The Checkout

How Many Gs for That Diploma?

When I was helping my parents fill out college loan applications -- I won't say exactly when -- I had little idea at the time how much $280 a month would mean to me just four years later.

You could say I was caught up in the whole "my parents-came-here-so-I-could-go-to-the-best-school thing." Because I sure wasn't thinking about what my parents could afford, let alone what I could afford to pay. (And neither were they, for that matter.)

Suffice it to say, I picked an expensive private school instead of going to a perfectly good state one. Even with the scholarship money and financial aid I received, and all the work study hours and part time jobs I had, I left school with healthy amount of debt. When I finally paid it off about three years ago -- 10 years after I graduated -- it was a bittersweet moment. I had loved my college experience. I value the education I got there. And, of course, I adore the friends I made there, but I had to face it: Financially, it wasn't worth it.

I had never aspired to a more lucrative career. Besides journalism, the only other career path I had ever seriously considered was academia. So $280 a month, which is what my student loan payment was for a time, was always going to be a hardship. While I was an undergrad, it never occurred to me that I would end up choosing not to go to graduate school because I didn't want to assume more debt. (Well, that and relearn trig.)

Now that I am getting ready to start saving for my own kid's education, of course the cost of college is even more staggering. Which is why I found my colleague Kathleen Day's story yesterday so sobering and useful.

In a nutshell, community college and state college never looked so good.

A quick litany of facts I'm sure all you student loan debtors are well aware of:

In the past 10 years, tuition, fees and the cost of room and board have increased 31 percent at private four-year colleges and 42 percent at public four-year institutions, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. For the 2006-2007 academic year, for example, living on campus at a private university such as Georgetown costs more than $180,000 over four years. Four years on campus at a state school can also be daunting -- $68,000 over four years to attend the University of Virginia for state residents, $130,000 for out-of-state students.

Financial planners have a few tips for parents of the college-bound:

  • Save early and often. Put the money into a 529 account, a state-sponsored, tax-advantaged savings plan. An unlimited number of people -- parents, grandparents -- can each contribute up to $12,000 a year per child without triggering gift-tax rules. If one child doesn't end up using it, you can use it for the next one.

  • Don't plunder your retirement to pay for your kids' education.

  • Involve your kids and make sure they understand what you expect to pay, if anything, and the trade-off between public and private school costs.

  • Get an estimate of what your expected family contribution will be -- and compare it with what you can afford -- using worksheets, also available at Ask your children why they are drawn to certain schools and gauge whether those goals can be met less expensively.

As Everette B. Orr, head of Orr Financial Planning in McLean told Kathleen: "There's a feeling in the middle class that we want our kids to go to the very best school and that that means yearly expenses of about $40,000, no matter what.... I'm alarmed by the debt people take. They think everyone's doing it. They think it's normal -- parents and kids -- and it's not."

Wish I'd known that all those years ago.

Here are more online resources:

  • -- Where families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Features information on how to apply for federal aid and worksheets to calculate how much families will be expected to pay for college.

  • -- Provides a concise profile of schools, allowing families to make comparisons, including by price.

  • Has a good rundown on federal financial aid options.

  • Offers tips on when you can use tax breaks and has a good overview on financial aid.

  • Features a search engine for finding a scholarship that matches your profile; it's free, but users must register.

  • Offers calculators to estimate college costs and whether you are saving enough.

  • A clearinghouse for information on 529 college savings plan, including a state-by-state comparison. Includes links to the Web sites for the District, Maryland and Virginia. Most of the site is free.

  • Includes information on federal subsidies for District residents attending state colleges around the country. Click on "financial aid."

By Annys Shin |  January 29, 2007; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
Previous: Is That Letter From the IRS? Not. | Next: Drug Ads: Taking Medicine Never Looked So Good


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I softened the blow by going to a Community College first where I earned an Associates degree in 2 years. I had gotten into all my choice 4 year schools, too but was undecided on a career path.

I started with one basic English course the summer I graduated from HS, so I was able to take the second English in the fall semester and was at a slight advantage. I did the same thing the following summer -- took Psych so that I could take Abnormal Psych in the fall.

All in all, I graduated in 2 years with 72 credits, when I transferred to the more expensive private school (I had an odd major so I didn't have a choice), they took the max they could -- 60 credits. So, again I was ahead. I spent three years at that school and graduated with 2 BS degrees in 1997. I didn't default on my loans while going for an MA at a local state school (NY at the time) and they were paid off ahead of schedule last winter thanks in part to a job I had on Capitol Hill -- a great perk!!!

