Why you should crush your child’s college dreams

I’ve been meaning to reference this great Slate article, “I Killed My Teenager’s Fancy College Dreams. You Should, Too” for a while, but since my oldest submitted his transfer application to NC State today, this seemed like the right time :-).  Melody Warnick:

According to a Sallie Mae survey, 70 percent of parents say that, even though they’re worried about paying for their kids’ college, they’re not limiting their children’s college choices based on price. One friend recently told me that her son has his heart set on a pricey out-of-state engineering program, despite the fact that a fantastic engineering program exists at the public university in our town. “It’s a reach school, but if he gets in he’ll probably go there—and I guess deal with a lot of student loan debt afterward,” she said with a laugh.

Why are we parents so loath to set financial limits on our kids’ college ambitions? Maybe because it seems crass to bring money into their reach-for-the-stars dreams. Maybe because we cling to the hope of generous scholarships and lavish financial aid packages that will make our money worries moot. Maybe because we deeply believe the destiny of smart teenagers is to attend their dream school, and ours is to finance it. To do otherwise is to fail at middle-class parenting…

I’ve continued my scared-straight campaign ever since, periodically texting Ella links to articles about twentysomethings with $100,000 in debt, describing how massive student loans would hamstring her future. While there may be a few good reasons to opt for a fancy college and suck up the student loan debt (you need a really specific program, for instance, or statistics show you’ll earn far more money after you graduate), those didn’t apply to Ella’s situation. “If you want to be an artist and you graduate with a ton of student loan debt, you can’t afford to be an artist, anymore,” I told her, explaining that you become a creatively stymied wage slave instead.

To give my daughter a hard no on something she really, really wants—and that I in theory want for her!—makes me feel like a monster. While other parents cheerfully promise that “if you get in, we’ll figure out the money part,” I’m over here sounding a Greek chorus of caution and lament. Sometimes I long to just say yes. Saying yes feels good. Yes makes people happy.

On the other hand, saying no is part of my job as a parent. Hasn’t it been my role all along to steer my kid toward smarter but seemingly less desirable choices? Carrots instead of Kit Kats, an early bedtime instead of an all-night YouTube binge? Children naturally hate those kinds of limits. They may temporarily hate us. But they’re too young and myopic to see how this one decision could make their lives harder for a long, long time…

I’ve continued my scared-straight campaign ever since, periodically texting Ella links to articles about twentysomethings with $100,000 in debt, describing how massive student loans would hamstring her future…

Her applications are in, and she won’t know what happens for a while. Just one thing is certain: When Ella graduates, her future will be her own. For that, it’s worth keeping a short leash on her present.

It’s not for everybody, but damn have we saved a ton by my son getting his first two years at community college.  And, since I talk extensively with him about his courses, I know that he’s generally getting a quality education for a fraction of the cost of two years of an in-state, four-year college.  But, even if he had wanted to spend all four years at State (or another in-state school), I strongly believe this is the way to go.

Having been educated at Duke, I can say it was an amazing education.  But is it really worth almost four times as much (total cost of attendance) as NC State?  Hell, no.  My take has long been that an “elite” education may be worthy, maybe 1.5-2.0 times as much (in some vague, “worth” metric), but the actual costs tend to be at least 3x-4x of a good state school, and no way is it that much a more valuable education.  And, you can get an amazing education at a good state school, you just need to be more proactive about it than you are at an elite university.  And, while so many people think there’s a big financial boost from attending an elite university, if your kid is white and middle class, that’s just not the case.

As a parent, this is easy for me with no dream-crushing.  My son’s highest ambition has always been NC State.  And it’s early for my youngest, two, but they are both convinced they want to go to State and enjoy riling their parents by being vocally anti-Duke.  But, if one of them changes their mind and wants that elite, super-expensive college education, some dreams are going to be crushed.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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