school!

    At my affluent school in Orange County, UVA along with Michigan are the hotsy public schools that all the high achieving kids are clambering to apply to and get in.

    Heck, you could even write the same article about UVA offering poor fin aid to an out of state kid!

  12. Maybe the parents can take a page out of this playbook: Tell the daughter that they have $40k to put towards her education to use anyway she’d like. Any costs beyond that are on her. (Had a friend do that when his two daughters became engaged in the same year. He knew it was the only way to approach the situation fairly, as one was a spendthrift and the other a penny-pincher. )

    The parents can then help her do the math to figure out what that loan looks like, and how long it will suck the fun out of her post-college years. Graduate school and her own house? out of the question; rice & beans and lots of roommates well into her 30’s?-absolutely necessary. (BTW, one rule of thumb is to not borrow any more than the first year’s anticipated salary. High grossing Petroleum Engineers *only* start out around $95k, so a $260k loan (+ interest) is out of the question even for them.)

    Oh, don’t forget to let Dear Daughter know that the interest rate starts building from the day she takes out the loan, not the day she (hopes) to graduate.

  13. I hope my response will help parents stuck on name universities/colleges. Our oldest daughter graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. A very affordable option even though she was out of state (it’s a public liberal arts college in St. Mary’s City, MD). She loved it. She received an excellent education. Due to small class size she got to know her professors very well. Even went to BBQs at their homes. She impressed one particular professor who recommended her to an associate at Dartmouth who hired her as a research assistant who was impressed by her that when she applied to Dartmouth to begin her PhD studies in neuroscience she was accepted and has worked very hard these last four years toward her degree inhis lab. She is also a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. All this from college many people on the west coast here hasn’t heard of. She will apply this year to medical school and is debt free from her undergrad and graduate school. As a PhD student is paid a stipend and is not charged tuition at Dartmouth, but works very hard for them.

    Our youngest daughter graduated from Willamette University which also has small classes enabling her to get to know her professors very well, particularly her organic chemistry professor who mentored her for two summers in her lab under a wonderful program by which our daughter was awarded a very, very generous stipend that enabled her to live in Salem in the summer and pocket a tidy sum for the following school year. Also, under this program she and her team presented at a program in Spokane the following fall. Due to this relationship our daughter was recommended to work as a research assistant at Oregon Health & Science University as a research assistant. OHSU was impressed enough by her education, experience and work ethic a program was started between Willamette University and OHSU to have a qualified undergrads work in the lab. A very valuable experience. This daughter is also applying to medical school this year. She had been accepted at Bates College and Washington and Lee, but with no financial aid other than loans. We could not afford the $60,000 plus price tag of these schools and she would have graduated with enormous debt. At the time she applied for undergrad becoming a doctor was NOT on her radar, but her undergrad experience at Willamette guided her into this direction which she loves. Willamette awarded her generous scholarships which made it affordable for us. Both she and her older sister can now take out loans in their own names for medical school without the burden of undergrad loans and we can anticipate retirement in the near future.

    This is a long post, but I want parents to know it is more than OK to say NO to universities and colleges that will financially cripple you and your children.

    Lynn, thank you, thank you for your support all these years. I read the first edition of your book which led me on this journey of higher educational gems and our daughters successes.

  14. Great post. My husband is guilty of #2 and I am guilty of #4. My son’s safety school is UT Austin ( he’s already in with top 6% auto admission) but he really loves Rice and we are heading to look at Yale next week…Ugh.

    Question: We keep getting letters from Harvard and Yale not to worry about the cost but they sent the same letters to my sister-in-law (roughly same income but we have more savings), and her kid did Early Decision at Brown and they are on the hook for the whole thing. Is that even legal????They are freaking out because they have two other kids also. Should we avoid Early Decision at Rice?????

    1. Lillian – seems like your son has some wonderful options. Unless you are prepared to pay full tuition and fees/costs at Rice, I would avoid early decision. When your child applies early decision, both the child and parent are required to sign what is essentially a contract where you agree that if accepted you will promptly pull all other pending college applications and attend the school that just accepted you. So re: your sister-in-law and Brown – yes, it is in fact very legal. Practically speaking of course, no one can force your child to attend a given university, and if you truly have need and it doesn’t come through, then that’s a conversation with the financial aid staff – however, the whole point re: early decision is that you’ve committed to a first choice, no matter what. Also, it’s one thing to see letters that say don’t worry about money, but it’s another to have a university indicate the same after they’ve actually reviewed your financial situation. Some smaller liberal arts school give “early reads” when applying early decision where you send them financial information ahead of applying early decision and they give you an idea of what money might come your family’s way. You can always ask whether they do that at Rice. Also, if a given school has a pretty good net price calculator (good ones ask lots of questions about your specific financial situation – if you have to get your tax return and investment statements out to answer then it’s a good one), they will give you a pretty good idea of whether you qualify for any financial aid. That’s another step you can take. Best of luck to your son!