The point -- don't underestimate Community Colleges! Kids and parents shouldn't forced into debt if they have this option. Not everyone has to go to an elite school 2 months after they graduate from HS just because all their friends are.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | January 29, 2007 10:33 AM

I'm saving for my kids. Hoping to have enough so they can go to whichever college they want (and wants them).

Posted by: Non-debtor | January 29, 2007 10:47 AM

I've got a 40 year loan at 3.5% and for 5 years, I've never had to pay more than $70/month...It's income based, so supposedly I'll be able to afford more in the future. I'll end up paying almost double, but the opportunity to go to a truly intellectual school is well worth more than that. I don't know why it isn't advisable to have loans for college. My parents have to live in DC to be near their families, so the cost of living denied them the chance to save for their kids' educations. I'll pay back my loans with interest and know I bought my education at a pittance.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 29, 2007 11:30 AM

I second the Community College recommendation. They are usually much less expensive.

If the intent is to begin your university education at one, be sure that the one you choose is part of a larger university system or that course transfer is clear and simple. (That's also a good indicator of whether the quality of the courses is at university level).

Regional four-year universities can also be better deals, and many have developed specialties in which they have strong reputations.

Also, two and regional four year campuses are often in less "prestitigious" locations. While they may not have quite as much local culture, many are pretty good--and much cheaper--places to live.

Posted by: Oscar | January 29, 2007 11:31 AM

My parents told us to go to the same university where my father taught because he didn't have to pay tuition. We got Ivy League education for free! The catch was that 1) we had to get accepted and 2) we didn't have much of a choice in colleges. If we wanted to go elsewhere, we had to pay the difference.

I'm doing the prepaid method of paying for college. The children will have at least one solid choice all paid. Plan B is to follow my father's path and get a job at an expensive private college/university with dependent tuition remission benefits.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 29, 2007 11:34 AM

My parents saved enough for me to go to college at any school I wanted to, and told me if I went to a cheaper school I could save the difference for grad school or a down payment on a house.

I went to an excellent Virginia state school, though I was accepted by several Ivy League universities. When I graduated, I got a job that would pay my grad school expenses if I continued to work; so, in my early 20s, I used my leftover college fund to buy a house in Arlington in the late 90s (with roommates to help pay the mortgage). That turned out to be an incredible investment. I am now in my early 30s and financially set, since I chose to go to a cheaper school. I'm saving already for my son-- but hoping he will also choose a state school for college.

Posted by: Lucky girl | January 29, 2007 11:55 AM

Here's a different perspective: Don't you dare send your kids to a community college right now. Everyone is getting a college degree these days, and the only thing that makes job candidates stick out is the name on that diploma. I'm 25, and I'd go back and start all over, applying to only big-name schools if I could.

All these authors telling us to reduce our debt-load are smart people---who have obviously not looked for a job in the last few years. I have a B.S. and a J.D. (with good grades and activities) and I can't even get interviews because I didn't go to a "top" school. I was offered acceptance at those schools, and chose to take the "cheaper" route. The cheaper route costs a whole lot more in the long run, and a lot of heartache along the way.

Posted by: K | January 29, 2007 11:59 AM

The institutions and people who most often bemoan the cost and then recommend the benefits of lesser expensive brand name colleges are those, it seems, who have had the benefit of the big brand name education/diploma. The sad reality of the job market in MBAs, MDs, lawyers, accountants, architects, journalists, etc. is that employers buy in to the hegemony. For example, does Wash Post interview on campus for any position at, say Univ of Conn at Stamford? Until employers and grad schools put a stop to this, the upward spiral will continue.

Posted by: Christo in NYC | January 29, 2007 12:23 PM

K, that's very sad and not true in all lines of work (and trust me, I have 2 unique BS degrees in a male-dominated field, and I'm female)! Besides, have they said it's the schooling? Maybe it's something else on your resume or your personality?

I would love to tell you where I've worked, but then I'd be outed. Ha!

For me, getting an Associates degree in two years was an accomplishment because most people have the attitude that it can't be done in two years and Community Colleges are "13th grade", which for some people they are.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | January 29, 2007 12:26 PM

I went to a state school and got my BA. I only have 2 grand left in college debt at 100/month. I have been making min payments since interest is a write off. It really is not worth it from an experience standpoint, but you can not do without a piece of paper that says you have a degree- even if it is something you are not using! I used my piece of paper to go into the Air Force as an officer. 3 years later I am using what I learned while on active duty to earn more than I could have just on my BA! Military training and discipline are a big help- as is a clearance.
The education industry is really a rip-off. I'm hoping to use my GI Bill in the near future to start working on my Masters- so I should be covered there.

