Why Choose A College You Can’t Afford?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

There are many ways to avoid choosing a college you can’t afford, but it does take some work.

First, let’s take a look at why some families do choose a college they can’t afford.

Why (Would You) Choose a College You Can’t Afford?

  1. Prestige – We all struggle with this one. Our son or daughter scores well enough on the ACT or SAT test to be in range for a terrific school. Maybe it’s Ivy League, maybe it’s a top-tier liberal arts school. Usually it is a school with very, very selective admissions. We just want to see if he or she can get in. Then when the school does offer admission, we think we’d be crazy not to take them up on their offer regardless of cost.
  2. Not doing your research – I would argue that you need to start your student’s college search armed with some basic information on cost and what you can afford. Don’t do this half way in, do this at the very start, before your student visits any schools or makes any type of preliminary college list. Take a look at my post titled, “ A Better Way to Search for Colleges: The Upside Down College Search“. For lower income families, there is a lot of need-based aid available to help you pay for college. You may need to look at different colleges than you were thinking. For higher income families, if your students have decent GPAs and test scores, special talents, or great leadership experiences, there is a lot of merit aid available that will not be impacted by your income.  Again, you may need to look at different colleges than you were thinking.
  3. Not wanting to disappoint anyone – This has happened to many of us. Our student visits a really great school and falls in love with the campus. We may have run the numbers before the visit and found that he or she is going to have to qualify for some really great merit aid or the need-based aid is going to have to fall on the very high end of what the Net Price Calculator showed. Or, we didn’t really do our research before going on a campus visit. Either way, we let our students go ahead and apply to the school, he or she gets accepted, we get the financial aid package and it is not what we hoped for. It is not affordable, but our darling son or daughter expresses that this is his/her “dream school”. Not wanting to disappoint, we say ok and decide we will figure out how to pay later.  We can always take out loans …
  4. Not understanding the true cost of loans – It’s that last sentence above that gets a lot of people, “We can always take out loans.” For individuals with decent credit, unfortunately this is true.  There are parent PLUS loans and private student loans out there ready to lend you to full cost of attending a particular college in exchange for hefty interest payments. I would argue that few people really think through the total cost of a massive college loan, using a tool like Insert Link Here, to determine just how much interest they will be expected to pay over how long.  


Why (Shouldn’t You) Choose a College You Can’t Afford?

  1. Long-term financial consequences – When you choose a college you can’t afford, there are always long-term financial consequences, either for you, for your student, or both. Maybe you are willing to sacrifice your retirement savings to send your student to an expensive college. Experts say don’t do it! Make sure you are on track for enough retirement savings first. Maybe your student is ok with the idea of paying student loans off for 20 years after graduation. I’d argue that although it sounds ok today, it will make your son or daughter miserable in the future when it restricts his or her ability to have financial freedom. A better vision would be to see you student off after college graduation knowing that he or she has complete freedom to start his or her career however he or she chooses without worrying about how to make payments.
  2. College is what you make of it – Many experts have said something like, “It’s not where you go, it’s what you do there.” Of course, where your student goes to college does matter to some extent. Choosing  a college with a good 4-year graduation rate and a good freshman retention rate will increase his or her chances of being happy there and managing to graduate in 4 years. Once there, it’s up to your student to get involved and find engaging opportunities that will contribute towards his or her future success.
  3. There are lots of deals out there – Why pay too much for college when there are so many deals out there? As I said above, depending on your family income, there are either need-based or merit-based aid opportunities. You just have to know where to look and your student has to be willing to consider colleges he or she may not have considered otherwise. Private colleges often discount tuition by half or more to attract good students. These are usually not the colleges at the top of the “prestige” list. Those colleges don’t need to offer deals to attract students. They already attract many more students than they have spots for. It’s the colleges that are lesser known that offer the best deals.

I am definitely an advocate for not paying too much for college. Most of my blog posts relate to this topic. If you are interesting in learning more on this topic, explore the Categories section on the right side of my site to find other blog posts and sign up for my Weekly Newsletter to get a weekly email with my latest post along with links to other great articles and posts I have found online.


Lori-Anne Hill · November 27, 2017 at 7:18 pm

Thank you for this article! I needed to be reminded of this again.

    Wendy Nelson · December 3, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Lori-Anne! I think we all need to be reminded of this sometimes because it is very tempting to allow our kids to base their decision on emotion and not finances. Hopefully there is a happy medium for most students.


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