When Your Dream School Costs Too Much

I’m resurrecting a college blog post that I wrote last spring because it’s going to be timely again when high school seniors begin getting their acceptance letters.

We are approaching the time of year when parents agonize about sending their children off to expensive colleges and universities even if they can’t afford the price tag. When acceptances arrive, common sense often disappears during family discussion about affording colleges. Parents often can’t say “no” when their children think their lives will not be worth living if they can’t attend their dream school.

Families can avoid these emotional scenes by making sure that the colleges on a teenager’s list are good matches, not just academically but financially. It’s best to determine what are the chances are that a child will be eligible for need-based aid or merit aid from schools before applications are completed.  Failing to do this can lead to the sort of financial disaster that I mentioned in my post from last spring:

Dream School Disaster

Today I’m going to use New York University as a punching bag.

I’m going to use NYU to illustrate how too many well-meaning families muddle through the college process and end up looking for the most highly ranked colleges without considering the price.

Some of these families end up like Cortney Munna, a 26-year-old woman, who is facing nearly $100,000 in student debt, after graduating from New York University. NYU happens to be the second most expensive college in the country. Cortney got into this mess with the encouragement of her mother. An column in The New York Times yesterday on high student debt focused on Cortney’s fate.

Clearly NYU was a horrific choice for this young woman, who mistakenly thought that the patina of her degree would bring her a career with big bucks. It hasn’t happened. She is now earning $22 an hour at a job, which is the highest pay she has enjoyed since graduating five years ago.

NYU Price Tag

It’s no wonder that Munna is strugging with college debt. NYU costs close to $54,000 a year and the school typically only meets 71% of a student’s financial aid need. And that 71% includes loans. For a wealthy school, that sort of aid package is truly dreadful. It’s no surprise that students graduating from NYU leave with average college debt of $33,500, which is far higher than the national average.

Walking Away From a Dream School

Today, however, I want to applaud a family that did manage to resist the allure of NYU after receiving very little financial help.

The daughter of a friend of mine has been wanting to attend New York University since she was in middle school. She dreams of becoming a film director and she is quite talented.  I warned her parents at least two years ago that NYU typically offers underwhelming financial aid packages.

Sure enough, NYU accepted Lia, but only gave her $5,000. Leslie (the mom), calculated that she and her husband would go into $100,000 debt and Lia would have to assume $40,000 in student loans to make this work. The prospects of all this student debt didn’t discourage Lia. She still wanted to go!

A Great Offer

Luckily, Lia also received an offer from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles that would cut 83% off the price of its bachelor’s degree. Lia earned this phenomenal deal because of her extraordinary film-making potential. Loyola Marymount also has a film school and it’s in LA for goodness sakes.  How can you beat this price?

My friend Leslie and her husband told Lia she would be going to Loyola Marymount. Lia is still smitten with NYU, but hopefully she will come around to the wonderful educational opportunity in front of her. Maybe the new car that her parents can now afford to buy her will help.

Sometimes parents have to save their children from their own naivete. I bet Cortney Munna wishes her mom had done the same for her.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of a new eBook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. She also blogs about college for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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5 Responses to When Your Dream School Costs Too Much

  1. Jon April 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    I know this is old; but how very frustrating. My daughter accepted at BU, GWU, and NYU all with no merit aid available. Sorry—- can’t afford the $250,000 for 4 years! Plus grad school. She looks at it like….”why did I work so hard?”. I’m confident she’ll find her footing elsewhere, but I’m not planning on a 2nd mortgage or 401k loan! Nice writing– keep it up!

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy April 6, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      Hi Jon,

      Sorry to hear that your daughter was shut out of merit aid. Well-known universities on the East and West Coasts tend to be stingy because they have so many students who want to go to schools in big cities on the Coasts.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    • Megan April 19, 2013 at 12:15 am #

      I know, I was accepted to a few schools that I really like and other schools which either have mediocre at best programs or are schools which I know I won’t be that comfortable in. I’m really cheap so I know I will probably end up going to the cheaper schools, and I just feel like after so much hard work without enjoying high school, what was the point? I hope your daughter finds a good school, I keep telling myself its what you make college that counts : )

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