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College Choice

Question: My son, a high school senior, was accepted to one of Minnesota's private colleges. We have been fortunate in that we invested over the years and have saved enough for about 3 years of his education at this school. He also received scholarships to a different MN private college that would pay for about 66% of his costs for 4 years, leaving him with a substantial amount of $ at graduation. I have 2 questions. He wants to turn down the scholarship and go to the other school. There is a difference in the 2 schools, one has a very strong regional reputation and the other a national reputation. He wants to forgo the scholarship for the national reputation. From a long-term $ perspective, what advice would you give to him? Second, assuming that he forgoes the scholarship, I am considering keeping the $ we saved for him invested and taking out loans to cover the cost of the education and then paying off the bulk of the loans at graduation. Is that a solid strategy? The investment has averaged 10% over the long term. Thank you for your advice. John

Answer: This is one of those times when the outcome of a financial decision is positive no matter what, yet people strongly disagree about the answer. Some of my friends are adamant that it doesn't pay to attend the more expensive, nationally known school. They'd leap at the scholarship money. Over the course of a lifetime, the importance of that degree shrinks, and the dollars saved add up. Other friends believe the national reputation is worth it if the student expects to attend graduate school, move to another part of the country upon graduation, or enter certain professions, like investment banking. To them, the extra money you're paying is the price of an "option" on a particular career choice and geographic mobility.

So, where do I come down? What strikes me over the past 30 years is just how good college and universities have become, including small private liberal arts colleges. The gaps in performance and quality have really narrowed even if national rankings haven't kept up with the transition. But your son has also expressed a clear preference for the better known school. One way to make this decision is insist that your son "own" more of his education. If he goes to the regional school, he graduates debt free--and that is a genuine advantage these days. He'll be in a position to choose a job at graduation based on desire (and perhaps a low income) rather than face the pressure to take a less desirable job that pays more because he has student loan bills to meet.

If he still wants to go to the other school, then I would have him borrow at least some money to pay the difference in costs himself. He won't graduate debt free. Instead, along with his diploma he will get a student loan repayment booklet. I think making the decision this way is a good life lesson.

That said, I would limit how much he borrows so that he still has a choice at graduation. For one thing, you have the savings. For another, you don't want him too burdened by debt. By the way, it can be a good strategy to borrow, even if you have the money, if there is a reason to keep your options open. You can always help them pay off their student loans at that point.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.
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