Dream School Costs: When Your Student Won’t Take “No” for an Answer

Won't Take No for an Answer

Dream School Costs: When Your Student Won’t Take “No” for an Answer

Published January 6, 2024

Won't Take No for an Answer

We’ve been hearing from a lot of parents in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group that some students won’t take no for an answer when it comes to attending a financially out-of-reach school. If you’re stumped as to how to explain the impact that debt can have on their life as well as yours, this is a good place to start.

Set The Stage In Case They Won’t Take No For an Answer

All children can be defiant, even if it means pursuing something that will financially strain their parents or cause an unnecessary pile of debt, such as a college that is simply not affordable. “I think it’s difficult for most young people to grasp how money works, especially when the future seems so remote,” says Leigh S. “Kids are often absolutely unaware of how much things cost, their parents’ salaries, all of it. Explain once, set the budget and mean it, and move on.”

That’s great advice, but if your child simply won’t take no for an answer, it’s not always that simple. Students need to know that pursuing a school that is out of reach will put additional strain on the already stressful endeavor of applying to college, not to mention the effect it can have on your family dynamics. 

“Applying blindly to schools without considering the likelihood of affordability is a waste of time,” says Hools W. “Try giving your child your budget and tell them you’re sticking to it, that you won’t be co-signing any loans, and you would be happy to work with them to identify schools that are likely to be affordable.” 

Explaining the net price calculator and the differences between need-based aid and merit aid is also a good idea, he added.

Many parents say having financial conversations early on in the process helps. “I think it helps that my kids were given a budget for years and sometimes told no [when they wanted things],” says Anne H. “We also realized that our budget was too low for the schools we were steering our kids toward early enough in the process to adjust both our savings and our message.”

Unfortunately, many families begin money and financial literacy talks too late, when they already have the dream school fantasy, says Terry O. Her family didn’t run the Net Price Calculators early enough and ended up blinded by the misconception that her daughter would get lots of merit because she was the likely valedictorian. 

“The first college search was, at its heart, a lesson in ‘your kid’s not that special!’” she says. “I love both of my kids. I am their biggest fan! But in the end, they’re not that different from a lot of other young people, despite great stats, a good family, interesting experiences, etc.” 

Joining social media chats such as those in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group and seeing posts from other parents that could have been about her kids helped ground her in the reality of college costs and admissions. “It made it much easier to say that there is no dream school and the goal of the search is to end up with several good options that fit our budget,” she says. “We agreed that if a school can’t meet our budget, then we will cross it off the list.” 

Breaking The Cycle of Student Loan Debt

As Cyndi N. pointed out, college affordability is a problem that affects all students, but students of color are especially at a disadvantage in far more instances. “College was always problematic for most students but it’s gotten far worse in the past few decades,” she says. “This is an issue that affects people of color more than white people and poor people more than rich people, but it’s important to have access to college for all.” 

First-generation college students also are disproportionately affected, and it’s important students know what they’re getting into so they can avoid making the same mistakes as their parents. “That’s me—and I am still paying my loans at 40 years old,” says Sarah P.

Laura H. didn’t pay off her student loans until two years before her kids left for college, and she was determined not to let them make the same mistake. “I swore up and down that I would not allow that to happen to my son,” she says. “Right now he is a senior with zero loans and can start his adult life without any worries.”

The number of parents who can’t say no to their kids when it comes to college is mind-boggling to Michelle B. “This is especially true when they are also still paying their student loans. Break the cycle!”

Many parents said it was up to the adults to be parents and not friends to their children, mainly because most students lack the life experience to understand what it means to accumulate debt. “We have to do the hard stuff out of love, like enforcing boundaries for their own good, disappointing them, and staying the course in the face of their anger,” says Terry O. “It’s really hard and lonely to be a parent sometimes.”

Consider What They’re Likely to Earn Once They Graduate

Not all starting salaries pay enough to cover housing, bills, transportation, food, and student loan payments, something many students don’t realize when they’re determined to attend their dream school.

“I have a recent grad with a job that pays $50,000 per year,” says Joanna N. “He moved to the Washington, DC, area and is sharing an apartment. After taxes and insurance, his take-home is around $3,000. He couldn’t afford a $710 loan payment on top of housing, a car payment, and other expenses. It’s useful to consider that less debt means more options after graduation.”

Being saddled with debt can have an enormous impact on a young graduate’s quality of life. “If you’re paying for years and years, you’re also not saving for years and years,” says Kristen P. “Compounding interest works both ways, in debt and savings. When you have long-term debt you’re losing on both sides of the equation.”

Some students assume that because their chosen field tends to yield higher salaries, they will be OK. “My daughter plans to go into a very, very high-paying field, so she’s comfortable with debt,” says Kelly M. “She’ll have it paid off in less than 5 years.”

That may sound like a good plan, but many students change their minds and end up choosing different fields, which impacts their earnings. 

“Students often change majors or don’t make the cut for the lucrative field,” added Michelle B. “I don’t know how many pre-med and pre-law students I went to college with, but it was a lot and they most certainly did not all become doctors and lawyers.” Engineering majors have almost a 50 percent dropout rate overall.

If your child won’t take for an answer, the best thing you can do is guide and educate them. So long as you don’t enable them by co-signing loans or participating in any bad decision-making, you’ll be doing your job as a parent. 


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Understanding College Costs: The Role of the Net Price Calculator

Deciphering College Financial Aid: A Guide to Need-Based vs Merit-Based Aid

How to Play the College Waiting Game to Maximize Merit




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