Dream College-Turned Nightmare: How to Avoid Unnecessary College Debt

Dream College-Turned Nightmare: How to Avoid Unnecessary College Debt

The Money Coach explains the dangers of using "dream school" terminology when it comes to college decision-making.

Dream College-Turned Nightmare: How to Avoid Unnecessary College Debt

If you or your child has sent off college applications recently, I have a question that no one has probably asked you until now: Will your “dream” school turn into your worst financial nightmare?

Don’t think that I’m being overly dramatic. I’m completely serious!

Wouldn’t it be a nightmare if you or your child got into your so-called “dream” institution only to end up with a ton of student loan debt that later made it nearly impossible for you to buy a home, work in your chosen field, or even get married down the road?

What if that supposed “dream” school didn’t give you much aid, and your college bills were so enormous that you had to work all the time and wound up dropping out of school due to poor grades or a lack of funds? Unfortunately, these are all-too-common scenarios.

Student Loan Debt on the Rise

As I explain in College Secrets for Teens, Americans have a collective $1.2 trillion in student loan debt and the average recent college grad has about $35,000 in student loan bills. Those who have gone on to graduate or professional school like law school or medical school, may have six-figure student loan debt.

I’ve heard many teenagers eager to attend their “dream” schools say that they “don’t care” if they have to take out massive student loans to pay for their education. They say they’ll figure out how to pay off those debts later. Besides, they note, paying for education is an “investment” in one’s future.

They may be right about the investment concept, but they fail to consider a key part of smart investing: making sure you get an adequate return on investment (ROI).

For students from a handful of schools who emerge without debt, a four-year degree does, indeed, provide a good long-term return on their investment. But that’s not the case for those burdened by excessive levels of college debt. And it’s not the case for the vast majority of colleges and universities in America. 

Return on Investment

Former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett has suggested that college should be viewed as a long-term purchase, and that students should be able to generate a return on their investment in the form of their future earnings potential. Shockingly, though, Bennett’s found  — after looking at average costs, debt loads and lifelong earnings  — that most U.S. schools fail miserably when it comes to ROI.

In fact, Bennett concluded that just 150 of America’s 3,500+ colleges and universities (including for-profit and non-profit schools, as well as online institutions) provided positive returns.

So the broad idea of college as a “good investment” simply doesn’t hold water if it means students have to take on exorbitant amounts of debt for their degrees.

Sadly, the teenagers who are oh-so-willing to take on incredible amounts of loans (or ask their parents to do so) also have a huge lack of knowledge about the enormous impact of debt on one’s life.

They have an even bigger lack of experience in how to juggle bills, particularly large financial obligations. If you add a tough job market into the mix, which is a common occurrence for recent college graduates, a hefty student loan burden could truly become a financial nightmare.

The Impact of Student Loan Debt

Like excessive debt of all kinds, large student loan debt takes a toll in many ways, not the least of which is the financial impact. It also affects one’s health, job and career prospects, and even a person’s dating or marriage prospects.

These days, many cash-strapped student loan borrowers complain about the stress of being in debt, as well as the ways their loans have dictated their job options.

For example, with big student loans, lots of students can’t take the jobs they want  — especially in areas like the arts or public service fields  — because they have to take jobs they need (i.e. higher paying jobs in areas of less personal interest). They do this out of necessity to pay off their student loans.

It’s also true that a lot of people don’t want to make a lifetime commitment to someone with gigantic student loans. In fact, I once wrote an article called Student Loan Horror Stories: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

In that piece, I profiled a woman who was engaged to a fiancé that she loved very much. But when she revealed to him her six-figure student loan debt, he broke off the engagement.

So trust me when I say that at 17 or 18 years of age, young people who say they want to go to a “dream” school at any cost are simply ill equipped to fully understand the long-term implications of that decision.

Parents Must Be the Adults in the Room

Even if they’re willing to pay the price, so to speak, for this choice, I believe it’s up to parents to serve as the clear-thinking adults and voice their opinions about picking colleges that are affordable for a family  — even if it means disappointing the student in the short run.

In the long run, countless students have wound up happier (and debt free!) when their families made wise choices  — that is, by picking the “best fit” school on an academic, personal and financial basis, and not based on the perceived prestige of an institution.

Jaclyn Vargo, a Harvard alumna who also received her law degree from Fordham Law School says:The more loans you have, the more it’s like being in a financial prison. The best asset you can give to yourself is to have minimal student loans. Go to an affordable school and do really, really well there.”

So regardless of the campus you choose, how are you going to get into that “dream” school? Before I give you some pointers on the admissions process, let’s address the very notion of having a single “dream” school.

Can We Just Stop the Madness – Or At Least Watch Our Language?

Some adults, enlightened by the college selection and admission process, say that parents should refer to their kid’s top selection as his or her “first choice” school, rather than using the term “dream school.”

The first time I heard this concept it immediately resonated with me. So I think it’s a philosophy worth sharing.

After all, if your child doesn’t get in to his or her so-called “dream” school, what message are we sending our youth? Does that rejection signal to the student that his or her “dreams” are forever dashed and will never come true? Of course that’s not the case. Students and parents should think carefully about your word choice in your conversations with one another and others.

If you must keep this phrase in your vocabulary, try not to use the singular term “dream school.” Instead, use the plural phrase “dream schools.” That will be a constant reminder to everyone involved that there are many, many excellent and “dreamy” schools out there. 

Being conscientious of your language will also help students maintain a healthy perspective, and keep them from becoming hyper-focused in pursuit of just one so-called “dream” college or university. Remember that words have power.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox is a personal finance expert and co-founder of the free financial advice site, Askthemoneycoach.com. Follow Lynnette on Twitter @themoneycoach and on Google Plus. 

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