    2. Lillian,

      Early decision means that you give up your right to continue to look at any other school, no matter what the scholarship offers might be. I would never recommend early decision unless you are absolutely certain you are going to go to that school, and can afford it regardless of scholarships or financial aid.

      As far as letters that say “don’t worry about cost”, it’s important to understand that those are very carefully worded letters that are meant to apply to everyone, and you can’t just take that one sentence or couple of sentences as the whole message. What they mean, and usually state, is that this is a school that approaches admissions as “need blind”–meaning they will not admit based on whether you are a wealthy family who can pay full tuition–AND, if your EFC on your FAFSA shows a “high need” based on federal guidelines, then your student will be subsidized for tuition costs. This means that a student with an EFC of 0, will have a full tuition subsidy AFTER Pell grant and other federal grants. A student with an EFC of $7000, though, has “no need” because that is higher than the federal Pell grant amount. So that student will be paying full tuition, unless they get scholarships that are not need based.

    3. Many elite schools inflate (or, I guess, deflate) their acceptance numbers by encouraging applications. People look to see how schmancy a school is and they check the acceptance rate, and if it’s 20% they assume it is a great school that a lot of people really want to get into for good reason. This is, in part, why there is so much marketing by the colleges to students. Anything they can do to get you to apply benefits their stats.

      That said, the Ivy schools essentially prorate tuition — students from families with an income under $65,000 pay no tuition if they are accepted.


  15. Thanks Lynn, for another timely and necessary post. I have your book and used your advice to help my oldest daughter navigate through the admissions process and am now on child #2. I discovered the Frank Palmasani book that Thomas mentioned above on my first go-round, which combined with your guidance made all the difference! Our oldest is very happy at Lawrence University (with lots of merit money) but I am finding the conversation to be different with daughter #2, who is a high-achieving student and more susceptible to the chatter around her in high school. We have a third child waiting in the wings so we’re pretty firm about our budget, and I *think* she’s getting the message.

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      Thanks for sharing Erin! Congratulations on your oldest! I really like Lawrence. And I’m glad you are staying firm with daughter No. 2! Good luck!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  16. here’s a suggestion:
    “USC?! We did’nt pay no 15k bribe to get you admitted, so why should we pay a 300k bribe so you can attend? Now get your 17 year old butt down to UVA – its a better school anyway (not as good or as focused as VA Tech, but maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are).

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  17. Wow, amazing! University of Virginia has such a good reputation. Why wouldn’t she want to go there? I would have loved to have that as an in-state option for our teens. Ours are in-state on merit scholarships at UofSC and Clemson. We are lucky to be able to save their 529 money toward possible graduate study. Best of luck to these retired parents as they try to convince their daughter. On second thought, maybe they just need to bite the bullet and tell her she has to go to UVA, that they won’t pay for USC. Tell, don’t ask. Once she’s enrolled at UVA, I bet she will meet kids from out-of-state for whom UVA is their “dream school”. Also, flagship universities are so big that you don’t run into people you know from high school.

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      Hi Sharon,

      I totally agree with you. If I were in their shoes, I’d just tell the child she is going to UVA and I’m sure she ultimately will be happy that she didn’t hurt your parents retirement security!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  18. You are a strong and much needed voice. I have four kids. I bought your book. My first two sons so far chose an economic path, turning down more prestigious colleges to go to small ones with merit or state universities with honors programs. I am grateful to you for giving me the courage to find the right fit financially and philosophically.

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      Thanks for the kind words, Lisa! I am so glad you experienced success with your first two sons and that they were smart enough to know what the best choices were!

      Good luck with the next two!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  19. This is a great post!
    Have you read Frank Palmasani’s, Right College, Right Price?
    My suggestion, as a parent, is if you think your child is “college material,” start this conversation when they are in middle school. (Kids still think you know something at that age.)

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