Student Loan Debt: Dream Schools Become Nightmares

Should students go to the best school they were accepted to, even if they will graduate with more debt?

What is the "best college"? I emphasize "fit" when counseling students and families on college choice. The best college for you may be different than the best college for me because our interests, majors, learning styles, families, personal and social goals are different.

I do not believe rankings determine which school is best. Rankings evaluate criteria that may not be significant to you. Believing a higher ranked school is best often results in disappointment.

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Putting the discussion of ranking aside, is it worth it to attend a higher ranked, better-known, or more prestigious school? Not if it means graduating with a pile of debt.

Attending a prestigious university does not guarantee you a job-in today's competitive market, you are more likely to find employment via your internships and networking efforts. Having a well-recognized name on your diploma will not get you a better starting salary or more offers of admission for graduate school. (Ask all the unemployed Ivy League graduates.)

My undergraduate degree is from Rice University, which consistently ranks in the top 20 nationwide. It is nice to have that name recognition and prestige, but I was fortunate and my parents were able to pay for it. My two public school teacher parents made education a priority and paid for my sister and me to attend college, so we did not graduate with any student loan debt. I can't say the education I got from Rice would be worth 20 years of student loan payments, equivalent to a home mortgage.

Nationally, student loan debt now dwarfs credit card debt. Countless news reports feature stories about graduates struggling to repay college loans, and these graduates agree that their dream educations turned into financial nightmares. I simply cannot advise students to borrow huge sums of money for their undergraduate education.

Additionally, more and more students are choosing to pursue graduate degrees. Students who complete their bachelor's degrees debt-free have greater flexibility in selecting graduate programs, even if they require a student loan.

An eighteen-year-old high school student does not have the perspective necessary to wisely make a decision to take out a student loan. He isn't able to imagine himself at 35, stuck in a job he'd rather leave, but where he has to remain because he is still paying $550 every month for his undergraduate education. Personally, I have friends who would rather quit their jobs and stay at home with their small children, but student loan debt is keeping them from that dream.

Your "best" school should be a matter of fit rather than ranking, and it should be a school you can actually afford.

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