A couple months ago, my 17-year-old daughter’s guidance counselor called her into his office to ask pretty much the only question that adults ask high school seniors: “What colleges are you applying to?” When Ella tossed off a handful of universities, he said, “Have you thought about going to art school?”
By that afternoon, Ella was having a full-blown crisis of faith, because yes, she had thought pretty hard about art school. When her oil paintings started winning awards freshman year, her AP art teacher more or less told her that art school was her destiny, the only way not to squander her prodigious talents. Ella didn’t need convincing. She was so ready to bolt out of our small southwest Virginia town into a big city where she could paint all day that she had basically become a Lifetime movie cliché.
But for months she’d been shoving down all those painterly college fantasies of art school in New York. My husband and I had told her, point blank, we couldn’t afford it.
Let me clarify: By “couldn’t afford it,” I mean that we’re like pretty much all the other middle-class parents we know—not poor by a long shot, but not loaded either, and chronically underinvested in our kids’ college accounts. We had not squirreled away every spare penny in a 529 account since the moment of conception the way the Suze Ormans of the world want us to. We hadn’t even opened a 529 till Ella was in fifth grade, because we’d been trying to get through my husband’s Ph.D.
After that, we saved fairly aggressively, but you know how it goes. Two daughters. Clothes. Braces. Class trips. Like most parents, who save on average $18,000 for their kids’ education, we’d failed to sock away anything close to the $75,000 annual sticker price it would take for Ella to go to, say, Pratt in New York City. Our privilege was such that we slipped into a financial aid gap, where our daughter won’t qualify for grants, but we can’t pay cash up front.
That left two options: Let her join the 69 percent of U.S. college graduates who take out loans to finance their schooling. Or scare the hell out of her about taking on student debt.
According to our daughter, most of her friends are completely meh about student loans. They’re applying to places like NYU ($53,310 tuition) and Boston College ($56,780 tuition). Some of them have parents who can probably bankroll that. The others see it as inevitable that, in exchange for a nice bachelor’s degree, they’ll be working off grinding debt for the next 20 years.
Their parents don’t seem to mind either. According to a Sallie Mae survey, 70 percent of parents say that, even though they’re worried about paying for their kids’ college, they’re not limiting their children’s college choices based on price. One friend recently told me that her son has his heart set on a pricey out-of-state engineering program, despite the fact that a fantastic engineering program exists at the public university in our town. “It’s a reach school, but if he gets in he’ll probably go there—and I guess deal with a lot of student loan debt afterward,” she said with a laugh.
Why are we parents so loath to set financial limits on our kids’ college ambitions? Maybe because it seems crass to bring money into their reach-for-the-stars dreams. Maybe because we cling to the hope of generous scholarships and lavish financial aid packages that will make our money worries moot. Maybe because we deeply believe the destiny of smart teenagers is to attend their dream school, and ours is to finance it. To do otherwise is to fail at middle-class parenting.
So we finance it, or our kids do, 45 million of us owing a collective $1.6 trillion in student debt that not even Bernie Sanders could make disappear. You know what makes it disappear? Death. A friend whose husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack a few years ago told me that the major upside of being a widow in her 40s was that his death canceled out his more than $100,000 in student loans. “I thought we’d be paying that off forever, and then it was just gone,” she said with a breath of relief. When death is the bright spot in your financial life, things are bad.
So my husband and I decided to go ahead and become the villains in a John Hughes movie. One day when Ella was a sophomore, we laid out our financial situation. We told her we’d saved about $40,000 in a 529 to pay for her college. Between that, a part-time job, and some serious scrimping (“You like ramen, right?”), we could probably afford to send her to an in-state university, or maybe a really cut-rate private college with two years of community college first. Art school in New York? Not going to happen.
I’ve continued my scared-straight campaign ever since, periodically texting Ella links to articles about twentysomethings with $100,000 in debt, describing how massive student loans would hamstring her future. While there may be a few good reasons to opt for a fancy college and suck up the student loan debt (you need a really specific program, for instance, or statistics show you’ll earn far more money after you graduate), those didn’t apply to Ella’s situation. “If you want to be an artist and you graduate with a ton of student loan debt, you can’t afford to be an artist, anymore,” I told her, explaining that you become a creatively stymied wage slave instead.
To give my daughter a hard no on something she really, really wants—and that I in theory want for her!—makes me feel like a monster. While other parents cheerfully promise that “if you get in, we’ll figure out the money part,” I’m over here sounding a Greek chorus of caution and lament. Sometimes I long to just say yes. Saying yes feels good. Yes makes people happy.
On the other hand, saying no is part of my job as a parent. Hasn’t it been my role all along to steer my kid toward smarter but seemingly less desirable choices? Carrots instead of Kit Kats, an early bedtime instead of an all-night YouTube binge? Children naturally hate those kinds of limits. They may temporarily hate us. But they’re too young and myopic to see how this one decision could make their lives harder for a long, long time. We can.
Eventually, our prolonged brainwashing attempts seemed to succeed with Ella. She started talking about how reluctant she was to go into debt for college, like it had been her idea all along. She even thanked us for being upfront about the financial consequences of college. This fall she applied to exactly two universities, in the Venn diagram overlap between “schools we can pay for” and “schools where she actually wants to go.” They’re not art schools, but both have stellar art programs. Her guidance counselor, whose only focus is getting in and not paying up, thinks she’s crazy to limit her options like that, but we’re thrilled that the highest tuition at either is around $16,000. Not chump change, but probably doable.
Her applications are in, and she won’t know what happens for a while. Just one thing is certain: When Ella graduates, her future will be her own. For that, it’s worth keeping a short leash on her present.