I’m Glad My Parents Crushed My College Dreams

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.

Unfortunately, neither my posture nor my organizational skills have improved much.

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.

I played the State Golf Championship, placed #1 in the Varsity City Cup, and captained the varsity team for two years.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Pick a highly rated institution.
  3. 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.

My draft folder for college essays

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!

My parents understood the weight of student loan debt better than these folks.

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’.

Woman sitting in empty lecture hall
I didn’t go to a private school with small class sizes. That’s ok.

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.:

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.

Source: Summer 2019 Salary Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers.

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!

 

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26 Comments

  1. Oooooohhhhh I loved this post. I didn’t actually fight with my parents about going to a dream school. I knew how the fight was going to end before I even started. Like you, I had crushed high school and could have gotten in at a lot of great schools. But when it came time to apply, I only applied to my state school. My parents were frequently critical of their peers who financed their kids’ college dreams at small, specialized colleges where credits didn’t transfer.

    I loved my time at my University. I was able to graduate without debt and land a high salary (with great, Gov benefits) with an engineering degree. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  2. I’m so glad you gave up that dream because it wasn’t real. I also got an engineering degree, chemical in my case, also that was affordable for my parents. No debt, my pick of jobs and a very enjoyable career that made me many millions in compensation. In your comparison of a social vs tech degree reality is even worse because with the former degree many grads languish as baristas for years before even landing a job in their field but engineers are rarely unemployed for long. Great post, it kind of shows how major life decisions are so often required of young people before they’ve had the kind of like experience needed to make them. Tough love parents can fill that gap even if it is painful at the time. You are such a role model for young people, and especially young women, good for you!

  3. I think maybe better advice is to have your dream school be either an in-state public or heavily endowed. I went to a top SLAC for less than it would have cost me to go to my state flagship because they gave much better financial aid.

    Also, it’s not a great idea for the kid to have money saved in their own name– that gets counted 100% against financial aid.

  4. What you wrote about makes perfect sense. Your parents were smart to not let you take on so much debt, and a liberal arts education isn’t for everyone. I do have to point out, though, as a proud liberal arts graduate, that there’s more to it than just making money right out of school. So your computer science vs social science argument has some other pieces. This article on a recent study has some more details. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/liberal-arts-education-waste-of-money-or-practical-investment-studys-conclusions-might-surprise-you/2020/01/13/5a197b14-3649-11ea-bb7b-265f4554af6d_story.html

    1. Yes, as I mentioned, I wasn’t trying to pick on liberal arts as a degree itself. There is definitely value in those degrees. The example was how you might crunch the numbers, not which degree is better. If you can afford to get a degree and your chosen field has projected salaries that can help pay off that degree and you don’t mind taking it on– then go for that degree!

  5. Student debt is such a serious issue, and I love your perspective on this. Tuition in Canada is highly subsidized. My daughter’s tuition is about $7,500 (roughly US$6,000). My 17yo son is applying for mechanical engineering, and his tuition will be about $9,000. It can still be hard for Canadian students, though, with the cost of residence, food, books, and other program fees.

  6. My thoughts on this are…complicated.

    I went to an expensive top ten private college for electrical engineering. My parents paid for everything.
    On the one hand, I absolutely loved my experience. Though if I had to pay for it, I would’ve gone somewhere else.
    On the other hand, I’m an only child and my parents had the means and the desire to pay for wherever I wanted to go.

    If we’re strictly looking at the financial aspect, was it a wise decision? No. But I wouldn’t be the same person I am today (for good and bad) if I had made a different choice.

    If I had a kid that wanted to go to an expensive school….I’ll let future Seonwoo deal with such problems!

    1. Congrats on your upcoming graduation! We do miss you on Twitter, and I do check out @SaysSeonwoo when they tweet.

      There are definitely more than just finances to consider– but if you didn’t have to go into debt to go to a top ten private college then that is amazing! If I had a kid that wanted to go to an expensive school, I would weigh how much we could afford but also check out other ways to spend the money. Would they go to an in-state school and open a Donor Advised Fund with the difference? It depends on the difference of quality of education for sure, but it is interesting to consider how else the difference of hundreds of thousands could be put to use in the world.

