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Worried About College Costs? Here’s A Great Tool to Help Reduce Student Debt

I did one of those online college calculators with my 16-year-old, and I was surprised with what I learned.

It seems like the closer my son gets to college the more “spam mail” – as he puts it – we get. Everyone wants his attention, and each school or service offers a myriad of reasons to create a login or try some type of tool. He’s been asked to take quizzes to learn if a certain college would be a good fit, complete a survey to determine his ideal career fit, and build a pyramid to reveal a secret message.

He’s looking forward to the college search, but his interest in these types of tools is low. 

I, on the other hand, am curious. I don’t like giving people my email when I don’t have to, so I lean towards those tools that are more resource-like. For years I’ve been using the projection calculator my kids’ 529 provider offers to see if our savings plan is on track. I have sat down with both children to show them what we’re saving and how it will cover some college choices better than others: private vs. public schools, in-state vs. out-of-state. It’s good for them to know how their choices will affect what we can cover vs. what they’ll be responsible for. 

My kids are used to these “sit down and try this” experiments, so when I found a calculator that showed projected salaries and budgets related to someone’s choice of major and other pre- and post-college decisions, I was intrigued. My son has a few majors in mind and a few schools he’s considering. The calculator’s main purpose is to help families and students consider the most realistic amount of debt, if any, they should consider taking on based on their inputs.

I asked my son to sit down and give it a try. Here’s what surprised us most: 

The majors he was considering had big pay differences.

For years, my son has been thinking about doing architecture. I’ll admit: we don’t really have a great idea of what this means career-wise. We anticipate graduate work, which my son is lukewarm about. So, we looked at the schools he’s considering and the year he plans to start college. Then we changed one variable: the major. The salary jumped up considerably, as did the amount he would comfortably be able to borrow, if needed. It’s all projections, but projections were better than what we had.

The amount he can afford to borrow seemed like more than I would want him to borrow. 

The tool’s main purpose is to help families make informed student debt decisions before they get in over their head. As the site explains, it’s, “intended to empower you to take control of your future rather than to discourage you from pursuing your dreams.” I fully funded my own college education. I want my children to pay something towards their future, so they are invested in it both financially and personally. At the same time, I don’t want them to be so in-debt that they can’t live on their own. The calculator helps manage these variables. It also puts a cap on what you should borrow. 

Where he plans to live didn’t affect his projected salary as much as we expected.

You would think that living in a midwestern city like Cleveland would mean a much lower salary than living in Los Angeles. Yet, with some majors, it didn’t make that big of a difference. One major my son is considering is operations management. We were both surprised when the difference in salary was only about 10%, while the cost of living was, as expected, very different. 

There were variables he hadn’t considered.

The calculator only asks you to input four variables: your prospective major, the college you want to attend, the year you start college, and the city you want to live in after college. With only four categories, you would think we would have considered all these variables. We had not. Who knew that the city you plan to live in could affect your work/life/debt balance so much? 

He found it more interesting than he expected.

My 16-year-old is like most: he is apprehensive about anything mom/dad suggests that has a learning component. Still he begrudgingly cooperated and did the calculator with me. It took two minutes (if that) and you could see he found it more interesting than he expected. After our first input on major, he wanted to try a few different things. He saw the tool as a way to look towards the future and get excited about what’s next. 

Want to try some planning tools for yourself? Here is the Affordability Calculator we used as well as a tried-and-true 529 college savings planner.

Julie Grippo Schuler lives in Medina, Ohio with her high school son and middle school daughter.