Posted by: Chris | January 29, 2007 12:30 PM

I went to an ivy league school and graduated with $13,000 in debt, which is less than the national average of $19,000. My point? Don't be put off by the sticker prices - what you actually pay is quiet different, especially if you are from a low-income family. And, while many community colleges are a good deal, there are reasons why some colleges have a higher sticker price than others, including smaller class size, research experiences freshman year and fewer TAs, more PhD teaching entry level classes.

Posted by: ex cap girl | January 29, 2007 12:59 PM

I say, yes, go to a community college, lower cost state school, or any place that has its costs *somewhat* under control. Maybe if enough of us did that, these schools that think its ok to continue to raise the cost of tuition even higher will lose their customers...

Posted by: jan | January 29, 2007 1:02 PM

The key to education-college is knowing what you want to get out of it as much as anything. If you desire to be a PH.D in chemistry, you do not need to go harvard for 8 years. You can do a modest-state undergrad and prepare to qualify for Harvard or any other grad program. Read the vitae-resume for many professors. Some of their undergrad programs are obscure places like Ft. Hays State College. If you know you want to be an accountant, look at a variety of schools and see what companies recruit there. Exxon does not just recruit at Princeton. Also look at schools that have premier grad programs, for their undergrad.

Posted by: RobGreg | January 29, 2007 1:11 PM

I had a full-tuition scholarship to my top-ranked state school, but chose to go to an Ivy. Now, having graduated with more debt than I think would make it "financially" worth it, I don't feel any regret. The intellectual and social experience was/is worth the cost. I would not be the same person had I gone to a different school.

Posted by: ivy 23 | January 29, 2007 1:13 PM

I went to a good state school that cost my parents under $5000 per year. I made friends, I had a positive experience, but everyone I know who went to an Ivy League school or even Georgetown had such a better experience with more active, attentive faculty who brought real-world experience into the classrooms that I know in my heart they got a better experience than I did. I remember kvetching about getting incorrect information and the runaround from the state school bureaucracy that cost me about $900 in a class I didn't need to take and the one Ivy Leaguer in the conversation said, "What's wrong with you, why didn't your advisor fix it for you?" and everyone around the table laughed. My first advisor quit after my freshman year. My second advisor was a hopeless idiot who was on the verge of tears most days because her boyfriend who dumped her looked like me. I didn't get anything done until I was a senior and was able to request the good advisor. People who went to Ivy League schools never have those stories.

Posted by: Bethesdan | January 29, 2007 1:25 PM

I just wanted to second what ex-cap girl said about about financial aid. I too went to an ivy league school and benefited from their need-based aid programs. In fact, the entire Ivy league has need blind admissions and meets 100% of demonstrated need. They even take into account secondary school tuition for siblings and parent's age when determining how much a family is expected to contribute. I do have some debt, but I am not overwhelmed by it, and the experience was definitely worth it.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 29, 2007 1:44 PM

I went to a state school. Academically, it's what you make of it, no matter where you go. The faculty at most decent schools dont come out of the woodwork to force you to learn, you have to take some initiative. I don't even know who my academic advisor actually was, because I would just ask a professor in my program who I had a good repoire with to advise me on selection. Never had a problem. I also never had a TA teach a class, not a single one. They taught recitations every now and again, but even the recitations were taught by the professors in most courses I took. Socially, I couldn't have asked for more. Had a great time, made good friends, learned a lot about life. The price tag wasn't that of an Ivy League, and I was from out of state, so make this my vote for a state school (even if its not within your own!)

Posted by: Anonymous | January 29, 2007 1:56 PM

Christo in NYC, I went to state school and know a whole bunch of people currently writing/editing for the WaPo. So you don't have to go to Harvard to work there - although I seem to recall a controversy surrounding WaPo and Harvard grads a few years back, so maybe there's been some conscious effort recently to change it.

As for Annys' post - as I said, I went to state school (my own state), and I still pay $200/mo. in loans! It's not necessarily the panacea you'd expect - and I had scholarships, plus my parents paid for part of my tuition. Ah, well. But for those who say you can't have the same experiences at state schools and Ivy Leagues - tell that to my friends who turned down Ivy League schools for the one we went to, and got an absolutely incredible education and are doing amazing things right now (including going to Ivy League grad schools). Sure, state schools and CCs aren't for everyone, but it's not true that you can't get the same quality education as a far more expensive school! (Plus, state schools don't usually - at least in my experience - inflate their grades, so honestly, I feel that my college GPA is worth more than the same GPA from a Harvard grad. Maybe that means nothing in the working world, but I think employers are wising up to the fact that your A at Harvard may not really be an A.)