  7. You mentioned privilege more than once so I looked up the definition: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”
    It is a pity that to attend school without graduating with a mountain of debt is a privilege,a special advantage and not a something granted to most people,
    Like the cartoon, kids today start out, not with nothing, but with less than nothing.

    I have many friends who have admitted that they have allowed their kids to attend expensive out of state schools for no good reason other than the teen wanted to move somewhere cool and different. Colorado kids going to school in California while California kds all flock to Colorado. Educational institutions profit widely from this, of course. It is little wonder that when my, now grown, children were looking at colleges and I attended information nights, they touted that scholarships are out there for the taking and that millions of dollars go unclaimed. Schools said that the cost was based on financial need and it would be made affordable to everyone. Well, like you pointed out, even with the utmost of hard work, a college education (remains expensive and out of reach for most people without acquiring a mountain of student debt.
    Good for you on sacrificing your dreams to graduate without debt. It is too bad this is a privilege few can afford.

  8. There is so much guilt for parents around this issue. Our alma mater charges $1,000/week for attendance, and there’s no way we’re going to pay for that for our daughter (we had fellowships!). Other parents do pay full freight, under the guise of “who wouldn’t want THE BEST for their kids”, but that’s not for us.

    1. Absolutely, and sometimes wanting the best for your kids means not saddling them with debt or shelling out more than is reasonable for your household to afford. $1,000 a week!!! Mindblowing.

  9. This post was so relatable for me! I was an undecided liberal arts major for as long as possible. I handled all my college applications and financial aid myself (my mom can’t read), so it was up to me to decide what I was majoring in, and where I would go to school. I did the math on the financial aid I got, and I couldn’t stomach going into debt for $40k+, so I let go of the idea of a private school. So yeah, I guess I crushed my own dreams.

    At the end of the day, I think success depends on the kid, not the school. And what the kid does with their time once they’re at school. I honestly don’t think it really mattered where I went. I would have made the best of it no matter what.

    1. No wonder you’re so financially savvy, you had to take a look at the hard numbers and make the hard choice by yourself. I’m impressed.

      I agree with you that what really matters is not where you go but what you do to make the best of it. I know I lived that going to public schools growing up while some friends who went to expensive private schools didn’t necessarily end up in a better place.

  10. One of my friends once asked me if I held any type of resentment towards my parents for not helping me pay for any of my college. To that I said heck no! I am who and where I am because I paid my own college tuition.

    My parents set aside money for me and my siblings, but the 2008 crash and a divorce wiped out everything they had planned. They made it very clear college would need to be paid for by ourselves after this happened. Like you, I worked very hard in high school, had multiple jobs, and applied for all the scholarships I could find. Even so, I did not qualify for financial aid and made the decision to stay in state for college instead of accruing thousands of dollars in debt.

    In my mind, paying my own way through college motivated me to make the most out of my experience (and yes, this also applies to eating enormous amounts of food in the dining halls due to the overpriced living expenses to get my money’s worth). Paying for my own school made me value the opportunities that came with it. Like theluxestratgist said, success depends on the kid, not the school, and I think paying my own way through school made me more inclined to to do more with my time in college.

    That being said, now I’m faced with the question of how to handle my own child’s tuition when the time comes. I want them to value the opportunity and understand the privilege getting an education is (aka paying for part of it themselves) but also set them up for success in their early years by not having any debt after college – luckily that problem is many years away!

  11. I’m very grateful for my parents’ help. Originally, I was going to go to a community college first, then transfer to a 4 years university later. College was expensive for us even back in 1990. My parents didn’t make a lot of money and didn’t have much savings. However, I got in to UCSB and my parents encouraged me to go. I worked part time and they helped pay the tuition with their income. It was tight for a few years, but we got through it. It’d be much more difficult to get through the same situation without loans now because tuition is so much higher.

