Help! We Can’t Afford Our Son’s Private College. Should We Go Into Debt for His Sake?

Advice on manners and morals.
April 17 2014 6:00 AM

Fleece U

We can’t afford our son’s private college tuition. Should we go into debt?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I were not able to save for our kids’ college educations. My older son went to community college and most of it was paid for with grants and scholarships. Now my younger son is a senior in high school and has his heart set on an expensive private school. Call us naive, but to say we have sticker shock would be an understatement. Even though he was given a very generous package and is pursuing scholarships, it will still cost $30,000 a year, $120,000 over the four years. If he were to borrow this money it would leave him with crippling debt. We are not in the position to pay this or take on the loans ourselves. We want him to live at home, go for two years to a public university satellite campus, then move to the main campus as a junior for a total cost of about $50,000. Our state university is one of the top public universities in the country. My husband’s family thinks we are doing him a great disservice by not co-signing for his loans or taking them ourselves. Are we short-changing our son?

—Best Degree

Dear Best,
I promise you all of you will feel short-changed and sold a bill of goods if your son’s college degree means that you and your husband spend the rest of lives sweating to pay it off, or that your son starts his adult life with a staggering financial burden. Now is decision time for students weighing college options. It used to be people thought a college degree (especially an elite one) was a ticket to a financially secure life, and that going into debt to obtain one was a good investment. There is no doubt college graduates fare better in the marketplace, but today people are far more aware of the potential dream-crushing effect of college debt, and that it can carry lifetime consequences, including the fact it can virtually never be discharged. Some interesting research has shown that the value of a “prestige” degree, at least as far as future income is concerned, is vastly overrated. Read this essay on the outstanding educations and opportunities to be found at schools ranked below the most celebrated, including many of our public universities, which about 80 percent of students attend. You say your state school is one of the country’s best, while the private school your son has his heart set on you describe merely as “expensive.” Good for your son to have identified and been accepted to a dream school. That shows he has drive and ambition, which are two crucial qualities he will need in the real world. For him right now, reality looks like it means making the most of the opportunities at his state school. If your husband’s family thinks the private school is worth it, they are free to step up and make it possible. In the absence of their largesse, you should stick with your plan of getting your son the best education you can afford. I recommend that you thoroughly research your aid options—start with this government website. Before you put down a deposit, talk to both the private and state school and make sure you’re getting every (debt-free) dollar available. If the dream school doesn't offer substantially more cash, everyone should be delighted with the public alternative. But since he is surely ready to give up his boyhood bedroom, it would be a great gift if you found there was grant money available to make it possible for him to start college life on the main campus this fall.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
Several years ago I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program at an Ivy League university. About halfway into my second year I fell into a deep depression. I realized my proposed dissertation was garbage, and that I didn't want to pursue a career in academia. Somehow I passed my classes, and at the end of the school year I left abruptly. I had confided to one professor that I was unhappy. He said that my most significant paper would qualify as a master's thesis and knew I had enough credits, so he suggested I submit it and get the master’s. I couldn't even do that. Then my computer died and I lost most (though not all) of my work; it was one of the greatest weights ever lifted off my shoulders. Now four years later I am the happiest I have ever been, but I'm looking back with regret that I didn’t follow through. I have the knowledge that a master's degree from a prestigious university represents, but I do not have the piece of paper. (No way can I redo the work.) My life is great and I love my new career. My work is only tangentially related to my old field, so should I just completely put this out of my mind forever? If so, how?

—Secret Master

Dear Secret,
This is not so much a higher education question as a computer backup question. Everyone back up everything, multiple ways! I was recently at the Apple store with a hard drive problem and one of the tech people told me about a woman who came in weeks away from defending her doctoral dissertation and all her years of meticulous research was on a laptop that was unsalvageable. She had backed up nothing. Obviously, for these kinds of customers there needs to be someone at the Genius Bar authorized to prescribe sedatives. I’m glad you’ve dug yourself out of that terrible trough and have found happiness and professional success. It’s understandable that now having regained your equilibrium, you realize a master’s from an Ivy League university would look nice, especially since you essentially earned it. But you don’t need it, and you’re not going to redo the work. (However, if you have that dead computer stashed somewhere, it would be worth it to see if the paper you already wrote could be disinterred from it and then submitted.) You can accurately put on your résumé that you studied Old Norse mythology at a big deal university, even though your only connection now is that you trade Scandinavian bonds. Make peace with this by remembering your joy when your computer gave the coup de grace to your academic career, and by celebrating that you didn’t stick it out, collecting debt and wasting years pursuing what for you was a dead end.

—Prudie

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