Should You Attend Your Dream College?

This is the time of year when high school seniors and their parents begin reciting this age-old advice:  Follow your dreams.

Families tend to use this advice to justify their children attending expensive dream colleges even if these schools will require taking on crushing student debt.

I am a huge advocate of families researching schools before hand to see if they are not only an academic fit, but also a financial fit. You can find how to do that by spending time on this blog and I’ve compiled a lot of advice on my workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College.

A Dad’s Worry

I’m bringing this up today because I got a heart-breaking email yesterday from a dad. Here is an excerpt of his note:

I think I made a critical error in telling my son to follow his dreams. Please assess my judgment. Currently, my son is at Duke University and by default kind of wants to go into Wall Street, he doesn’t have a clue when I ask him what you want to do there, besides, “make lots of money”. Right now, he’s $100k+ in debt and will be a total (estimate) of  $140k in debt after next year, when he graduates….

What’s your advice? We tried to get more financial aid from Duke, but they aren’t buying it. Also, my son could have gone to the University of Florida on a full-ride, but chose Duke instead. I know some kids who are going there on an almost full need-based grants. What’s your advice, did we take out too much for undergrad?

Here was my response:

I feel for your son. Your son would have been better off with a full-ride to U. of Florida, but what’s done is done. Your son does face a potentially huge problem and he doesn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation that faces him.  If he did, he never would have gone to Duke when he was forced to borrow such a large amount of money.

If there is anyway he can finish  school without borrowing anymore, I’d urge him to take that route. Have you helped him with college? I would urge you to do so if you can handle it financially. If he didn’t qualify for financial aid, I assume you are affluent. If so, I’d would strongly suggest that you help with this debt and tuition. If he doesn’t have a job on campus, he should get one. And find work during the summer and use all that money to help pay for his college tab. I’d also suggest he look into becoming a residential assistant. He may be able to get room and board for free that way.

Because of the high amount of debt, your son has probably borrowed most of the money through private loans. These are scary because there are no consumer protections, the rate isn’t fixed and there isn’t any ceiling. I suspect you or someone in the family cosigned for these loans which means you/they are on the hook to pay them off also. It’s best to borrow through the federal Stafford student loan program and hopefully some of your son’s debt is in government loans. For federal debt, he should look into the Income Based Repayment program if he graduates and is underemployed or unemployed. There is no such program for private student loans.

I wish I could be more encouraging, but at this point limiting future borrowing and paying off the student debt that he’s accumulated is what I’d strongly suggest.

More more thing…

One thing that I forgot to tell the dad is that he should double check that he’s filling out his financial aid applications correctly. Financial aid is driven by a family’s expected family contribution and if the papers are completed incorrectly, a family could be mistakenly shut out of financial aid consideration.

Like many elite schools, Duke is generous with its financial aid to families who qualify. According to Duke’s Common Data Set, it meets 100% of a family’s financial and the vast majority of that need is met with grants and not loans.

For everybody out there who are still looking for colleges, be careful about where your dreams lead you!

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. “Follow your dreams” does not necessarily mean that you can have anything you want. I’d like to follow mine too, but that trip to the Greek Isles has not materialized. Perhaps because there are many things I have (so far) missed out on, I don’t feel any obligation to make all my children’s dreams come true. In fact, I have been known to say that if I haven’t been to Europe yet, than I’ll be darned if I will pay $2000 for you to go while in high school. My children have alot more time to achieve their dreams than I do. I promise we will do everything we can to help you get a college degree, but that doesn’t mean we will pay for NYU. Because we can’t afford it and either can you and that is life.

  2. I’m new to your blog and love it. You provide such a valuable service.
    My eldest is a High School junior and I’m starting to vet potential colleges for her to consider next year. She wants to major in Engineering and we live in Colorado. I’m trying to skate that thin line of “try for the stars but be realistic”. She’s a smart kid with good grades but I don’t want her to graduate from University with excessive debt. In our lives, we find that we don’t always get exactly what we want, when we want it, for the price we want to pay. It seems to apply to education as well.