Posted by: R | January 29, 2007 2:05 PM

When my parents arranged for school loans, they had no idea what they were getting themselves and me into. I went to a small, relatively priced, private liberal arts college. I am now paying $360/month for the next 12 years... and I hate it. I wish both myself and my parents had been better informed at the time with regards to college costs and loan information. This is a major financial burden on me now as an independent adult as I don't make much working for a non-profit. Parents... if your kids are the ones who will be paying back the loans after graduation, make sure you include them in every step of the loan process and make sure you carefully consider the financial burden taking out such a loan will place on them. I let my parents handle the entire thing without being involved in the process, and now both parties regret that.

Posted by: 215 | January 29, 2007 2:20 PM

Hey, now--some of us have actually BEEN to Ft. Hays State...(which is in Ft. Hays, Kansas for those who don't know)

Posted by: cb | January 29, 2007 2:24 PM

Just to respond to Bethesdan, I think that any school can suck or be awesome depending on the people you meet. I went to a Cal State for my last two years of college and had the most enriching and fulfilling experience I could have ever hoped for. I met a professor on my first day of class that would grow to be a mentor and trusted friend who would write a letter of recommendation that would ultimately get me into one of the top-ranked PhD programs in the country. My professors were always willing to go the extra mile, fight for what I needed and keep me on track. Sometimes it's the name of the institution and sometimes it's just luck. I haven't had any trouble finding a job or getting into graduate school with a community college and a state school on my CV, even though I'm just down the road from Stanford.

Posted by: Ex-Pat DCer in CA | January 29, 2007 2:25 PM

"A truly intellectual school"????

With syntax such as that, I can already tell you got a bad, bad deal.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 29, 2007 2:44 PM

Got a BS on a full tuition scholarship from Gallaudet, supplemented by work-study and some parental assistance for room/board. No loans to speak of, and I got an education in the heart of DC that opened doors to networking that I would not have received as a deaf person anywhere else.

I'm now attending grad school at George Mason, and my employer is picking up the tab for tuition provided I continue to work full time and depending on the budget, naturally. I'm hoping for a merit-based scholarship this year to lessen the cost to my employer. I would not be going to grad school if it weren't for this outside assistance. I'm grateful.

I also have no children, yet...but I have been saving for a while through the UPromise program. Seems a smart way to get some money for college socked away without having to impact my own income. The contributions come from companies, ike Coca Cola, GM, etc, based on the products you would probably be buying anyways in the grocery store or online.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | January 29, 2007 2:53 PM

"In fact, the entire Ivy league has need blind admissions and meets 100% of demonstrated need."

As an Ivy-League graduate, I can say this oft-repeated claim is a crock of ****.

The claim of "need-blind" admissions is that no student is turned down because of inability to pay. However, what you quickly find out is that lots and lots of students are admitted only because they come from wealthy families. So while no one may be rejected solely because they come from modest means, it is much harder for them to get admitted.

The second claim, that financial aid meets 100% of demonstrated need, is disingenuous as well. The colleges definition of financial aid includes loans, which are not aid, merely financing. If a used car dealer offered to finance a car for you, would you call that financial aid?

Posted by: paid my debt | January 29, 2007 3:34 PM

There are some European countries, Denmark for example, which pay students to go to university, believing that educated citizens benefit the country. US students make educational choices that are shaped as much by their class as by their ability. Doesn't anyone even question the idea of tuition? Am I the only one reading this blog who finds the choices false and the system unfair?

Posted by: Peter in Rome | January 29, 2007 3:51 PM

I take your point on financial aid, paid my debt. That said, college students are poor credit risks and they probably couldn't otherwise get the money to pay for college. That is why loans - especially subsidized loans - are a form of financial aid. [If you had to go into the market to get your own loan, I doubt that your interest rates would cap out at 6.8 percent.]

Anyway, the investment, in my opinion, is a good one, whereever you go. It's an appreciating asset, not something that will diminish in value, like a car, clothes etc.

Posted by: ex cap girl | January 29, 2007 4:05 PM

I agree with K. I know that much of the reason I got my current job is that my BA and MA are from prestigious, nationally-known universities, while my top competitor went to a less-known public university.

I'll still be paying $200/month for the next fifteen years to pay off my degrees, despite large and generous grant packages from both universities. But I'm sure that if I had gone to cheaper schools, the difference in my salary would be a lot more than $200/month.

Oh, but I agree with "paid my debt" that the thing about "100% need met" is b***s***. I was accepted at an Ivy that expected me to meet my financial aid need by having my ten-year-old sister contribute *her* college fund to *my* education, and also to do $2500/year in work study *plus* work a second off-campus job to contribute $7500/year more.

