Time for a Reality Check with Your College-Bound Teen

This blog post is based on an Oct. 14 AIR response to a National Journal Education Insiders blog.

Of all the talks that parents should have with their children, a frank conversation about college costs and debt should be the least uncomfortable. But after years of dropping not-so-subtle hints about college’s importance, many parents are hesitant to admit they didn’t mean “any” college—they meant an affordable one.

First, students should be aware of the financial reality of their academic choices before taking on school debt. Arming students with new information on earnings by college major shouldn’t divert them from pursuing careers they enjoy. But AIR analyses show that undergraduate debt levels among students interested in lucrative business, health, or technical careers differ little from those shouldered by social and behavioral science majors. And better information can help students bridge the disconnects among college choices, near-term earnings expectations, and appropriate debt levels.

Second, tuition prices aren’t always a good indicator of cost or quality. Taking on debt to pay for a more expensive school may not buy a better education or outcome. Consider two public colleges in Virginia: The sticker price at Virginia Tech is $1,600 higher than at James Madison University, but both boast 80 percent graduation rates. Since many students are not full-pay, the “net price” of attendance is a better indicator of real costs because it factors in institutional and governmental student aid. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website shows a student from a family earning between $30,000 and $48,000 would pay an additional $3,300 to attend Virginia Tech, 28 percent more than JMU.

Finally, students need to understand how they’re paying—or not yet paying—for their college educations. Counselors and parents should educate students about the differences between grants and loans and about debt’s ramifications on future lifestyle choices. Counselors should also help families evaluate complex student aid packages. Go with the expensive school with a generous aid package? Or accept a “less generous” package that is heavy on grants and lighter on loans?

That frank talk with teenagers about real college costs and real life consequences could influence one of the biggest decisions of their lives – and could well improve their financial independence in their 20s, 30s—and beyond.