I thought I understood the equation.
Work Hard = Go To Dream School
I thought I had done everything right, but when it came down to it, my parents told me I couldn’t go to my dream university.
We Couldn’t Afford It
I grew up in a middle class, one-income family. My parents had stashed away some money for college, but they hadn’t anticipated the way tuitions would skyrocket. My mom made just enough to disqualify us from need-based aid, but between paying the mortgage, saving for retirement, and supporting a family of four, her salary didn’t stretch much further.
As Melody Warnick writes in her article about saying no to her teenager’s college dreams, “Our privilege was such that we slipped into a financial aid gap, where our daughter won’t qualify for grants, but we can’t pay cash up front.”
Fine, so we couldn’t afford it. I would just have to work hard, and the money would follow.
I started working at age 11 by picking up jobs babysitting along the block. I interviewed for my first coaching job at the local public golf course at age 14. I saved money throughout high school, and figured the main blocker to going to my dream college was actually getting in. At this rate, I could work during school and pay my way, right?
Working Hard in High School
I took the Advanced Placement classes (7), nailed the GPA (4.5), and captained the golf team (varsity). I joined the clubs, volunteered my weekends away, and did the work.
I made it my mission to make my ‘dream college’ happen and did everything in my power to do what I needed to do: academically, fiscally, and extracurricularly.
Here’s a sneak peak of my schedule the fall semester of my Junior year:
1st Period: AP Language and Composition
2nd Period: AP Calculus BC
3rd Period: Physics Honors
4th Period: Spanish 4 Honors
6th Period: Newspaper
7th Period: AP US history
8th Period: Civics Honors
In my senior year, I took 4 more AP classes: AP Physics, AP English Literature, AP Psychology, and AP Computer Science.
At the same time, I started applying for my dream schools. I wanted to cast the net wide to be sure I would be able to go to an out-of-state school. I had a couple of goals:
- Go to a small school where the professors would know you by name. (I went to public schools growing up, which meant large class sizes and overcrowded office hours.)
- Pick a highly rated institution.
- Go as far away from my hometown as possible (I tried to go to a school in Sweden but alas educational requirements didn’t translate well across borders.)
College Acceptances and Financial Aid
In between studying for AP Exams, the SAT, and the ACT, I wrote essays upon essays for the 11 schools I eventually applied to, each with their own prompts and scholarship applications.
It started to pay off.
College admissions started rolling in. I made it into most of the major schools I wanted to go to. All we had to next was wait for the financial aid packages. The first arrived in a large envelope. One university generously offered me $15,000 per year in scholarships. However, out-of-state tuition for that school cost $55,000 per year.
My spirits rose when the package from the University of Santa Barbara arrived. I had fallen in love with the campus and felt grateful to have gotten in considering the low acceptance rate of out-of-state students. I slowly opened the envelope and pulled out the aid package: $800. Out of state tuition: $51,000.
I felt my shoulders slump.
It Was Just Too Expensive
I knew the privilege I had of even being able to consider college at all. I also knew there were other options, like going to a trade school or a community college for a couple of years, then transferring to a larger institution. Yet I had poured my little 17-year-old heart and soul into attending my ‘dream school.’
Work Hard = Go To Dream School
The equation had failed me. There were new variables I didn’t account for, like the fact that college tuition costs had surged by 538% from 1985 to 2013.
I knew college was expensive, but I couldn’t quite visualize just how expensive. At 17, I remember thinking of money in vague terms. I knew my parents had saved some amount, but I didn’t know how much. I didn’t know how much my parents made, or even how much I could expect to make out of school. I knew debt was bad, the way a 17-year-old knows that eating Cup o’ Noodles every day for lunch is bad (but it’s the most convenient meal in the cafeteria!). I just figured that debt was just part of the price you had to pay to go to college.
When I graduated high school in 2011, two thirds of students earning bachelor’s degrees had student debt, with an average debt of $26,500. It seemed inevitable that I would be in debt, so why not make it worthwhile and go to my dream school?I cared more about going to my ‘dream’ school than I cared about not going into debt.Click To Tweet
My Parents Said No
Therefore I was shocked when my parents adamantly said no. They said they would not let me go into that much debt. We rarely fought, even when I was a teenager, but I remember that this was a big point of contention. I argued that it was my choice, and my tuition to pay.
My parents were as bewildered as I was. They knew how hard I worked and how much effort I had put in to applying for these universities and related scholarships. They wanted to be able to say yes and support me on the first step of fledgling adulthood. But they also understood much better than I did the severity of debt I would be putting myself in.
