Late to the party (are families really going 150 to 200k in debt for undergrad?)

Parent of rising senior son. West coast, smaller suburban high school. 4.0 UW GPA, 32 ACT , several APs although not all 4s and 5s, some interesting activities but not the superhuman (1st gen trilingual refugee student who plays with adult orchestra and started pet rescue nonprofit in spare time) type. No other unique attractive attributes (sometimes called “hooks” on this forum).
This summer we have spent considerable time researching schools based on interests and finances and it has been a stunning and depressing journey. Most of my son’s life we lived on 1 public school teacher salary. In the last 6-7 years my wife returned to public school teaching and I took another job in a public school at a higher salary. For kicks I ran a NPC at my own alma mater, Brown U and see that we are expected to pay 47,000 out of pocket each year. We saved almost every spare dollar as he grew up in a 529 and have roughly 40,000 saved for him, less than a year at a Brown-like school (and this is a huge stretch assuming he would be admitted).
Then we ran similar NPCs for local private colleges in Oregon and Washington for reference. In the best cases it is 35,000 to 38,000 dollars! Am I just living in fantasy land and other parents like us are taking on extreme personal debt for kids’ undergrad education?
I know almost every parent thinks his/her/their kid works very hard and I am no different- loaded schedule with demanding AP coursework balanced with other activities and 2 varsity sports. He has worked SO much harder than I did in high school. Hours and hours grinding.
I have to think there are a lot of families like ours. Is the answer to simply say “You are limited to our state school and such is life?” Almost my entire extended family attended state schools in Oregon so I don’t mean to suggest anything is wrong with going that route, but it feels a bit “off” that he could have not taken the path he took, seriously reduced his load, spent less time in test prep and ended up in the same school for the same price.

A couple of points:

Sounds like you made a conscious decision to live off of one teachers salary for most of your sons life which is great but it does have it’s consequences, like not having the additional income to fully fund a college savings account. There are a lot of families that “sacrificed” having both parents work so they could maximize their college savings.

Secondly, your child did not waste his time in HS taking a harder academic path to end up as other state school kids. I would like to think that he had challenged himself and learned a lot of skills that will help him in college and for the rest of his life.

Lastly, to your question, on a public school teachers salary I personally would not take out 150K - 200K in undergraduate loans for a private college for my son. Most families cannot afford a private college unless they look to go to “lesser colleges” that give lots of merit to make it more affordable for you. There are plenty of threads about merit and paying for college on CC that might interest you. Good luck, it will all work out fine and most of success in life is making the most of your opportunities even if attending a state college.

No, many families are not going into huge debt for undergrad. Lots of great opportunities within state universities for honors colleges or screened or capped majors. Some lesser known private colleges will discount for high stat students, so net price is similar to in-state.

Also have you looked at opportunities via WUE?
P.S. He may be able to double major, or start a masters early, or graduate early with state universities accepting AP credits.

To answer the question in the subject line, yes they are. I work with one. Fully funding 4 years of undergrad with loans they are co-signing for (it remains to be seen if they will get approved for enough for all 4 years).

My husband and I have both worked FT (he’s a public school teacher) since having kids. S17 will be a junior at a state U. D21 will be a high school junior. We’re in the same boat - she’s a higher stat kid who works very hard and has great grades and may most likely end up at an in state public. But I don’t think she’s wasted her time in high school - she’ll hopefully get merit her brother didn’t, maybe Honors College and, most importantly, she’ll be more than prepared to succeed in college and beyond.
A lot of people are in the same boat. Sticker shock. But search merit threads. Your son’s hard work can pay off in nice merit awards if you’re willing to look outside the same 20 big names.

As a stronger high school student, he will be better prepared for college (any college including UO, OSU, etc.) than the student who slacked off more in high school and will start college less well prepared, possibly needing remedial courses and having to work harder for probably less result in college frosh level courses due to weaker academic skills from high school.

Agree with this 110%. Your child will find high stats kids anywhere they go to school.

Have you looked at your public on state options?

Thanks all. Yes we have looked at our in-state public schools and there are some nice options there indeed. Here is the rub I need to work through (am attempting to work through with the help of posters like you)… regardless of how amazing, hardworking, innovative, compassionate, driven a young person with parents like us might be, he/she is generally staring at 2 options- an in-state (subsidized) option or a debt load well beyond 6 figures. I’m not naive enough to think that higher ed is a meritocracy or “fair” in most peoples sense but a model this limiting is rather disappointing (and on a personal level I think my own child would benefit from a small school where he might be a bit more known and less of an ID number.

For most students attending college immediately after high school, parental finances are the most important factor determining the choice of college.

Students with top-end academic credentials may have some additional options based on large-enough merit scholarships that bring net prices down to the parental budget limit.

Southern Oregon University markets itself as a public LAC, although it also has a regional focus.

However, a top-end student may find more suitable opportunities at a larger college, where the number of similar top-end students there may be enough to offer such things as honors courses, honors programs, etc…

My D is in a public flagship’s honors college. I can honestly tell you that she is far from an ID number. She’s on a first name basis with the associate dean, had regular dinner with profs and met their families, and had all kinds of opportunities.