  12. I’ve a very similar story to yours but I did it ~20 years before you.

    I also excelled in high school, lots of AP and high GPA & SAT
    I also had the same 3 priorities – smaller school, highly rated, far from home
    I also applied to several schools – I applied to 7
    I also had parents who were single income middle class
    I also had no idea how much money my parents had or made
    I also couldn’t afford most of the schools I applied to. Most of them gave me a scholarship that covered 10-50% of the cost with a 5 figure net cost out of pocket
    I also ended up in the huge local state university that I really treated as my last resort option
    I also majored in engineering.

    I don’t regret it at all. I’m glad I ended up at the local public university. Saved me tons of money and I got a great education.
    My parents didn’t have to tell me ‘no’ though since I knew I couldn’t afford 10’s of thousands out of pocket and at that point loans weren’t even offered that I recall.

    I’ve one question : Did someone explicitly offer you loans to cover the net costs ?

    1. Those are a lot of similarities! I’m glad you don’t regret it either. No one offered loans explicitly, but it was something I would have looked into more if I had ended up going that route.

  13. When people ask me that question, I say that I went to Berkeley-Stanford-Oxford. Perfectly true, but it was in the 60s and they gave me scholarships all the way (and I always had a job on campus to supplement), plus there was then a gov’t program where they’d reduce the student loan (which I did need) one-tenth per year for ten years if you were teaching, so I was free and clear by the end of the 70’s.

    But “Berkeley-Stanford-Oxford” doesn’t tell the whole story, and from now on I’ll tell it more fully. It was
    COMMUNITY COLLEGE-Berkeley-Stanford-Oxford! And as it turned out, I loved my CC time. And I was very very lucky to be noticed by the right scholarship people at every stage, because I was dumber about dollars than you ever were, financial girl.

    1. Hi Marijane, that is quite the impressive list! And I think noting the difference in era is helpful as well. Lots of people say, “I worked through college! Why are these newer generations so lazy and in debt?” but you rightly point out that some things were different back then. It’s very interesting to hear that CC was part of your journey in your studies. P.S. I thought your comment was so interesting that I looked you up and now I think it’s even more interesting! I have a soft spot for literature professors as they had such an enormous impact on me throughout my life. Thanks for the work you do!

  14. A very relevant post as my wife and I have two teenagers and we are trying to figure out how to guide them in their college making decisions.

    A little history….my wife and I went to one of the best private universities in the midwest. Both of us were fortunate to finish undergrad engineering school with zero debt as we were both on scholarship, hers was academic for a portion of tuition with the rest covered by her parents and mine funded by the wonderful taxpayers of the US (I was in Air Force ROTC). After college, we got married while I served my commitment, then moved back to the midwest. We both have had solid careers in engineering and management and we are fortunate enough to be able to fund college for our children wherever they could get accepted while maintaining our financial independence.

    We are currently offering them a few choices for them to make regarding their college decision. First, we have committed to giving 50 cents on the dollar for any scholarships they receive upon graduation. Second, we are offering to give them any remaining dollars in their 529s once they graduate to use for whatever they want, but will be guiding them to invest it instead of spend it.

    We are conflicted on the second option as both my wife and I have very, very fond memories of our (very expensive) private college and we wonder if we are focused too much on guiding our children’s financial future at the expense (bad pun) of a rewarding college experience.

    1. You and your wife sound like you are navigating it well! Matching scholarship dollars as well as offering the remaining balance in their 529s seems like a really great way to help steer them. Personally, I think if that type of offer was on the table in high school, I might have done things a bit differently. I dallied about going into engineering, but I likely could have gotten more scholarships if I had applied for engineering right away, and if I had more incentive I might have gone a different direction. Also, my parents did end up giving me what was left in the 529– but I didn’t know that was going to happen and it wasn’t until after I graduated. I wonder if my spending decisions would have been different if I had known (likely not too different as I was already a rather frugal student). I’m interested in hearing how it goes with your two teenagers!

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