According to educational services company Cengage, upcoming graduates believe it will take six years to pay off their student loans. However, the Department of Education reports that the typical repayment period for borrowers with between $20,000 and $40,000 in federal student loans is 20 years.
I hadn’t even been alive for 20 years!
Worse still, these schools all had a $50k price tag PER YEAR for FOUR YEARS. We’re talking $200,000 of debt. Even if I kept applying for scholarships (which I did) and took on a part-time job (which I also did), I would carry that debt load far into my future.
In-state college wasn’t cheap, but my parents’ savings ended up being enough to cover all four years, which I consider an extreme privilege. Not only that, but I majored in mechanical engineering, which wasn’t even an option at most of the small liberal arts schools I applied to. This meant that instead of paying off debt for the next decade, I have been able to pursue financial independence instead.
My Advice To Current High School Students
If there are students out there agonizing over big college decisions, well, I know how it feels. I had been told by teachers, counselors, and our society-at-large that college would change my life forever. (With the exception of my AP Physics teacher who told his class that we should stop stressing about our grades because where we went to college doesn’t really matter. I decided not to use him as a reference.)
With tuitions reaching impossible heights, more people are questioning if college really is the be-all-end-all for the future of a young adult. If you are a high school hopeful, let me just tell you that it’s okay to let go of the notion of a ‘dream school’.
One thing I wish I had done was take a look at concrete numbers to understand my choices better. I struggled to understand what so much debt would mean practically.
Let’s Do The Math
Some starting numbers for the U.S.:
- The average student loan interest rate is 5.8%
- The average tax rate is 23.8%
- The average annual spending for people under 25 is $32,039
You can use these numbers to pencil out some of your options. It’s important to recognize how much the interest will amount to. For example, a graduate with $30,000 of loans and an interest rate of 5.8% would pay about $9,600 in interest over 10 years of repayment. As you can see, borrowers are often on the hook for much more than their original loan amount because of interest accrual.
Then compare against your expected starting salary. Subtract a chunk for taxes based on the state you will live in, and estimate how much you will spend per year. How much will you have left over to pay off your loans?
Comparing Two Majors
Let’s do the math for two different majors– a computer science major and a social sciences major. This isn’t a judgement of the majors themselves, but hopefully a helpful exercise for determining the return on investment of degrees based on typical averages.
Computer Science Grad – Expected Salary: $71,411
A computer science grad making $71,411 might expect to take home $54,000. Let’s say we use the average expenditure of someone less than 25-years-old at $32,000. If they took out $30,000 for school, they can put $1,833 towards their loans per month and pay it off within 2 years. If they took out $30,000 for 4 years for a total of $120,000 in debt, it would take them 7 years to pay off.
Social Science Grad – Expected Salary: $46,797
A social science grad making $46,797 might expect to take home $35,600. If they also spend $32,000 a year out of school, they will have $300 a month to put towards their loans. After taking out $30,000 for school, it would take them 12 years to pay off (and they would pay an interest of $11,710!). If they took out $120,000, it breaks the student loan calculator at Bankrate because it exceeds 40 years. That means they would still be paying off their loans well into their 60s.
The numbers make it clear that a high school hopeful has a lot to juggle in terms of their career choice as well as how much they should shell out for college. The math isn’t perfect because there are several variables that can vary, like tax rates and loan rates. Additionally, expenses and income will likely rise over time. However, using averages is a useful starting point to figure out how loans will affect you years down the line.
I Am Grateful My Parents Said No.
In high school, college seemed like the pinnacle of everything I had worked for, the pivotal place that would define the rest of my life (cut me some slack, teenagers are known for their dramatic flair). But now that the years have passed I am so grateful that my parents told me “No.”
According to a McKinsey survey, half of graduates surveyed said that they would choose a different major or college if they could do their education over. I would have been in this group if I had pursued a liberal arts degree at a private institution like I planned. While this may work out for others, choosing that path would have left me with significant loans to pay off for the next decade.
My biggest heartbreak in high school wasn’t because of a breakup, but because I had to let go of a dream. I had to dump my pre-conceived notions about what I should expect out of going to university. And just like with breakups, I eventually got over it, realizing that perhaps I had been a tad melodramatic at the time. Ultimately I’m glad my parents crushed my college dreams.
What About You?
Did you go to college? What was your major?
What would you do if your kid wanted to go to an expensive university?
Did where you go to college change the rest of your life?
Share in the comments below!