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I spend a lot of time talking about finding your dream college and going to a school that you love, but I think I owe you a discussion on some of the not so exciting parts of the college process. The big elephant in the room when it comes to all of this is the cost of college.

I’ll come right out and say it; attending the college of your dreams is not always worthwhile.

I wish it were worthwhile.

I wish I could help you find a school you were incredibly excited about and tell you that attending was no doubt a fantastic idea and completely worth the price.

Unfortunately, I just don’t think that is true.

I want you to find a school you love and where you’ll be happy, but I also don’t want to push you into a college that will leave you four years later in a debt that paralyzes your life.

College is Way Too Expensive

You’ve heard it before, but college costs are outrageous. Many private colleges are now charging $60,000 or more each year in tuition, and even the costs at private colleges are soaring. The average students graduates with $35,000 in debt, but many students are graduating with $60,000, $80,000, or sometimes even numbers in the six figures.

Perhaps these numbers don’t affect you much. I know that when I was in high school, it didn’t matter whether you said $20,000 or $50,000. These were all just theoretical numbers, and while I understood that they were large figures, I had no idea what it would mean to actually have to pay off such a sum.

You shouldn’t be expected to understand what these numbers mean exactly. You’ve probably never taken out a loan before nor have you held a full-time job. You most likely have lived with your parents your whole life and never had to worry about paying for rent, bills, and food.

The thing is, though, the second you graduate from college these numbers are going to become very real.  You’ll likely be earning a modest salary at an entry-level job (the average college graduate earns $45,000 which is only approximately $2,400 per month after taxes are taken out). If you want to avoid moving back in with your parents, you’ll need to pay rent, