No parent wants to have the dreaded "helicopter parent" insult thrown their way. So you step back during the college decision process as much as you can, biting your tongue about how much you'll miss them if they go to college on the other side of the country or why they're writing a college application essay on their favorite video game.
It's a delicate balance, but one place you really shouldn't keep your mouth shut?
The price tag.
Even the most mature high school juniors and seniors don't have the life experience to really grasp the impact of student loans—for themselves or for their parents. They need their parents to step in and have the uncomfortable conversation about finances so that they're not buried in a mound of debt down the road.
If your child is in one of these situations, it's time to schedule the family chat, sit down with all those college brochures and a calculator, and talk about the numbers.
1. If they're going to end up in massive debt relative to their future expected income
The student debt crisis in the United States is no secret. Americans owe more than $1.53 trillion in student loans. The typical amount of time it takes for a graduate of a 4-year college to pay off their loans? 19.7 years. For the average student, that means they'll be paying off their loans until they're 40.
You want the best for your child—we all do. And that's the reason many parents give for encouraging their children to go to the "best college they can get into," no matter the cost. But students who graduate with massive debt loads may be unable to make ends meet. It's not a great set up for striking out on your own.
If you're not sure what your student's ratio of future debt to income might be, check out our NitroScore tool. Sometimes seeing the numbers can move the needle in an otherwise difficult conversation.
2. If they're not going into a specialized major or aren't sure what they want to do
Few of us knew exactly what we wanted to do when we were 18 years old, but the numbers show that college majors matter when it comes to future earning potential. Ken Ruggiero is the CEO of Ascent Student Loans, a lender that has flipped student lending on its head by using data to determine a student's future earning potential rather than focusing on their credit history.
“The thing we found is that majors matter,” Ruggiero says. “For example, if you’re going to school for liberal arts, your income potential doesn’t change much based on your school—and very few majors are worth $65,000 for four years. We don’t want to overburden our customers with debt that they’re going to struggle to pay back.”
A recent Bankrate study found, unsurprisingly, that those who major in STEM fields have the highest post-graduate salaries while those who major in the performing arts have the lowest. Of course, students who want to go into the arts shouldn't instead major in mechanical engineering so that they can have a higher paying salary afterwards. But understanding the economics of their choices may encourage students to choose a less-expensive school and take on less debt.
3. If they're just choosing a school based on a prestigious name
A prestigious name and a hefty price tag do not necessarily equate to a better education or higher earnings after graduation. What you study and what career field you enter have a lot more impact on your earning potential than where you went to school. While a higher price tag sometimes indicates higher quality, a more expensive education doesn't always mean a better one.
Every school has great professors and not-so-great professors. And some "value" or "budget" colleges have made names for themselves by focusing heavily on career placement or high-quality internships that frequently lead to job offers.
In fact, a Money magazine study shows that graduates of less-expensive and less-well-known universities report similar salaries to their cohorts in the same geographic area who paid a higher price tag—and possibly have more debt.
4. If they're not really sure college is for them
You probably wouldn't walk into a store unsure about whether you wanted a new pair of shoes or not and then walk out with the most expensive pair on the shelves. (Or maybe you would, but shoes are much less expensive than college.)
If your child hasn't really expressed an interest in college or is waffling between higher ed and taking some time off, then a high-dollar university probably isn't a great investment right now.
Community colleges are a great way for students to dip their toes in the college experience, and they're significantly less expensive. Community colleges can get a bad rap, but many have excellent professors and programs—just like four-year universities. Celebrity financial expert Dave Ramsey is a frequent proponent of community colleges: "All over America, including your hometown, we have these wonderful schools known as community colleges. And I love them. Want to know why? Because they allow people to get valuable college credits on their way to a degree at much cheaper rates than if they’d enrolled in a four-year school right out of high school."
5. If they're going for a specific coach or professor
For student-athletes, the college decision process can be a whole different ... ahem ... ball game. They may be heavily recruited and tempted to focus only on a particular sports program. One of the most common mistakes is choosing a college just to play for a specific coach.
"A coach may not be there for the entire four years; they might be fired, or they may accept an opportunity elsewhere," says Kristin Heidloff, a project manager with the college athlete recruiting network Next College Student Athlete. "It happened to me. The coach who recruited me left before my freshman year. I played four years for a coach who didn’t know much about me. A lot of kids (in that situation) transfer out, but I picked a school where I knew I’d be happy regardless of what happened.”
The same is true for a particular professor. While tenure means that many professors stay with the same institution for many years, they also move on to other colleges or universities.
6. If you're going to jeopardize your own financial security
Ruining your own retirement doesn't do your child any favors.
While you may plan to make up for what you spend now by using your retirement contributions down the road, you can't know what will happen in the future. If the market changes, if you get laid off, or if you experience significant health issues, you could find yourself without the nest egg you thought you were building. And you can't take out loans to care for yourself during your retirement.
Choosing a college is the biggest decision most students have ever made, and the ramifications of their choice can last decades—especially the student loan payments. Help them make a well-informed choice. And if there are still tuition gaps, encourage them to apply for the Nitro scholarship.