Posted by: B | January 29, 2007 4:11 PM

I went to a state school and skipped out on a great private school due to income. Now that I'm paying back my loans, I definitely think I made the wise decision. I'm not here to defend my choice but I did want to point out an article in the New Yorker called "Getting In" which points to the fact that smart, ambitious, and successful people aren't created by the Ivies or great schools, rather it is those type of people who are accepted at the ivies. Therefore, going to a lesser known school does not mean you will be less successful, it is the person's ability and drive which will determine how successful they'll be regardless of whether they went to UPenn or Penn state.

Posted by: state school graduate | January 29, 2007 4:15 PM

I went to a state school and skipped out on a great private school due to income. Now that I'm paying back my loans, I definitely think I made the wise decision. I'm not here to defend my choice but I did want to point out an article in the New Yorker called "Getting In" which points to the fact that smart, ambitious, and successful people aren't created by the Ivies or great schools, rather it is those type of people who are accepted at the ivies. Therefore, going to a lesser known school does not mean you will be less successful, it is the person's ability and drive which will determine how successful they'll be regardless of whether they went to UPenn or Penn state.

Posted by: state school graduate | January 29, 2007 4:17 PM

I went to a highly ranked engineering school in the Northeast which I graduated from last year. The tuition was about $32,000 when I started and over the 4 years I was there rose to approximately $41,000. However, with the financial aid I received from the school and the outside scholarships I earned, I never paid more than $4000/semester and graduated with only $7000 in student loans. This is much less than the debt I would have faced if I would have gone to the state school which gave me no financial aid. Overall, I feel I received a better education because of the small size of the school as well as the quality and attention of the professors and the concentration on hands on lab work. I am now attending a large mostly public university working on my PhD and I can see some of the disadvantages that undergraduate students face when they choose a large public institution over a small private university.

Posted by: K | January 29, 2007 4:28 PM

correction: $4000/year or $2000/semester

Posted by: K | January 29, 2007 4:30 PM

ex cap girl needs remedial spelling: "what you actually pay is quiet different". Let's hope the only degres she took from her precious Ivy was an MRS. Boola boola.

Posted by: Audentes | January 29, 2007 4:32 PM

From what I have read in Forbes and CNN's Money it is more important what you study, as opposed to where you study. As far as the finances go what is more important are grades and job performance. I got into my one Ivy; I ended up going to a local state school on a full scholarship with stipend. I never used my degree. I ended up with a six digit blue collar job. Now, after nineteen years, I plan on retiring with a six digit income. I have not had to work for a couple of years. My point is that you get out of life and your education what you put into it. If you really like what you do; and you need a degree from a high name recognition school to do it, go for it. Otherwise, get the best education you can for the least amount of money, get into the workforce, and prove your worth.

Posted by: fullrider bethesdanalso | January 29, 2007 4:33 PM

My son went to a junior college in Santa Barbara for 2 years then transferred to UC Santa Barbara for 3 years. Got an undergraduate degree from UC Santa Barbara for about 2/3rds the cost. Worked for me!

Posted by: Gene | January 29, 2007 4:35 PM

I married a woman with two boys, ages 10 and 8, in 1998. I set up Fidelity Investments 529 plans for each boy in 1999. The father, who has an MBA and a high-paying job, and who did nothing for 11 years, said "take my share of the college savings from my child support" (that he was paying my wife). So, my wife and I managed, without the father contributing a dime, to save over 20K for her older boy since 1999, and currently also have nearly $34K saved for the younger boy. I have no children. I don't mind helping, either. I wish the dad would help, but he's a schmuck. The boys should not suffer because their dad is a cheap schmuck.

But here's the issue driving me crazy: the older boy, whose dad said he "wasn't going to college anyway", applied to a small private college in North Carolina and was accepted and offered a "Merit Scholarship" of $10K - but the school costs $27K per year with room & board, books, etc, before applying this "Merit Scholarship". I wanted the boy to apply to George Mason or to NOVA and then transfer to GMU, and live at home. We had saved enough to cover about three years of tuition/fees at G/Mason. He did not want to do that, and my wife was just happy that he got accepted to a college (his H.S. grades were just fair, and his SAT was only a 1520/2400). So, he went to this small private school in North Carolina in August 2006. The 529 plan only had enough for one year of out-of-pocket costs not covered by the Merit Scholarship.- but my wife and I told him that we would cover his sophomre year, too. After that, he's on his own, we told the boy. He does not seem to care.

