Kyle and I received an excellent undergraduate education a private college – a very, very expensive private college (it’s on this list). Our college was an absolutely perfect choice for me. There are only around three institutions in the country that offer a similar educational setting and none are in nearly as desirable a location. For my personality, my academic interests, and my career aspirations – and my love of warm weather – it was very well-suited.
In terms of the debt that we incurred (about $17k in federally subsidized student loans for me, zippo for Kyle) this education was a total steal. Strictly by the numbers, our college has appeared at or near the top of the starting and mid-career salary rankings for college graduates for the last several years. If we’re typical, we’re going to make a very decent living and we’re starting our life off with very little of the deadweight that hampers many graduates.
Does this sound braggy? I’m not promoting myself – I didn’t know all that going in. I believe I made a shockingly good choice when I was seventeen in applying and committing to my college. My parents were the ones who enabled me to attend by paying for my education.
This is where my ambivalence comes in. While I did get a partial merit scholarship, had two work-study jobs, and took out a few student loans, my parents paid for the majority of the sticker price of tuition and room and board. And by “paid for” I mean “financed largely with debt.”
As I’ve become more immersed in the personal finance world, my attitude toward debt has become no-tolerance. The idea of my parents taking out massive loans to send me to my dream school makes me feel both supremely appreciative and supremely guilty. My parents aren’t the greatest at money management, I realize now. Paying for my education must be taking a big chunk out of their financial stability and future standard of living.
I can’t change the past. I’m glad my parents paid for such a great education. But as Kyle and I look forward to having children and saving for their educations, I have to ask myself – would I do the same? Books like Debt-Free U (affiliate link – thanks for using!) have made me think it’s ridiculous to pay for private college when public universities provide a similar product at a vastly discounted rate. (Bissonnette even goes so far as to encourage students to get an associate’s degree at a community college before finishing up at a public 4-year institution, which I do not agree with.) Studies of graduates cited by Bissonnette show that post-college performance depends much more on the student’s intrinsic abilities rather than if they attended an elite college.
So if my child gets into her dream (private) school without much financial aid and also our state’s flagship public university (Berkeley, most likely, if we’re living in CA), how do we guide her? And, more immediately, how much money should we save? Do we cut off the possibility of private school for our child (barring scholarships) by saving only enough to fund a public school education? Or do we over-save to leave that possibility open? And how do we have any idea what college will cost by then?
I haven’t mentioned Kyle’s parents to this point. The reason he doesn’t have student loans is because they just straight up paid for school out of pocket. They had savings for some other purposes (a couple new cars, I believe, in his first year) that they just sacrificed to devote the money to his education. The fact that they positioned themselves financially to be able to do that, when tuition and room and board were more than $40k/year, gives me hope that perhaps we could do the same if we planned for it (assuming that tuition does not keep increasing exponentially).
The degree and transcripts that leave with you from college are only a small fraction of what that experience gives you. How in the world do we translate the worth of college to dollars? The quality of the classes makes an impact, the connections a student makes with professors makes and impact, the employment opportunities opened up by the program or school makes an impact, how supportive the school is of a student in a particular major makes an impact, and the intelligence, enthusiasm, and interests of the peer group makes an impact – and these are just the direct factors! Was my experience in college really worth 2.5 times what it would have been at my home state’s premier public university?
My point here isn’t to bash public universities. The vast majority of people in my PhD program went to public universities. (Anyway, I believe the bigger divide is between colleges and universities, not private and public institutions.) My point is that my parents enabled me to go to the institution of higher education that was absolutely perfect for me, and I’m just not sure if I would do the same for my children if the price tag is high.
I have a feeling this topic is going to come up more than once on this blog because my thoughts are so unsettled on it.
P.S. In case anyone is wondering. Kyle is an only child, but I have two younger siblings (both currently enrolled in community college). And my parents have paid off the loans they undertook for my education.
Do any other private-college kids want to weigh in – did you family use cash, loans, or (true) financial aid? Those with children, are you planning for public or private college for them?