I can hear your disappointment that you can’t give your child the world but honestly, a good student will thrive and be successful anywhere.

If you are thinking your student will thrive more in an LAC, look at schools where his stats will be above the 75th% and that are generous with merit $. Not sure of your son’s interests/intended major but St. Olaf comes to mind, especially for a student with a talent in music.

My daughter just graduated from a very strong OOS flagship university. She was definitely not an ID number. She was close with her professors, ate meals with them, tutored their children, had lots of opportunities, etc.

I don’t see your child as having two options- either remaining instate or taking on significant debt (you would have to co-sign). If smaller schools are a good fit, I would research those that would give your child merit money.

I am sure some people take on 6 figure debt for college, but I would not. Good luck to you!

Uh, yes. I was one of them. Borrowed $45k or so for each year of my oldest’s college. We were in a cash crunch, just moved? Just bought a house, others in private school. We started payments on each installment as soon as it was disbursed. Took ten years to repay each disbursement, so 14 years of payments. Yes, it hurt, Very painful. But we did it.

There is nothing wrong with taking out the loans. The problem is taking out loans without understanding the terms and the financial implications and impact of them. Even more important is paying back the loans. If you can afford to pay it back, it’s all good. If it puts you into financial trouble, it’s a problem. It’s your personal business as to how you spend, invest and borrow money.

I had to put the expensive schools out of our radar, else make ourselves crazy. It just isn’t possible for for everyone. The good news is that there are other wonderful schools that your son CAN to with the help of the amazing savings you have for him. University of Alabama, University of Nebraska, Ole Miss, and many more offer excellent programs and merit offers to good students. It doesn’t have to be Brown to be a great education.

With all due respect, I think that it’s possible that because you attended a school like Brown you may have a very skewed view of your son’s affordable options for college. Just based on what I’ve observed on CC, many parents who either attended “elite” schools or have spent their lives in the northeast corridor really seem to believe that a truly excellent education is only available to students who attend maybe 25 private universities and perhaps that’s why the notion of state schools or less well known privates who may offer him merit scholarships seems somehow lesser or as you say “off”.

Your son sounds like a truly great, intelligent, hard-working kid but based on his stats seems more like what has been called an “average excellent” student who may not have been admitted to the kinds of schools you have been dreaming of, even if you had the available funds to pay for them.

Please trust that your son’s hard work and particularly his work ethic will yield wonderful results in many colleges and universities which will not require you or him to take on significant debt. It’s time to begin to seriously investigate what colleges will be able to recognize his considerable strengths, his interests in terms of potential majors, and his personal requirements for where he’d like to spend his 4 years as an undergraduate, and forget the status-school brainwashing which lead so many students and their parents into ruinous debt. I seriously commend you and your wife for managing to save $40k for your son’s education. The fact that you’ve achieved that puts your kid miles ahead of many of his peers and is a tremendous gift to him.

Even at smaller colleges, some required lower division courses are larger. Once in his major, you kid will have classes that are not as huge.

Even with huge classes, students can meet with professors during office hours, attend study groups, or join interest related clubs where the student can meet folks.

I honestly think my kid who went to the 35,000 student university knew his professors better than my kid who attended the 5000 student school.

Honestly I believe that the money my parents and I paid for my Ivy League diploma wasn’t worth it. Yes, I was surrounded by some really bright students but also many not so bright. Unless I wanted to go to med school or into finance, the investment we made didn’t pencil out. In public education, an undergrad degree from Brown didn’t open doors and I’ve seen more opportunities come to guys from Oregon State through fraternity connections than anything I received. Most importantly, I never thought a school like Brown was a good fit for my own son. The degree of freedom provided and self-sufficiency required only fits a unique kid and that’s not mine right now. To make a long story short, we could care less about the name associated with the undergrad degree. It just isn’t that important in most industries. That said, I would like to believe he could go to places that match his strengths, interests and passions and not have cost rule out all but in state options.

As an Oregon resident your son is eligible for WUE (Western Undergraduate Exchange) which allows your son to attend public colleges in other western states at 150% of in-state tuition.

If your son is looking for a smaller college campus experience, maybe Ft Lewis College in Durango, CO if he’s into liberal arts. New Mexico Tech in Socorro, NM, if he’s more into engineering/technical fields. Both are small schools, well under 5K students.

Your son would be automatically eligible for the Amigo Scholarship at University of New Mexico, which would give him in-state tuition rates. UNM offers a wide variety of majors and has fewer than 15K undergrads. (25K total enrollment, including grad and professional school students.)

OP- big hug. You are in the trauma stage.

But think back- surely you’ve read about a million articles in the last 15 years about how college costs have escalated; how our generation can’t live on one income like our parents generation did (although my parents both worked); how the combination of housing costs, increased medical insurance, and college costs have created a spiral for parents of teenagers. Yes-- you’ve read these? Guess what- they are talking about you.