The younger boy - outstanding GPA thru his JR year in H.S. (3.91), French Honor Society, Nat'l JR Honor Society, two straight years of H.S. Academic Letters earned, three AP classes thus far taken. But, he says he wants to go to San Diego State, where his mom earned her BS in Math while a resident of California (we live in VA). The non-resident rate for tuition and room and board at SDSU is about $24K per year. I suggested that he apply to UVA, VA Tech, WM & Mary, JMU, GMU. I also told him that if he lives with us for his freshman year at GMU, and on-campus for his last three years, that we could afford all four years for him. In other words, if he went to GMU, he'd have NO STUDENT LOANS. He ignores that suggestion. Meanwhile, his brother at this very expensive small private school with no academic reputation (nice campus, though) got two D's, 2 B's and a C in his first semester on 15 credits earned at this expensive private school.
I am amazed at the turn of events, but neither boy will listen to my practical advice, and the biological father says "just use the money in the 529 plans" that he did not contribute to, offering no additional monetary help for these two boys.

HOW do parents get their kids to be a part of the college financing process? Are there any step-parents out there with similar issues like mine? Here's a case where two young men had nothing saved for college by their mother or father for 11 and 9 years, respectively. Then a step-father offers to help, enabling over $50K to be saved in about 8 years, and the money is being blown on foolish choices.

Since my parents were blue collar and not high on the income scale, I paid my own way thru college and graduate school, borrowing $15K in total (a large sum 22 years ago- and paid off years ago, too), earning some merit scholarships, and getting an employer to pay for about 1/3 of my grad school tuition. But, none of my history has had an impact on my step-sons, to where they recognize that maybe a good state school is the best, most economical choice for their college education. Both boys seem bent on blowing what has been saved on mediocre-to-average schools that are very expensive. And the father says things like "well, they probably won't go to college anyway."

Thanks for reading my rant here. I know that there really is no answer to my questions.

Posted by: Manassas stepfather | January 29, 2007 4:51 PM

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in states with fine public institutions can count ourselves lucky. My daughter graduated from the UVa School of Architecture last spring, moved to Boston and got a good job with a firm there within a month. The best part is- she has no college debt and neither do we. We were able to pay the instate costs without borrowing, but even if we had, as the article points out, the cost would have been much less than private schools which are no better and in many cases not as good.

Posted by: crc | January 29, 2007 4:58 PM

Check out the book "40 Colleges that Change Lives" these are mostly private liberal arts schools that graduate a higher percentage of students than expected based on incoming GPA and SAT. And whose students rate the intellectual experience very highly. They tend not to be the "top tier" institutions, where, as state school girl said, those institutions tend to accept people who are already likely to be successful and only lend their name.

I personally went to a private school for my BA that I love and was worth every penny paid, including the interest. Now the debt for my private school master's degree, I have different feelings about that.

Posted by: mbr | January 29, 2007 5:04 PM

I don't do many "I'm great because I did this" stories, but this is a topic I feel VERY strongly about. I went to an in-state school and my parents made more than $100,000. Therefore, I was not eligible for tuition assistance. My parents were more than 1/4 million in debt, so they lacked a choice to help me. I tried and cried and worked my rear end off but got myself through. There were times I worked as many as 5 jobs to support myself and books, living expenses, etc. There were nights that I went hungry. And there were some amazing people that stepped in just as I would hit bottom. It was physically and emotionally the single most difficult period in my life. But it made me strong, and got me to where I am. So I recommend to parents to not be afraid to ask their kids to work hard, and I recommend to all of you students and post-students to do your best and don't BE afraid to work hard! I believe from the bottom of my heart that my degree, and what it took to get it, was the best investment and most incredible thing I have ever accomplished. Now excuse me while I go cut my loan check....

Posted by: Blair | January 29, 2007 5:32 PM

audentes - Before you criticize what was obviously a typo, I would point out that it is "degrees" not "degres" and it should be "were" not "was". And, BTW, I'm an engineer, not an English major.

Posted by: ex cap girl | January 29, 2007 5:55 PM

I'm sort of in the same boat as Blair, except my parents were blue collar workers who struggled to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. My mother's advice when I was in school: "Learn to type, you'll always have a job." I really wanted to go into nursing, but they couldn't afford to pay tuition. I never took college entrance exams because college was like wishing for the moon -- I knew I'd never get it. I left home at 19 and haven't had a dime from my parents since then. I've supported myself behind a keyboard with no help from the. American University in DC had a prior experience program where working adults could use work experience as credit. That was my ticket to college. I went to night classes at AU for 6 years for an Associate degree. Working two jobs, 7 days a week to cover all living expenses and tuition. When you're a healthy, childless white woman you don't qualify for scholarships. I paid every dime myself. Now that I'm nearing retirement age, I plan to go back to Community College and enter the nursing program. Maybe this health care fad won't die out before I can get a nursing degree. You rich kids who have parents to pay for your ride through life don't know how easy you have it.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | January 29, 2007 5:58 PM


You've got a handful, no doubt. But perhaps you saw it coming? The choices that your stepsons made probably aren't the first "don't bother me with the consequences" choices that they've made, although the price tag this time is a lot higher. How did you handle previous episodes like this?

