Dear Roadie, My Son Insists on Borrowing $200K For a School We Can’t Afford. Did I Fail Him as a Parent?

Sticky note with the words, "Student Debt" with a frowny face written on it. In the background is an assortment of US currency.

Dear Roadie, My Son Insists on Borrowing $200K For a School We Can’t Afford. Did I Fail Him as a Parent?

Published May 9, 2024

Sticky note with the words, "Student Debt" with a frowny face written on it. In the background is an assortment of US currency.

Dear Roadie,

My child committed to a school we cannot afford. He’ll be in debt for potentially $200,000. We fought him tooth and nail and told him that he needed to stay in state or do community college. He received some merit from schools nearby but didn’t want to go to them. He’s applied for scholarships and we’re still waiting on FAFSA, but that’s still not going to cut it. There is no getting through to him and he wants to take on this huge debt. I’ve been losing sleep over this and feeling physically sick. I feel like I failed as a parent because my husband and I were unable to save for college for him as life wouldn’t permit it.
—  Feeling Hopeless

Dear Feeling Hopeless,

You did not fail because you can’t bankroll your son’s college education. Doing so is not a requirement for parenting. Many of us simply don’t earn enough to give our children a good life AND save for college, a nice car, and a million other things. Research shows 36 percent of parents say they’re not planning or saving for their child’s college at all, and of those that do, the vast majority fall way short of the total amount needed, so you’re in good company. 

That said, watching our adult children make choices that we think aren’t in their best interest is one of the hardest things we do as parents. I get that, but it’s certainly not indicative of any failure on your part.

Assuming he is a dependent student, and that there aren’t any significant grants or scholarships available, it won’t be easy to obtain enough loans to cover such a large amount. In fact, it might be close to impossible without your help. Here’s why:

Federal student loans max out at $5500 for the first year, $6500 for year two of college, and $7500 for years three and four. That’s nowhere near the $200,000 he needs, so he’d have to seek a Parent Plus Loan for the rest, which he can’t do without you. These loans have higher interest rates and specific credit requirements, hence why students can’t go this route alone. If he were to stop making payments down the road, the burden would fall on you and your credit score would be impacted.

His only other option for borrowing would be private loans, but he would need to have a great credit history and most undergraduate students will only qualify with a cosigner. 

Finally, colleges set limits on how much they allow students to borrow based on their cost of attendance. This means he’d have to find out what the school he’s insisting on attending allows and see if he can borrow enough money to fill the gap.

Reality Bites When It Comes to School Loans

If you’re unwilling to help him fall into massive debt, and I don’t blame you if you’re not, he will have to adjust his plans whether he likes it or not. Once reality sinks in, he may feel differently about going into so much debt.

I suggest you calmly look up what he’s likely to make when he graduates with his planned degree, then look at charts that show how much he’d have to pay every month and for how long. Sometimes the words we say to our kids are abstract thoughts without concrete meaning until they see them on paper. 

For example, even if he were to borrow $200,000, he would have to pay nearly $1300 per month for 20 years to pay that off, and by then he would have paid interest to the tune of over $100,000, or half what he initially borrowed. Seeing those numbers in black and white and comparing them to his likely take-home pay may be a real eye-opener. Even more so if you detail all the other payments he will have while trying to navigate those large student loan payments (rent/mortgage payments, car, food, utilities, etc).

I’d also suggest making an appointment with the financial aid office at the school he is planning to attend. Even via phone or video call, you should be able to meet with someone who can explain his options, including any limits that the school imposes on loans. Sometimes kids need to hear from someone other than a parent for things to sink in, and this will absolve you of being the only “bad guy” with bad news. 

I hope your son finds a different avenue to reach his goal, one that won’t put him in debt. Remind him that he can always start at one school and transfer to another, which can create a huge savings opportunity, especially for those early general education credits. Maybe one of those scholarships he was offered can get him through the first two years at a different school, then he won’t need to borrow nearly as much to finish his degree at the more expensive school.

Whatever happens, none of this is your fault. The fact that you’re feeling this way shows how much you care about him and his future, which is precisely the definition of a good parent. 

_______

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Other Articles You Might Like:

Dear Roadie: Should I Tell My Daughter Not to Bother Applying to Unaffordable Dream Schools?

How Do Parent PLUS and Private Student Loans Compare?

Student, Parent, Private or Federal Loans: Explore All of the Options

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