Higher Education

We are in full college mode in the Debt Discipline home, with two high school juniors with higher education in their sights it hard not to be talking about the topic on a regularly basis. A recent trip to a local college fair and the completion of their first SATs has sparked the conversation to an all-time high. This is a good thing because it gives us an opportunity not only to discuss colleges and test scores, but cost and career paths. My wife and I want to help all three of our children make good decisions about their higher education choice and look at many factors, like cost, return on investment (ROI), major, track record of college, and not just pick a school based on the prettiness of the campus. Here are some of the things we are discussion with our children.

College Choice

We are having them search far and wide. We have family on the West Coast and South East so we don’t want them to rule out any school, but they also know our home state of New York has some great colleges too. Some really local and if they choose to live at home while attending that’s fine too. The key is to make sure the school offers what major they are interested in. My son mentioned he’d never want to go to a community college, but I explained it’s a good option for some who’s undecided on major, they can take classes at a low-cost as they make a decision or if someone struggled on admission to college of their choice a community college might help make them more attractive. Once they have some colleges picked we need to look at cost, what’s the overall cost of tuition and does the cost match the benefit and value of the program offered at that school.

Grants and Scholarships

We are impressing upon our children that no amount of free money is too small. A five hundred-dollar scholarship or a five thousand-dollar scholarship should be handled with the same care and effort. We are looking into and applying to any and all grants and scholarships starting now. Our son and daughter have 4.0 GPAs, are in AP classes and, involved in extra curriculum activates. We hope that their hard work will give them an edge when applying.


We want to avoid borrowing money at all cost. Our children understand the burden of debt, watching us struggle and paying off a big pile ourselves. We continue to impress upon them the importance of starting their lives debt free. That may mean working during college, and during breaks to help pay the College bill. Sharing these recent student debt numbers with them and they are clear on the problem.

Student Debt
Source: AffordableSchools.net

It’s been twenty plus years since I was a full-time college student, I can’t help but think I’m missing something. As we continue to help and prepare our children, what other things should we be discussing?

What other resources should be looked at for perspective college students? Any Grants and Scholarships trick or tips?

39 thoughts on “Higher Education”

  1. Interesting to see how many for profit schools are among the top debt schools- I think it’s 7 out of 10.

    Best of luck navigating these waters! I know it can be really tough to help kids make a good decision.

  2. I love the idea that no scholarship or grant is too small! I’ll impress that upon my daughter when she’s in high school, since ever little bit will help chip away at the amount that has to be paid and/or borrowed.

    I want to help my daughter make smart decisions about where she goes and not take on too much debt, but I will also encourage her not to consider college simply as a transactional experience, with cost being the only important factor. I really believe that college is a time of tremendous personal and intellectual growth and development, as well as a unique time of life to learn from experts in a variety of fields. As a result, I will encourage her to balance cost with also the value of the education she’ll receive at different schools.

    1. Totally agree Amy, but has to be about balance can’t just be about a school or state I’ve always wanted to go to for four years. A big difference between an 18 years old and a 22 years old and these 4 years are important and impressionable, a very key decision for so many reasons.

  3. Going to a state school, University of Massachusetts Lowell, was one of the best financial decisions I ever made! My close friends racked up massive amounts of debt at Boston College, Boston University, and other private schools. I am so thankful my parents encouraged me not to make that choice. Graduating debt free helped pursue a career that didn’t pay well, but I loved. Also, it helped me buy a home at 25.

  4. Whew! Those stats make me want to cry. The question that comes to my head when I read those numbers is: Is it simply that our culture is changing, and it is “normal” to graduate with debt, or (dare I say it) are these graduates actually less moral than past generations? I say that because when I look at the statistic of 17% of students allowing their PARENTS to take out loans for them, I fear that moralism is falling by the wayside. Who in their right and loving mind would allow their parents to go in debt on their behalf??? So glad that your graduates are taking a serious, debt free look at their college futures!

    1. It does seem like a major swing over the last 15 years, both on the students and parent side. We want to make better choice and not become another statics.

  5. I think you’ve done a pretty good job covering all of the bases. It’s so awesome that you’re helping your kids prepare for college now. I think preparation is really key to avoiding crushing student loan debt.
    When I was ready to go to college, I had no clue about anything. I knew what I wanted to do and that I’d have to pay for everything by myself, so I started at the community college and then transferred to the local (state) university. Then I attended the law school closest to home. I received at least partial scholarships at each institution and accumulated no debt until law school.
    My sister is a senior this year and although I’ve tried to discuss college with her, she doesn’t seem very interested in anything. I’m sure she’ll just go somewhere to get away from home and hopefully find something that interests her, but I worry about how she’s going to pay for everything.

