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Expensive Colleges: The “Dream School” Has a Nightmare Price Tag

Picture yourself in this potential scenario: Sometime during your teen’s college search, they throw you a curveball. How about college along the California coast? For years you’ve talked about (and saved for) a school within a short drive of your Midwest home. Now what?

When You Can’t Afford THAT College

For Ohio parent Judy Cunningham, the scenario was similar: Her daughter was eyeing a school in Louisiana. As the community outreach manager for the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, which manages Ohio’s 529 Plan, CollegeAdvantage, Judy knew a lot about college planning and saving. Yet, she was still caught off guard. She took her daughter on a tour of a nearby campus—including a visit to the financial aid office, where lines were long. “I said, ‘Let’s be honest. We can afford this school because we’ve saved for it. If you go to Louisiana, you will be standing in lines like this.’”

If you’re faced with a similar “that college is too expensive!” heart-to-heart with your teen, here are a few things to consider:

Find the “Why”

If your teen is clamoring for the California life, what’s their ‘why’? Is it sun and surf? Or are they interested in a drama program they think they can only get on the coast?

Independent educational consultant Chris Holzwarth works with parents and students to help assess post-high school opportunities. As a former dancer, she has a special connection with her artsy students. “I recently went to see a production of Cats and read the Playbill to learn how people arrived at their career,” she recalls. “I could not find the same college or arts program mentioned twice. It proves a point we try to make with students: It doesn’t matter where you go. What matters is what you do while you’re there and the connections you make.”

Tim Gorrell, executive director of Ohio’s 529 Plan, uses a similar analogy: “A Ford Focus and a Tesla will both get you to your destination. If you work hard and get your degree, it doesn’t matter if it’s from College A or B.” For most careers, it’s what you do with that degree that matters.

Give Them the Responsibility

While the initial reaction to your teen’s dream college scenario may be “no way, we can’t afford that college” that might not be the best long-term approach. That’s why Holzwarth recommends giving them responsibility in the decision. “It’s a good idea for parents to say, ‘I want you to research the programs at both of these schools. Who teaches at each? What are the outcomes of the education at both schools?’”

In addition to showing her daughter the financial realities, Cunningham also made the logistics clear, pointing out the distance and expenses related to traveling to and from school. “We were determined to not take out loans when paying for college since we had been saving diligently.”

Be Honest

One of Cunningham and Gorrell’s coworkers had a daughter who was eyeing California as opposed to a local college. The parents sat down with her and used the free online tools available on the CollegeAdvantage website. These allow for scenario-based situations: in-state, out-of-state, trade school, and more. “For the parent who wants to have an objective conversation and take the emotion out of it, using these tools can be invaluable. It allows for a realistic conversation about what the parents are already bringing to the table,” says Gorrell.

Holzwarth sees these honest conversations about expensive colleges as a critical learning opportunity. “There are so many valuable lessons that come out of searching for the right educational venue,” she says. “Sometimes parents feel like they can’t let their children down, and that can pose a problem for the student when they graduate. In reality, a discussion like this is teaching teens about responsibility and compromise.”