The bottom line when picking a university: ‘No debt for our daughter or for us’

A year ago, I was where many parents are right now. My daughter Olivia was faced with the decision of where to attend college.

I’ll admit I was pretty adamant leading up to the choice that many families have to make by May 1, which is the deadline for accepted students to declare where they will attend college. No student loans. No debt for our daughter or us.

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

However, when Olivia started looking at schools that were out of our financial comfort zone, my husband and I realized this wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought. Our daughter is a great student. She took advanced placement classes and participated in extracurricular activities. And when she said her “I’ll-be-crushed-if-I-don’t-get-in” school was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we began to get anxious.

We didn’t have enough saved to cover all the out-of-state expenses for four years at UNC. Absent any aid, the cost at UNC would have been more than $183,000, including tuition, fees, room, board, books and supplies, travel and personal expenses. And that figure doesn’t include the likelihood of price increases.

Still, how could we deny her heart’s desire? She swooned after a tour of the campus. She bought UNC paraphernalia. Even the school color — light blue — is her favorite color.

She didn’t get into her dream school. And honestly, we were relieved.

You might think it’s easy for us now to say we wouldn’t have let her go. Yet, trust me, we would have had to break her heart.

Her rejection made the decision of where she would go easier for us. But what if it’s not as easy for you? What if your child does have a choice, and that choice is beyond your means?

As you and your child are discussing and/or fretting over which college to choose, perhaps it will help to walk you through the points we made to our daughter to discourage her from ignoring the affordability issue:

We scared her with the long-term drag of student-loan debt: Debt, we told her, limits your choices and early savings.

Are loans a large part of your child’s financial aid packages? If so, down the road, as your child’s peers are buying homes, starting families and investing for their future, your child will be servicing debt.

You may have read that total student-loan debt — more than $1 trillion — now exceeds all consumer debt except for home loans. If current borrowing patterns continue, student debt will hit $2 trillion by 2025, wrote Robert Hiltonsmith in a report for Demos, a public policy organization.

Over a lifetime of employment and saving, $53,000 in education debt leads to a wealth loss of almost $208,000, Hiltonsmith concluded. Most of the loss comes from reduced retirement savings.

“Though a college education remains the surest path to a middle-class life, evidence has begun to mount that student debt may be far more detrimental to financial futures than once thought, particularly for those with the highest levels of debt: students of color and students from low-income families,” Hiltonsmith wrote.

When you compare graduates of four-year universities with and without debt, those who didn’t take out loans have nearly three times the net worth, according to research by William Elliott, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, and IlSung Nam, now a research professor at Hallym University Institute of Aging in Korea.

I understand you want the best for your child. But if the school your child desperately wants to attend is out of your price range, you may have to be the bad guy. It’s your responsibility to help him or her consider the long-term consequences.

We explained the monthly impact of debt: Our daughter wants to work with young children in some capacity, perhaps as a teacher. Starting out, she isn’t going to make a six-figure salary.

The problem with student loans is that their monthly payments are pushed off to the future. This makes it hard for students to realize how painful the payments may be once they graduate.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (consumerfinance.gov) has a “Paying for College” online tool to help you to make an apples-to-apples comparison of your financial-aid offers. Use the tool, and pay particular attention to the section about the monthly debt payments.

We highlighted the benefit of spending less on her undergraduate degree: Our daughter was accepted into the Honors College at the University of Maryland at College Park. She received some scholarship money and this has helped, along with the in-state tuition, to ensure that she can pay for everything and still have money left in her Maryland 529 college savings plan. Unused funds are hers to use for graduate school. And given the career path she’s chosen, she’ll need to go to graduate school if she wants to advance.

We told her to put the college choice in perspective: Many students listen to people who convince them that they will limit their employment opportunities or won’t make needed job connections if they don’t attend a prestigious institution.

Are there companies, firms or hiring managers who may snub your child because he or she didn’t attend a certain school? Sure there are. That’s still no reason to make a choice that will cost more than you can afford. There will be other jobs.

We asked our daughter to think about the places people work and where they all might have gone to college. In truth, it’s from a variety of colleges: Ivy League and expensive private schools, highly ranked state schools and not-so-highly-ranked private and public colleges.

“And where do they all work?” we asked.

She rolled her eyes.

“At the same place,” we answered for her.

If your child doesn’t go to his or her top college choice because of the money and gets an attitude about it, does this mean the second choice is wrong?

No. As her parents, we have the experience to know that college is what she makes of it, no matter where she attends.

In a few weeks, my daughter will finish her freshman year. The validation that my husband and I were right on the money came when someone, knowing her struggle with her college choice a year ago, asked her how she likes the University of Maryland.

Without hesi­ta­tion, she said, “I love it!”

Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.

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