How to Avoid Massive College Debt

Betsy Hart

5/31/2007 2:35:17 PM - Betsy Hart

For this year's college graduates the commencement speeches may be over but typically the enslavement to debt has just begun.

New grads and their parents are being strapped by staggering debt, sometimes owing six figures or more for a bachelor's degree. Listen to any parent of even young children, and you'll find the term "college" and "panic" often used in the same sentence.

But David Briggs, head of the Good Sense Stewardship Ministry at the internationally respected Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., says that such debt -- and fear -- isn't necessary. He argues that parents need to face the fact that steep college loans can significantly limit future opportunities due to staggering loan repayments. It can strap parents as they head into their empty nest years, or keep the new graduate from pursuing his (less lucrative) professional or other life's passions, including graduate school.

Briggs was an executive at General Electric for 27 years before going to Willow Creek where he teaches on principles of money management. At GE, Briggs frequently hired new college graduates for future management positions. I recently interviewed him for my radio show "It Takes a Parent."

Briggs likes to talk about the myths of kids and college:

Myth No. 1 -- Elite colleges will give a child a leg up on his professional life, so going into massive debt to get into one is justified.

Reality: For some rarefied kids going into rarefied fields, the first part of that equation might be true. And if the parents can afford it and want to pay for it, Briggs says fine. But 95 percent of kids just need a college degree. Period. (Which will dramatically increase life time earnings potential.) Briggs said that at GE, he and his colleagues routinely rejected the kids from the "elite" colleges who often had a sense of entitlement or lacked a work ethic, while hiring kids from "average" schools who went on to have very successful careers.

Myth No. 2 -- Parents have to give their kids the choice of any college in the country that accepts them, even if the parents can't afford it without going into massive debt.

Reality: a 17-year-old rarely has the foresight or life's experience to choose the school that's best for him, or rightly consider money issues This may be where mom and dad have to (gasp!) steer and even limit the decision making process.

Myth No. 3 -- There's only one path to a college degree: the four or five year "away" option.

Reality: Briggs said, "Be creative if you can't afford college without huge debt!" Consider two years at the local junior college while living at home and working part-time, then a year of working full time after that to pay for the next two years at a traditional college or university. That means earning the same bachelors degree as other graduates, with little or no debt, in five years.

Of course here's the rub on the "realities" -- such paths don't allow mom, dad, and child to brag about the prestigious school junior is attending. Moreover, too many parents consistently shape every experience in their child's world to "fit" junior, while allowing him to make every choice. Now, the 17-year-old thinks that he's entitled to that paradigm for college too, no matter the debt load for himself or his parents.

Consider today's families visiting five to 10 colleges across the country for their kids looking to find just the "right fit" for junior. When I graduated from high school, such scouting trips were unknown. There was a sense that you gathered your college data, made a good pick typically with a lot of guidance and limits set by mom and dad and then it was up to the child to make it work.

I agree with Briggs best advice: Yes, by all means build the college savings accounts! But moms and dads, take a deep breath and focus even more on building children of character who will naturally thrive in whatever environment, including whatever college or university environment, they -- with your wise direction -- eventually decide on.

(For more information and my full radio interview with David Briggs, visit www.betsysblog.com)