Elite Colleges, Entitled Teens and Guilted Parents

The college admission season is winding down at this time of year except for this part:

Parents are stressing about how they’re going to pay for the college that their children want to attend.

Spring is when I hear from parents who are being guilted by their children to spend dangerously more than they should for a brand name research university.

I heard a story recently from a concerned dad in Virginia that fits this pattern.

Here’s some background:

  • The Virginia parents are retired, but have a high Expected Family Contribution, which means the formula says the household can afford to pay full price even at the most expensive colleges.
  • Their youngest child is a smart teenager, who received acceptances from Cornell University, University of Southern California and University of Virginia.
  • Being from a high-income house, she qualified for no financial aid from Cornell, which doesn’t provide merit scholarships.
  • She received a $10,000 merit scholarship from USC, but that would barely nick the price of this school which would cost the parents roughly $300,000 for a single bachelor’s degree.
  • University of Virginia, with in-state tuition, would be the affordable option for the couple.
  • After putting two kids through college already, the parents have just $40,000 saved up for this third child.

What the teenager wants

Despite the difficult economic reality, this teenager believes she is owed the opportunity to attend her first choice – USC – because she worked hard in high school. Here is what her dad shared:

Our daughter wants to go to USC and is amenable to going to UVA but not happy about it. She feels like she will be with her high school classmates and that she worked hard to have a chance with USC and Cornell and would be falling back to UVA. Of course, I’ve tried to let her know how fortunate she is to have UVA as an option – fabulous school.

My reaction

What irritates me when I hear stories from understandably stressed out parents is the sense of entitlement that some teenagers possess. (I heard from another affluent parent while I was writing the post whose son got into his in-state university with a scholarship, but he wants to go to Emory University that gave him zero money.)

These teenagers seem to believe that excelling in high school means their parents should bankroll a bachelor’s degree at an elite university regardless of the cost. And sadly plenty of parents will cave and do just that.

Acing high school, however, doesn’t give teenagers the right to endanger their parents financial security just because they want to attend a trophy school.
And as a practical matter, studies have shown repeatedly that where high-achieving, high-income students attend college doesn’t matter!! The odds are great that these students will fare well financially regardless of whether or not they attend the so-called golden ticket schools.

Admission to elite schools typically only make a difference for low-income and first-gen students. These underprivileged students usually attend community colleges and nearby state universities.

In the Virginia case, the University of Virginia is an excellent research university. She would not be “falling back” on UVA!

The best strategy

Here is how I would suggest parents approach this issue:

1. It’s important that parents set their children’s college expectation early. Parents should tell their teenagers that excelling in high school doesn’t mean that they can attend whatever expensive college they can get into.

2. This is the wrong message to tell kids:
Honey, apply to the schools that you want and we’ll find a way to make it happen. Only take this approach if you are willing to accept that this could ultimately turn into a six-figure mistake.

3. If money is an issue (and it usually is), the potential net cost of college must be a factor before a child starts the college hunt.  No school should be considered as a serious candidate unless parents have run that college’s net price calculator.

If you don’t know what a net price calculator is, here is a blog post that I wrote about them:

4. Some parents are just as mesmerized by elite schools as their children. The college admission scandal is an ugly example of that.

Some parents crave the bragging rights and will jeopardize their own retirement plans to pay or borrow for an elite school. Seriously examine your motivations if this resonates with you!

Next Time

In my next blog post, I am going to share the experience of Illinois parents who faced the same choice with their talented daughter four years ago.

The teenager wanted to attend Northwestern University, which would have been full price, but the University of Pittsburgh had offered her a great scholarship.

Learn More

An excellent way to cut the cost of college is to enroll in my online course, The College Cost Lab. You can learn more here.

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24 Responses to Elite Colleges, Entitled Teens and Guilted Parents

  1. RI May 4, 2019 at 7:16 am #

    Thanks Lynn for this article .If parents knew they couldn’t afford full price tag at an university then why would they allow their kids to apply in first place .This discussion should happen when applications are being sent .I have seen many parents in this limbo.

  2. Leigh April 26, 2019 at 5:56 am #

    Wait, how does the story end? Did the Virginia family send their daughter to UVA, Cornell, or USC?

