Michelle Singletary: Planning for college? Start talking to your rising seniors.

Michelle Singletary
Columnist June 5, 2012

By now, many high school seniors have marched to “Pomp and Circumstance.” They’ve graduated and are now on their way to another stage in their lives — for many of them, college.

But let’s not forget a group of students who over the next year will make a decision that could strangle them with debt for decades. They are this past year’s high school juniors.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Now is the time to have a talk with them about the costs of college. There are more than enough warning signs about why it’s important to make prudent decisions about higher education. Just consider the tepid job market that today’s college graduates must face.

Researchers at Rutgers University looked at a nationally representative sample of 444 college graduates from the classes of 2006 through 2011 and found that the median annual salary earned by these graduates in their first jobs was $28,000.

Twenty-four percent of the graduates surveyed said that just to find employment, they had to accept jobs earning a lot less than they had expected. More than a quarter had to work below their education level and another 23 percent had to accept a job outside their chosen professional field.

Just over half were employed full time. Four in 10 graduates said they are currently working a job that doesn’t require a four-year college degree.

Then there is the debt. More than half of the sample reported that they owed money to pay off their college educations, with the median amount owed at $20,000 — you probably know many graduates who owe much more. Most of the students said they have made very little progress in paying down their student loans. Only 13 percent have paid off all of their debt. Four in 10 who graduated in 2009, 2010 or and 2011 said they have yet to pay off any of their debt.

I’m in the middle of this college challenge. My daughter is moving on to her senior year in high school and, believe me, we’ve had many talks about her college choices. As a result she’s not locked into any school. She’s not full of anxiety that if she doesn’t get into a certain college, she will “just die,” a sentiment many students express to their parents because they’re stuck on one choice, usually an expensive name-brand one. (As you know, teenagers have the tendency to be overly dramatic about such things.)

Before our daughter starts applying, my husband and I have been emphasizing what’s in our financial range, and we’ve set some ground rules. Here they are:

●You can apply to any college you like. Those familiar with my frugality may be surprised at this remark. However, we want our daughter to explore all her options.

●You cannot go to a college where you or we have to use debt to pay for your education. If our daughter is accepted to an expensive school, she has to make up the difference with what we’ve already saved for her education by winning a scholarship. She has great grades. But not enough money from our savings and/or scholarships and she can cross that school off her list. Period. We won’t waver on this point, and in many ways this makes the college selection quite easy for her. This rule helps keep the emotional factor of picking a college to a minimum.

●You have to finish in four years. We’ve saved enough to pay for tuition, room and board for four years at a modestly priced institution. Mess around and not study or drop classes because you haven’t taken your education seriously and you’re on your own.

●You can stay longer if you end up in a field that requires an additional year or two of study. We are willing to dig a little deeper and pay for the extra time if that’s what it takes to complete the work.

●You must maintain a certain grade-point average. We try to be reasonable people, so the bar won’t be so high as to make our daughter neurotic. But our college aid comes with responsibility on her end. She has to perform well in college.

●You must get internships in your chosen field before graduating. We have encouraged her to get at least three internships, either paid or unpaid. Those graduates who had completed internships earned nearly 15 percent more on average than those who did not, according to the Rutgers report.

The time is now to talk to your advancing high school junior and manage his or her expectations. That is, if you don’t want to give them a blank check for a college you or they can’t afford.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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