When Parents Need to Say No to a Teen’s College Choices

on April 26, 2017

If your teenager gets into his or her dream college and it isn’t a good financial fit, can you say no? Can you afford to not say no?


This is the time of year when these painful conversations are happening across the country as the traditional May 1 deadline looms.


During a previous admission season, I talked to a dad from Chicago who did say no after his daughter got into her dream college — Northwestern University.


A stellar student from the Chicago suburbs, the teenager earned an ACT score of 35, had a transcript stuffed with 15 Advanced Placement classes and was the class salutatorian.


The affluent parents could have paid out-of-pocket for three years at Northwestern, which was charging them full price, but they balked at the expensive price tag. They wanted her to go to her second choice — the University of Pittsburgh — where she had received a full tuition scholarship with an invitation to its honors college.


Here is the dad’s recollection of the conversation:


Our daughter’s reaction to the Northwestern veto was tearful and emotional. It was hard to watch and experience. We all want to do everything we can for our kids and we typically want to say “yes” to their requests. We knew her reaction would be teary and full of profound disappointment, but we felt we had to do what we ultimately did for her long-term benefit. We had to say “no.”


Even when it’s the most obvious move, plenty of parents aren’t capable of saying no. And that’s true even when allowing their child to attend their dream colleges can consign the student and parents to dangerous levels of debt.  


Here are seven things to keep in mind when considering just saying no:


1. The teenage brain isn’t fully developed


Even if your child is an overachiever academically, you can’t expect him or her to think rationally about this monumental college decision.


In reality, the teenage brain will keep developing until the mid 20s. Adults think with their prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain controlling rational thought and controls emotions and impulses. This area of the brain, which is used to make big decisions, isn’t fully developed for teenagers. The less developed teenage brain can lead to more risk taking and impulsivity.


2. Teenagers will get over it


If you say no, chances are that your child will bounce back from the disappointment. You might even be thanked someday for stepping in and making the prudent decision.


One teenager who rebounded quickly was the girl whose parents shot down her dream to attend Northwestern. Her mother and father, who decided that they would rather hold onto the money for their daughter’s graduate school years, shared this:


Now, two days later, my daughter is online in a University of Pittsburgh forum looking for a roommate. Seems like she is happily looking towards her future as a Panther.


3. Protect them from themselves


Your child doesn’t understand how debilitating college debt can be. A teenager can say that they understand the financial burden they are willing to take on, but it’s highly unlikely that they do. They are excited about attending their dream college and the financial consequences are too far away to contemplate.


In a previous post, I mentioned a teenager who trotted to her local bank to inquire about a loan to pay for NYU and was told no. She was willing to borrow $200,000 or more to attend this university. A banker told her that borrowing more than the federal Direct Loan for students allows (typically $31,000 over five years) would require a cosigner. And the parents said no to prevent her from committing financial suicide.


Try using the federal loan repayment calculator to run the numbers with your child to show how borrowing too much money can condemn them to decades of student loan misery.


4. You don’t owe your child a gold-plated bachelor’s degree


If you bought your child a used, perfectly functional car in high school, it’s doubtful that your teenager would respond by insisting instead on a fully loaded BMW. And yet there are many teenagers who believe that their hard work and excellent grades entitles them to an education that costs more than the median price of a house today.


You can hear variations of this argument from students who attend private and affluent public high schools:


Why did I work so hard if I can’t go to my dream college?


You could tell them that a major purpose of doing well in high school is to prepare them for college, not to get into a trophy college.


5. Where you go to graduate school is more important


If a child goes into deep debt for an undergraduate degree, pursuing a graduate degree could be out of the question. Students who graduate from college with no debt are much more likely to go on to graduate school than students who graduate with some debt. And where you obtain an advanced degree is typically more important than where you earned a bachelor’s degree.


6. Just because parents can borrow enough to afford a pricey college, doesn’t mean they can afford to repay it


A troubling aspect of the federal parent loan program is that parents can borrow large sums of money without showing any ability to pay it back. That’s because the underwriting for the federal PLUS Loan program ignores parent income and debt-to-income ratios.


A parent who works part-time at a fast-food restaurant earning $25,000 a year can borrow more than her entire salary to pay for one year of college. 


The PLUS Loan only rejects applicants who have black marks on their credit histories such as a bankruptcy, foreclosure or a seriously delinquent payment.


Tell your child that you can’t jeopardize your retirement years to pay for an expensive college.


7. There isn’t a monopoly on post-graduate success


Students don’t need to attend a college that’s a ratings darling to succeed. What students do to make the most of their college experience matters more than where they enroll. Students are most likely to succeed if they find a mentor at college, work hard at their studies, get involved in extracurriculars and find internships.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.

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