And then you need to think about yourself. I think you're a truly decent person for being willing to support two boys when their biological father punts. But part of being a parent to any child is to teach them about consequences. Maybe you could have told the boys that your financial support was contingent on their maintaining a 3.0 GPA in high school and a 3.0 in college. Maybe you could have set it up as a match: you'll put in $2 for every $1 they put in. Whatever "real world" conditions you attach, you need to stick with them. This also gets you past any questions of GMU vs. SD State vs. whatever. In fact, it gets you out of the "advice" game altogether. Just lay out the facts: you (not they, not their useless father) saved some money that you're willing to spend on their college tuition provided certain conditions are met. If they meet the condition, you spend the money. If they don't, you don't. The rest is up to them.

Good luck to you. You deserve it.

PS - I think your wife ought to consult her divorce attorney and see why college tuition wasn't part of the divorce settlement.

Posted by: Father of 5 | January 29, 2007 6:03 PM

ex cap girl said: "while many community colleges are a good deal, there are reasons why some colleges have a higher sticker price than others, including smaller class size, research experiences freshman year and fewer TAs, more PhD teaching entry level classes."

Well I'd have to disagree with this. I actually had a better, more personal education at my community college then when I transferred to the State College. I had PhD's teaching at the community college, but had master's students teaching some of the State classes. I paid more for a lot less. All in all, I learned a heck of a lot more at the community college.

Posted by: Speranza | January 29, 2007 6:25 PM

Your spouse's son #2 should look at rankings for UVA -- it is a VERY highly regarded school! I hear about OOS kids who would give various body parts to get in there, even at out-of-state rates.

Posted by: To Manassas Stepdad | January 29, 2007 6:35 PM

to "father of 5":
sound advice. And thanks for the words of support. I tried a $1 for $1 match with my two stepsons while they were in middle school, to minimal success. They would say things like "if I save $10, you add $10, but that's still only $20 saved." I could not get them to understand that they were enjoying a 100% return on their money invested. Even now, with one in H.S. and one in college, neither boy saved very much of their summer job earnings - even with their stepfather's offer of a 1-to-1 match on the first $50, and a 50% match on the next $50 saved.

As for my wife's lousy attorney - yeah, I have brought that up a few times...however, she simply could not afford a really good one, and so she retained a woman attorney that was "just starting a family law practice" that basically boiler-plated the divorce agreement with the ex-husband's better (law firm partner) attorney. She DID get the house, including refinancing the mortgage in her name and getting the ex's name off the title, at least. And she did get child support (which her ex would reduce every once in a while, for things like taking the boys to Mcdonald's or to some "fun" place on HIS weekend - until i wrote to him and said that she would sue for recovery of these illegally deducted "set-offs" if he did not stop doing the illegal set-offs; he stopped doing them. He also started missing many of his weekends with his sons, saying that he was "entitled to see" his sons, but not "required" to see them every other weekend. In the last five years, he took the boys for a weekend visit about 25 times, or about six weekends per year. As I have said, he really is a schmuck.)

This part of my reply is addressed to "reply to Manassas Stepdad":
As for my younger stepson, the one with the great academic credentials: he absolutely refuses to consider any Virginia state school. He is like a broken record: "I want to live in San Diego, and go to SDSU". Which will add $40-45K to his undergraduate schooling costs, when compared to attending UVA, WM & Mary, or one of the other fine state schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Now, mind you, he is not going to live in San Diego to establish residency before attending SDSU, which would mean deferring college for at least one year upon H.S. graduation and working a full-time job in California and paying rent, etc. The cost of living in the San Diego area rivals the cost of living in Northern Virginia, so taking the "establish residency in the state of intended college before attending intended college" approach is not feasible. The boy's best bet is to apply to several of VA's fine schools, and get a good education with no need for taking out student loans - because his mother and stepfather can afford the freight, in-state. But, instead, my stepson goes fwd with blinders on, ignoring the practical and oblivious to the benefits of attending a college in his particular state of residency.

Posted by: Manassas stepfather | January 30, 2007 2:10 PM

I also went to a state school. The difference is, I went to a state school that was considered a very good institution for the major I intended to study. I was accepted at several very good universities, but once I considered the cost, my scholarships, and the type of education I could get in state in my chosen major, I felt I would have been a fool not to take the in-state discount.

Most of my friends thought I was crazy for staying in state, saying that I could do much better. Once I got out of school, the perception was much different, and employers were VERY impressed with the fact that I had gotten my major from that particular state school.

