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Admissions 101: Do We Have the Guts to Tell Our Kids We Can't Afford Their Dream Schools?

Cathy W. has posed a thorny scenario over in Admissions 101:

"Your child has been accepted at the school of their dreams (or perhaps yours), but the price tag is shocking. Should you have allowed you child apply to the dream school, only to be disappointed when you can't pony up $50,000 in annual tuition/room and board? When do you have the discussion about what is affordable and realistic? Up front or after acceptances roll in?"

The discussion is drawing some starkly different answers.

sobugged1 writes:

"The issue is not parents who cannot afford dream schools, the issue is parents who budgeted poorly, planned poorly, and were irresponsible with their money. Kids with parents who truly cannot afford Harvard are not denied a Harvard education. Even kids with parents who are withholding and somewhat irresponsible are usually not denied a Harvard education (a good friend had a deadbeat, yet high income, father who would not spend a dime on her education, and an extremely poor mother. Her full cost was less than $10,000 for 4 years.) The problem is parents who do not prioritize a child's education."

Denise7 says:

"I have worked with college students for almost 30 years, most of them on the East Coast. A college education should not be equivalent to a vacation to an Tahiti. This business of "dream" school is based on fantastizing. It is the parents responsibility to demonstrate leadership and a create a realistic plan. Young people will follow the parental lead. My son was told he could go to the school most interested in him. Interest was demonstrated via the value of the scholarship package. His top choice deminstrated interest. He is a junior there and thriving. Just as you probably did not indulge their every whim as children, you need not indulge their every whim as older teens/young adults. Be realisitic, have a plan, stick to it, get on with the business of living."

Adds j762:

"When I was in college in the late 70s/early 80s, it was possible to put oneself through an in-state flagship by working and taking out Guaranteed Student Loans (now Staffords). My husband had a substantial amount of loans for undergrad and grad school, and it took us 14 years of marriage before we bought our first house (and we still live there).
Now? A Stafford loan doesn't get a student very far at a flagship, much less a private. Not many private lenders are giving out $40k/year unsecured loans to 18 yos these days, either.
We told our kids (a college soph and a rising HS senior) when they were in middle school that they could have their pick of colleges, but that they'd have significant skin in the game via Stafford loans, PT and summer jobs and scholarships. Now it's our turn to live up to our end of the deal."

By Washington Post Editors  | July 21, 2009; 2:48 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions 101  
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I'm not sure that this is really a relevant topic. The reality is that most of these schools that are considered the "dream" schools are now moving towards full-tuition coverage for those who would not ordinarily be able to afford those tuitions. This is part of their move towards need-blind admission. In other words, every child should be told to strive high, because if they do well, cost will not be a significant issue.

Posted by: matoseta | July 21, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

About fifteen years ago, my parents told me I could go anywhere I wanted, as long as it was public and in our home state (Illinois). I don't remember having a problem with this; it gave me quite a few options. Off I went to a pretty decent state university, where I learned a good deal that has helped me in my career as well as a great deal more about myself. I can't imagine that anyone I come in contact with in my professional life really cares where my degrees are from, only that I have them. I think it's only fair (and not a result of "poor planning") that parents sit their teens down early on and explain what they can and cannot afford.

Posted by: beth78 | July 21, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

Conversations about college costs need to happen well before the student begins the college search, no later than the spring of the junior year. When parents have clear discussions with their child about costs, family budgets, and ability to pay, they are inviting their child into the adult world and empowering their child. Parents should not see the money talk as limiting their child's search, rather they should see this as helping their child set realistic goals.

Posted by: jch11 | July 22, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Sobugged1, there is a subset of colleges and universities that provides aid to students up to the point of being need-blind. It's a small subset (almost entirely private, and at the top level of selectivity.

Not every student's dream school (or even preferred school, as I agree that a lot of fantasy goes on in students' and parents' minds) falls into this subset. Take, for example, the student whose flagship state university doesn't offer the major they've been planning for for years. Either she gives up on his/her planned occupation, or s/he goes out of state. Financial aid, in that case, will be limited to loans and maybe work-study jobs. And some flagship state U's costs are approaching $30,000 per year. For five years (typical for science majors), that's $150,000. Similar costs for less-well-endowed private schools. Are parents who don't have $100,000 in the bank 18 years after the birth of their first child necessarily poor planners? I don't think so.

Posted by: jane100000 | July 23, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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