  3. Marilyn April 18, 2019 at 11:15 am #

    One thing no one has addressed is that the parents had two older children and basically spent all the money on those kids. It seems only fair that the youngest would expect as much. To be fair the parents should have budgeted equally for the three children so they did not run out of money for the third. There is no information on what they spent on each of these, but they may have gotten their top choices. I agree that UVA is probably at least as good as USC, but am not sure the parents are acting fairly. Also parents who have a high EFC can generally afford to pay the costs, though it may have some effect on their lifestyle, and force them to make some sacrifices such as delaying buying a new car or going to Europe. I understand that $300,000 is ridiculously high for a USC education, but feel the parents needed to divide their money more fairly. If the parents did spend way more on the first two, perhaps they can compensate the third teen by leaving a greater inheritance or some other way of admitting a mistake in being fair to her.

    • Natalia April 18, 2019 at 12:13 pm #

      Yeah, but life isn’t always fair. And no kid is entitled to an expensive college. Maybe they did pay equally for all their kids…..we don’t know that. Maybe they had some hardships…also, it was mentioned that the parents are retired, maybe they weren’t retired when the other kids were in college? Who knows? Also, Virginia is a great school and having a debt free college education can’t be beat..

    • Erin Fitzsimmons April 22, 2019 at 9:06 am #

      You don’t know what the parents spent on the other kids and it would be nice to know but believe me parents with a high EFC cannot always afford to pay the costs. The FAFSA does not take into account where you live. We live in Los Angeles which is one of the most expensive cities in the country. We live here because of work, and the value of our small little house would be a mansion in most other parts of the country. In our case, our EFC was grossly inaccurate. We only let our son apply to schools that give merit aid, which limited his choices but was the only way we could make it work.

    • Natalia April 24, 2019 at 9:34 am #

      We don’t know for sure if they spent all their money on the older kids. Also, they may not have been retired when the older kids were in college. Also, no kid is really entitled to their parent’s money. Parents deserve to use some of their money too…

    • Marie May 19, 2019 at 5:28 pm #

      I think your comment reflects the fact that the college debt issue is largely one of the middle middle and upper middle classes. You have parents who have (in many cases) become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and feel like they are poor if their IPhones are two years old. Often the parents are deeply in debt already. Expectations all around are dysfunctional. Of course, I have no idea if this applies to the family in the example, obviously it very well might not, but I think the general issue reflects this.

  4. Natalia April 17, 2019 at 1:04 pm #

    UVA is not a fall back school. Heck, I’d be thrilled if I got into UVA and it was my instate school!

    In my area UVA along with Michigan is the dream out of state public for the all the high achieving kids! They all clamber to apply and get in there!

    Also, you could write basically the same article about a kid from say Wisconsin or Florida who really really wants to go to Virginia, but they FIN AID is too poor and they would have to take out too many loans. They also got into their instate flagship at UW-Madison/Uni Florida which has given them a generous scholarship and has affordable instate tuition..but oh no, the kid can’t go instate…it’s a fallback school, all my high school friends are there…

  5. natalia April 17, 2019 at 12:51 pm #

    University of Virginia is a fallback school? In what world?! I’d be thrilled if I got into UVA and it was my instate school!

    At my affluent school in Orange County, UVA along with Michigan are the hotsy public schools that all the high achieving kids are clambering to apply to and get in.

    Heck, you could even write the same article about UVA offering poor fin aid to an out of state kid!

  6. Mary April 12, 2019 at 11:29 pm #

    Maybe the parents can take a page out of this playbook: Tell the daughter that they have $40k to put towards her education to use anyway she’d like. Any costs beyond that are on her. (Had a friend do that when his two daughters became engaged in the same year. He knew it was the only way to approach the situation fairly, as one was a spendthrift and the other a penny-pincher. )

    The parents can then help her do the math to figure out what that loan looks like, and how long it will suck the fun out of her post-college years. Graduate school and her own house? out of the question; rice & beans and lots of roommates well into her 30’s?-absolutely necessary. (BTW, one rule of thumb is to not borrow any more than the first year’s anticipated salary. High grossing Petroleum Engineers *only* start out around $95k, so a $260k loan (+ interest) is out of the question even for them.)