Sometimes, universities become just like the designer labels to high school students. It's less about the education than it is about the name.

Posted by: osxgirl | January 30, 2007 5:17 PM

Ha - $210 is great. My med school loan payments are going to be over $1000/month for the next 30 years. Everybody assures me that as a physician I will be able to pay it off, but first I have to survive 5 years of residency making less than min. wage before I'll be able to START paying them back (with even more interest). Anybody have a nice warm cardboard box I can live in until then?

Posted by: Broke | January 30, 2007 6:45 PM

College is overrated. There are no adequate criteria to measure it's quality or effectivness. This subjective nature lends itself to all manner of over promotion, false promise and reputational hype. Add in the lack of financial oversite and difficulty in comparing real costs and you have the perfect business enterprise. A college degree, other than scientific specialties, is merely a ticket to get your foot in the door.
Every hiring manager (myself included) willingly reduces the pile of applicant resumes by immediately excluding those without a college degree. I'm a busy man and cutting my workload in half by a single stroke is good time management. Your school means nothing to me compared to your work experience. You need to use every trick in the book to get your first job then the rest will come with your abilities. Can you communicate with people? Can you work as part of a team? Can you lead a group of people to achieve a common goal? Can you stand up in front of a group of people and give a consise, coherent description of what you are doing and why? These are the skills of success. College is just the beginning so don't mortgage the farm. The real learning begins after you graduate. Best of luck!

Posted by: Mike_SF | January 31, 2007 2:08 AM

Oh yes, let me echo what Mike_SF said!

I also did a co-op while I was in school. This was a tough decision for me, since I had two scholarships which were both 4-year only scholarships, meaning that I received the money for 4 years after I graduated high school, as long as I was in school and receiving a certain level of grades. I couldn't defer the money to later semesters, and couldn't receive money for semesters I was not in school (i.e., working my co-op). Because of this, I took some of my free electives at a community college while I was working my co-op so I could continue getting my scholarship money, arranged my co-op sessions to do them mostly during summers as much as possible, and took heavily loaded schedules so that I still graduated in four years (with a double major!)

We had a job fair on campus my senior year, and a friend of mine and I took our resumes around together. He had not done a co-op. My majors were computer science and math; his was computer engineering, which was much more in demand at that time. In addition, he had a better GPA. After we got done at the job fair, he was very frustrated. The recruiters ALL wanted my resume and spent a lot of time talking to me. He had trouble getting most of them to even take his resume.

The biggest difference was real work experience. In my co-op job, I had been working a real project, exactly what I would have been working once I had graduated. I was working with a team of people that had been out of college for several years, doing the same things they were doing. Even though my co-op experience was shorter than what a lot of engineers get, I still ended up with a full year of work experience coming out of college.

That was worth more than the university name by far.

Posted by: osxgirl | January 31, 2007 10:09 AM

To Manassas Stepdad--

I don't mean to sound like a jerk, but you're not required to pay for your kids' educations. I'm not sure how you set up those 529's, but it's possible that you could use them to pay for grandkids, nephew/nieces, or even yourself. (But this should be verified first!)

My point is, you are the parent, step or not--you make the financial decisions. If the 529 is still under your control, you can tell your sons "In-state or the highway." It's not the compassionate thing to do, but they seem a little too used to getting their own way...

Children are not entitled to a college education from their parents wherever the heck they want. I do believe parents are obligated to help their children with education IF IT IS POSSIBLE--and if it is reasonable. In my mind (and, it sounds like, in yours) out-of-state is *not* reasonable in your situation.

I know it's too late for all of this, but I just wanted to throw that out there.

Posted by: BonnySwan | February 1, 2007 11:25 AM

To Manassas Stepdad, if he's still around:

Is there perhaps a compromise position here? Why does younger stepson want to move to San Diego? Is he following a friend, a girl, a sport or team, a hobby, the weather, the lifestyle, a particular major SDSU is known for? If you can get a handle on this, perhaps you can work with him to find a school that's closer and/or less expensive (but not in VA since that seems to be a deal-breaker). Remind him that he has to factor into his expenses the cost of airline tickets for holidays, whereas if he's on the East Coast somewhere, tix are less or he could find ground transportation.

And if he's following a girl, smack him upside the head with a two-by-four, and talk to the girl's parents to do the same thing to her. It's a very rare high school couple that survives freshman year of college, even if they're at the same school.

If none of this works, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you did your best. Help him to the extent of your abilities, but don't overextend yourself: when he gets out with mountains of debt, he'll just have to pay it back like the rest of us suckers who took the more expensive route.

Posted by: BxNY | February 1, 2007 3:41 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company