  6. Thanks Jessica. We want them to be as prepared as possible and since they are still listening to us now is out opportunity. 🙂 Good luck with your sister.

  7. Great info here, Brian. As our oldest is a sophomore we too are discussing these things. She has her sights set on a school that costs 34k a year just for tuition and fees, so we are working on options such as completing her first two years at a community college, attending her last two at this school’s online program, her working at least part time and also working on getting some grants and scholarships. Debt free is the goal for us too.

    1. Good for you guys. I hate sounding like a dream crusher to my children, but I think they understand I’m trying to think about college in a practical way and they should be too.

  8. That is an amazing and scary infographic! I am so glad I graduated debt free. My husband and I were well aware we were in the minority in that regard. We went to a really cheap school (BYU), but still saw people taking out really large student loans and blowing them on TVs and couches. It’s a great thing you’ve done for your kids in showing them what debt it really like. You’ll send them off strong and smart! Well done.

  9. I’m amazed at how expensive some schools are compared to others. Honestly I think the main thing is just going to college at all. It’s not quite as important what school you go to as long as you go to college.

    1. A good point Cat. I have hired a number of people in my career and was never hung on on where they had their degree from, just wanted to confirm they had one.

  10. My knowledge is going back a few years at this point, but like your kids, I had strong grades and test scores and lots of AP classes, and wanted to go to the very best school I could get into. Ultimately, though, I chose a public school that offered me a full ride instead of a much more expensive private school offering some scholarship dollars but not nearly enough. And I’ve never, ever regretted it. Going to a big public school forced me to be a lot more self-sufficient, because there’s zero coddling, gives you a lot more opportunities to try out different departments than you get at a lot of small private schools, and gives you a big alumni network to connect with after graduating. So I’d say: don’t write off the publics. There are lots of outstanding public universities!

  11. I’m amazed at how student debt has gone up so radically so recently. What explains it? Is it higher tuition or a more lax attitude about debt? For other ways to make it through college debt free, I noticed that you didn’t mention your children taking on part time jobs. Is that something that you (or they) are considering?

  12. 100 billion for the top ten schools is unbelievable. Figures that the easiest school to get into has the most debt, because it is a sham in my opinion. The let the masses enroll, and if 2/3 drop out they are still stuck with the bill, and they don’t care about the consequences. The students need to go to community school if they are undecided about a major, and before attending online colleges.

  13. My son is also a high school Junior, so we are also in full college preparation mode. “No amount of money is too small” is exactly right……every little bit helps. I remember stopping by my counselor’s office every week my senior hear asking for grant and scholarship applications. I filed out dozens and dozens of them. My scholarships and grants exceeded the cost of my freshman year of school….and my final three had tuition and books paid for. it was WELL worth the time and energy.

  14. My best tip would be to make sure that your kids have the best SAT scores they can have. Many of the merit-based scholarships have a cut off SAT that they use for determining school merit-based scholarships that they use to narrow the big batches of applicants down to a smaller batch.

    Also, if there is a school they are learning towards/planning on going to, evaluate which AP classes line up to which college requirements in the senior year. I thought there it was likely I was going to one particular state school, so I looked to see which AP classes gave the most amount of college credit / fulfilled the general ed requirements without overlapping. This meant I could have graduated in 3 years instead of 4, but I chose to study abroad instead. 3 years of college is much less expensive than 4.

  15. Thanks Brooke, their first SAT is complete, just waiting on results. Great tip on the AP classes, good research we can do this year.

  16. Also, in my case, I actually re-took the SAT to get a slightly higher writing score, which allowed me to opt out of freshman writing classes. If needed, re-taking the SAT or studying for it very, very seriously with books, even tutors if necessary, can go a long way as well.

    1. That why the took the first available SAT this year, to get a feel for the test, so they could take others to improve upon their scores. Plus the SAT format is changing next year.

  17. We’ll be starting the discussion soon too. I think that your children have the advantage of understanding the burden of debt. When they apply for financial aid the school doesn’t always encourage them to take on only the minimum needed. Have they considered ROTC or the National Guard? They both offer tuition assistance (I think they may pay 100%).

  18. You must be very proud. Just exploring the topic with my oldest now. I don’t think this was mentioned above but if they have part time jobs – their employers may offer scholarships or awards.

  19. As you know, I just released a podcast about this and I truly believe that this is the most critical point in the college decision making process. Choices need to be a family decision not just based on aspirations but costs and long term financial impacts. I can’t wait to hear all about this journey and see what choices you all make regarding college!

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