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For the past month, students across America have been receiving letters of acceptance and financial aid offers from their colleges and universities of choice. This is an exciting time and it is also an opportunity for students and parents to sit down for adult conversations about college and money.

Following a workshop last month at Virginia Tech, a faculty member approached me with questions about a relative who had been admitted to an independent (private) California college that had offered a $25,000 scholarship. After some discussion and a quick Google search, we concluded that total tuition, room and board at the campus could exceed $40,000, not including books, personal expenses, and travel back and forth from the East Coast.

It seems the student’s family would not be able to contribute much, so the balance would likely need to come from loans we conservatively estimated would be about $20,000 each year for a four-year total of $80,000. I asked what the student’s career goals were at this point and teaching and counseling emerged as two possibilities.

The annual starting salary for a first-year teacher averages slightly more than $41,000, while a new counselor can expect to earn a similar amount. The Office of Career Services at Penn State University developed a Loan Debt Repayment Chart, which estimates monthly loan payments, along with recommended annual salaries needed to meet loan obligations.

The suggested loan amount for someone earning a teacher or counselor’s starting salary of $41,000 is $25,000, which would require a $277.55 monthly payment for 10 years. Borrowing $80,000 would require an estimated monthly payment of $800, which would be a graduate’s second largest expense next to housing, even with a Penn State recommended annual salary exceeding $100,000 for someone borrowing that amount.

A 2014 US News article advises, “If you are borrowing or plan on borrowing for college, make sure you’ve thought long and hard about how much you can borrow based on a reasonable starting salary. It’s that — or pray your parents don’t change the locks.”

While returning to a childhood bedroom might be sufficiently unappealing, loan-burdened graduates often must defer or surrender visions and dreams, as accepting a job in order to pay back college loans takes precedence over plans to see the world, engage in community service, or explore other opportunities. Furthermore, many careers require graduate or professional education, where there is often less financial assistance and even greater reliance on additional loans.

A recent study by Purdue University and Gallup found that college graduates with higher levels of student loan debt are less likely to be thriving physically, to have a good sense of purpose and to be involved in their communities. Disturbingly, the negative consequences of having high levels of education debt don’t disappear when loans are fully repaid.

As students and families consider costs and financial aid offers, it is crucial to understand the “total cost of attendance,” which includes tuition, fees, housing, books, personal expenses, travel, etc. Following are examples of total annual costs:

University of California $34,500; California State Universities $19,000 to $26,000. Out-of-state costs are $29,000 at the University of Arizona, $31,000 at the University of Oregon and $33,000 at the University of Colorado.

Annual costs at private universities like Stanford, Harvard and the University of Southern California can exceed $65,000, while the University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University and Saint Mary’s College cost about $61,000 a year.

At the other end of the scale, a year at a California community college for a student living at home comes in at $4,100.

While parents want to provide their children with every opportunity for secure futures, another Purdue-Gallup study finds that the type of college students attend could have very little to do with their overall success and well-being after graduation. What matters more is the overall educational experience and emotional connections students make while in college. It’s not where students go to college, but how students go that’s important.

As emerging adults, students also should ask themselves what sacrifices they expect their parents and family to make in order for them to attend college. Do they want mom or dad to get an additional job that takes time away from family? Is it worth taking a brother or sister out of a private school so parents can pay tuition?

Thoughtful planning and prudent decision-making challenges students and families to consider a wide range of questions and issues as they engage in adult conversations about the future.

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to:


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