    Oh, don’t forget to let Dear Daughter know that the interest rate starts building from the day she takes out the loan, not the day she (hopes) to graduate.

  7. Heather April 12, 2019 at 7:12 am #

    I hope my response will help parents stuck on name universities/colleges. Our oldest daughter graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. A very affordable option even though she was out of state (it’s a public liberal arts college in St. Mary’s City, MD). She loved it. She received an excellent education. Due to small class size she got to know her professors very well. Even went to BBQs at their homes. She impressed one particular professor who recommended her to an associate at Dartmouth who hired her as a research assistant who was impressed by her that when she applied to Dartmouth to begin her PhD studies in neuroscience she was accepted and has worked very hard these last four years toward her degree inhis lab. She is also a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. All this from college many people on the west coast here hasn’t heard of. She will apply this year to medical school and is debt free from her undergrad and graduate school. As a PhD student is paid a stipend and is not charged tuition at Dartmouth, but works very hard for them.

    Our youngest daughter graduated from Willamette University which also has small classes enabling her to get to know her professors very well, particularly her organic chemistry professor who mentored her for two summers in her lab under a wonderful program by which our daughter was awarded a very, very generous stipend that enabled her to live in Salem in the summer and pocket a tidy sum for the following school year. Also, under this program she and her team presented at a program in Spokane the following fall. Due to this relationship our daughter was recommended to work as a research assistant at Oregon Health & Science University as a research assistant. OHSU was impressed enough by her education, experience and work ethic a program was started between Willamette University and OHSU to have a qualified undergrads work in the lab. A very valuable experience. This daughter is also applying to medical school this year. She had been accepted at Bates College and Washington and Lee, but with no financial aid other than loans. We could not afford the $60,000 plus price tag of these schools and she would have graduated with enormous debt. At the time she applied for undergrad becoming a doctor was NOT on her radar, but her undergrad experience at Willamette guided her into this direction which she loves. Willamette awarded her generous scholarships which made it affordable for us. Both she and her older sister can now take out loans in their own names for medical school without the burden of undergrad loans and we can anticipate retirement in the near future.

    This is a long post, but I want parents to know it is more than OK to say NO to universities and colleges that will financially cripple you and your children.

    Lynn, thank you, thank you for your support all these years. I read the first edition of your book which led me on this journey of higher educational gems and our daughters successes.

  8. Lillian April 11, 2019 at 7:01 am #

    Great post. My husband is guilty of #2 and I am guilty of #4. My son’s safety school is UT Austin ( he’s already in with top 6% auto admission) but he really loves Rice and we are heading to look at Yale next week…Ugh.

    Question: We keep getting letters from Harvard and Yale not to worry about the cost but they sent the same letters to my sister-in-law (roughly same income but we have more savings), and her kid did Early Decision at Brown and they are on the hook for the whole thing. Is that even legal????They are freaking out because they have two other kids also. Should we avoid Early Decision at Rice?????

    • Karen April 16, 2019 at 6:06 am #

      Lillian – seems like your son has some wonderful options. Unless you are prepared to pay full tuition and fees/costs at Rice, I would avoid early decision. When your child applies early decision, both the child and parent are required to sign what is essentially a contract where you agree that if accepted you will promptly pull all other pending college applications and attend the school that just accepted you. So re: your sister-in-law and Brown – yes, it is in fact very legal. Practically speaking of course, no one can force your child to attend a given university, and if you truly have need and it doesn’t come through, then that’s a conversation with the financial aid staff – however, the whole point re: early decision is that you’ve committed to a first choice, no matter what. Also, it’s one thing to see letters that say don’t worry about money, but it’s another to have a university indicate the same after they’ve actually reviewed your financial situation. Some smaller liberal arts school give “early reads” when applying early decision where you send them financial information ahead of applying early decision and they give you an idea of what money might come your family’s way. You can always ask whether they do that at Rice. Also, if a given school has a pretty good net price calculator (good ones ask lots of questions about your specific financial situation – if you have to get your tax return and investment statements out to answer then it’s a good one), they will give you a pretty good idea of whether you qualify for any financial aid. That’s another step you can take. Best of luck to your son!

