Financial planning and college acceptance

If you have a senior in high school, this is an anxious time. College acceptances and rejections are rolling in, and it’s tough. It’s an emotional drain and the decision can have a huge impact on your finances well into retirement. So, some points to ponder:

Accept a college you can afford. Unless you have significant savings, current high income, or significant financial aid, a state school is going to be most people’s best financial option. The cost of attendance at private schools has become breathtaking—four years at Northwestern is going to cost around $300,000. Four years at the University of Illinois is probably going to be less than $200,000. Consider carefully whether an undergrad degree is really worth that extra $100K.

Think about graduate school when you think about college. The $100K difference between the above two schools can pay for a professional program at some grad schools, and make a pretty good dent in even an MBA or legal program. People rack up the big bills for graduate programs, so you probably don’t want the student to take out huge loans as an undergrad. Also, for many jobs the most important degree is the last degree, so getting into a big name graduate school may be better money invested.

Make a commitment to a finished degree in four years. You’re throwing money away if you don’t get that degree. Finishing with diploma in hand from a less-than-ivy-league school counts a lot more than a year or two at Brown or Yale. A lot of people can get an admission, but fizzle. A degree measures something of real importance—that you can finish what you start. Maybe it’s heresy, but I also don’t believe you have to keep switching to find the “perfect” major—just do it. You have the rest of your life to refine it, take more classes, and study. Switch majors only if it doesn’t add more time to getting your degree.

Make the best of it. If you can’t be at the school you love, love the one you’re with. No matter where you go, you can find a niche. And no matter where you go, your dorm will have some really obnoxious residents, the food will suck, some of the extra-curriculars will be great and some not so much, and there will be campus traditions you’ll either love or think are stupid. People will have really annoying politics.

I highly recommend parents get behind whatever school—buy the mug, the tshirt and the bumper sticker and follow the news about the campus. Your student needs your support, even if they scoff at it, and even if the school wasn’t what you might have hoped for. Once on campus, most students forget all about wherever else they theoretically could have gone—just get over it.

As a corollary—don’t listen too much to your student’s complaints. With what we were spending for college, Spartan mother that I am I handed my kid her shield and told her, with it or on it!  Finish in 4 years or don’t come home. Sure, there were plenty of problems at school, but nowhere near as many as she would have had by dropping out with $100K spent and no degree. It’s a great step toward adulthood to find out that everything isn’t perfect, everyone doesn’t think you’re a genius, and you’ll actually be judged on your work.

Is there a difference? Yeah, there’s a difference between a mediocre state college and one at the tippy top of the college ratings (I’ve graduated from both). The quality of your peers, and the education they come with, will likely be better on average (but not for everyone). A top college will have higher expectations for student success (and probably a much heavier workload). And most top schools have a higher completion rate, although the breakdown rate can be pretty significant.

But I’ll still maintain that it depends as much on who you are as where you go. I’ve seen clients with liberal arts majors from indifferent universities earning $200K 5 years out, and ivy grads as unpaid interns in video production.  A top school can be shorthand for smart, but so can writing a book, founding a company, or inventing a product or service. And, as an aside, for at least the past 44 years, no one has ever asked me what my grades were—so beyond getting into grad school, I don’t think that matters at all, except insofar as it helps measure what you actually got in the way of education for your money.

I also think it’s fine to major in whatever you want as an undergrad, but only if you have a plan as to how you’re going to be employed or get into a grad school. I don’t think a major or a college program should be exclusively a trade school training, but you should also come out with a marketable skill or two. Take a business, or computer, or health minor, or get a campus job managing something or doing web design–whatever makes sense, but with a strong eye to how you’ll use it to pitch an employer.

It’s a tough time, and for most students the reality is some rejection. But as a parent, don’t let too much emotion cloud the selection. Balance dreams against financial reality, and try to make reasonable choices.


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