Couple of notes for you- if your public school system is anything like the ones I’m familiar with, you’ve traded cash income for benefits- retirement, health care particularly. You may not have ever put a price tag on those things but I’d encourage you to do that. I have many public school teachers in my family and they’ll say things like “My co-pay just increased to $10 and I’m livid”. Guess what- my co-pay has been at $50 per visit for the last umpteen years. Or they’ll grumble that their share of their health insurance is going to go up by 5% the year they retire, and they’ll have to pay that until they qualify for Medicare. Guess what- if most corporate folks retire early, they are on the hook for ALL of their health insurance, until Medicare kicks in. And bye bye pensions- those have gone the way of the dodo bird- dozens of people you know are self funding their ENTIRE retirement via 401K (with no match), IRA or their Roth. Which means that they have to save for the entirety of a retirement fund unless they want to live entirely on social security.

Why am I pointing this out? You’ve been lucky! You likely have NOT had to decide between the money you’ve put aside for college or paying for health insurance! You have the luxury of looking at your son’s college savings account and knowing that it can go entirely for college and not have to bail you out the year you retire and have zero cash flow. That’s great news. And more good news- you may indeed have the option of taking your retirement early, when you are still young and healthy AND can actually get another job and another shot at a career. And you were able to afford to make the choice to have one wage earner for longer than a maternity leave-- which very few people can swing these days, even if they want to.

So I’d turn your situation around, and start at the beginning. Figure out where your son might consider living (rural/urban), the kinds of subjects he’s likely to want to study and possible majors, and then figure out what you can actually afford- his college savings divided by four, and whatever you can fund out of cash flow for four years (your expenses will go down slightly without him at home). And then your son’s federal loans (which are NOT going to leave him 150K in the hole). If you and your wife choose to take a modest loan to augment- he’ll have additional options. And if you choose not to- great, he’ll still have options.

If it were me, I’d be looking at schools where your son would be a valuable commodity, AND where he qualifies for the most generous merit awards. A lot of the LAC’s skew female and Northeast- he’s got both gender and geography in his favor. Look at the places where the merit is (mostly) guaranteed for certain stats- there is nothing wrong with rolling the dice for the competition based awards where he’ll have to go to a weekend and meet/interview, but those are less predictable than the colleges which have the stats posted- a GPA of X and scores of Y usually get Z in merit money".

Your son sounds great and any college would be lucky to have him. I have been to several different conferences and events at Brown over the last few years, and although President Paxson is impressive and fantastic, it seemed clear to me (and others from my class) that funding first Gen kids is a huge institutional priority. As it was for President Simmons. So I would not personalize it AT ALL that you can’t afford Brown. I’ve got classmates who are pastors and social workers and teachers and work in the arts, and are freelance writers and cobble together a living as adjunct professors. They seem to be taking it personally that Brown’s EFC for their family is just untenable. It’s not personal- but increasing aid to middle class kids, especially legacies who no doubt will have many other attractive college options- doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. Going need blind- that was huge, but it’s costly.

Your son is going to have some terrific options! How invested is he in the process right now???

Yes, the cost of college is often untenable. It may force take on debt because they don’t have any other option. Imagine if you made 60k and your state school were 28k with financial aid? That’s a very common situation.
However your son will have options thanks to his hard work.
With great stats, curriculum rigor, and ECs, your son is going to have a LOT of options. As a boy from the Northwest he’s also a hot commodity (he offers gender AND geographical diversity) at most universities in the Midwest and South and almost ALL LACs in the Northeast.
Book campus tours at UPuget Sound and Whitman. If an on-campus interview is possible sign up for that too - those are more evaluative than alumni interviews and help both with demonstrating interest and the “why us” essay. Make sure he’s ready to speak about his academic interests, favorite books/films, key moments in his favorite ECs, majors of interest, and why he’s interested in that college. Have him take notes. See if Admissions can have you eat in the cafeteria to test the food visit the library as well as the gym.
Oregon State has a decent Honors college, UO has a superb Honors college.
So right there it’s 4 universities where he’s pretty sure to get discounts if he takes the application seriously and does all the additional (“optional”/“hones only”…) essays.
Next, look at LACs such as St Olaf (mentioned upthread), but also, depending on major of interest, Sewanee, St Lawrence, Hobart&William Smith, Dickinson, Rhodes, Muhlenberg… Run the NPC but also look at merit scholarships. All are very good and would be challenging for any strong student.
Then you have the WUE programs: not all majors are possible but there are quite a few choices that could be decent safeties.
Then you have honors colleges at places as different as College of Charleston, Temple, UMN TWIN CITIES, UIowa, etc.

Time for you to think carefully about your out of pocket budget and communicate it clearly to your son. If you can contribute 30k, or 25k, make it clear now. That + 5.5k loan + whatever he’s saved from a part time job, is his budget. He can apply to as many colleges as he wants that are within that budget through instate tuition or have him hunt for merit scholarships. Highlight honors college and LAC merit scholarship applications (such as for UO and UPugetSound) because they’re his ticket to a choice of colleges.
Knowing his budget early, taking the official campus tours early will help him.
BTW, run the NPC at other top universities - Brown weighs assets more than other universities/LACs I think. You can run the NPC for all NESCAC schools for instance, see if one is cheaper than the others.