    • Fiora April 26, 2019 at 10:09 am #

      Lillian,

      Early decision means that you give up your right to continue to look at any other school, no matter what the scholarship offers might be. I would never recommend early decision unless you are absolutely certain you are going to go to that school, and can afford it regardless of scholarships or financial aid.

      As far as letters that say “don’t worry about cost”, it’s important to understand that those are very carefully worded letters that are meant to apply to everyone, and you can’t just take that one sentence or couple of sentences as the whole message. What they mean, and usually state, is that this is a school that approaches admissions as “need blind”–meaning they will not admit based on whether you are a wealthy family who can pay full tuition–AND, if your EFC on your FAFSA shows a “high need” based on federal guidelines, then your student will be subsidized for tuition costs. This means that a student with an EFC of 0, will have a full tuition subsidy AFTER Pell grant and other federal grants. A student with an EFC of $7000, though, has “no need” because that is higher than the federal Pell grant amount. So that student will be paying full tuition, unless they get scholarships that are not need based.

  9. Erin April 10, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    Thanks Lynn, for another timely and necessary post. I have your book and used your advice to help my oldest daughter navigate through the admissions process and am now on child #2. I discovered the Frank Palmasani book that Thomas mentioned above on my first go-round, which combined with your guidance made all the difference! Our oldest is very happy at Lawrence University (with lots of merit money) but I am finding the conversation to be different with daughter #2, who is a high-achieving student and more susceptible to the chatter around her in high school. We have a third child waiting in the wings so we’re pretty firm about our budget, and I *think* she’s getting the message.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2019 at 1:56 pm #

      Thanks for sharing Erin! Congratulations on your oldest! I really like Lawrence. And I’m glad you are staying firm with daughter No. 2! Good luck!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. dave April 9, 2019 at 3:03 pm #

    here’s a suggestion:
    “USC?! We did’nt pay no 15k bribe to get you admitted, so why should we pay a 300k bribe so you can attend? Now get your 17 year old butt down to UVA – its a better school anyway (not as good or as focused as VA Tech, but maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are).

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2019 at 1:57 pm #

      Thanks Dave! I don’t know why anyone would pay $300,000 for USC!

      Lynn O.

  11. Sharon April 9, 2019 at 12:19 pm #

    Wow, amazing! University of Virginia has such a good reputation. Why wouldn’t she want to go there? I would have loved to have that as an in-state option for our teens. Ours are in-state on merit scholarships at UofSC and Clemson. We are lucky to be able to save their 529 money toward possible graduate study. Best of luck to these retired parents as they try to convince their daughter. On second thought, maybe they just need to bite the bullet and tell her she has to go to UVA, that they won’t pay for USC. Tell, don’t ask. Once she’s enrolled at UVA, I bet she will meet kids from out-of-state for whom UVA is their “dream school”. Also, flagship universities are so big that you don’t run into people you know from high school.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2019 at 1:58 pm #

      Hi Sharon,

      I totally agree with you. If I were in their shoes, I’d just tell the child she is going to UVA and I’m sure she ultimately will be happy that she didn’t hurt your parents retirement security!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  12. Lisa Rathe April 9, 2019 at 11:38 am #

    You are a strong and much needed voice. I have four kids. I bought your book. My first two sons so far chose an economic path, turning down more prestigious colleges to go to small ones with merit or state universities with honors programs. I am grateful to you for giving me the courage to find the right fit financially and philosophically.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2019 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words, Lisa! I am so glad you experienced success with your first two sons and that they were smart enough to know what the best choices were!

      Good luck with the next two!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  13. Thomas B Walsh April 9, 2019 at 10:58 am #

    This is a great post!
    Have you read Frank Palmasani’s, Right College, Right Price?
    My suggestion, as a parent, is if you think your child is “college material,” start this conversation when they are in middle school. (Kids still think you know something at that age.)

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2019 at 1:59 pm #

      Thanks Thomas. I totally agree with you. I do like Palmasani’s book.

      Lynn O.

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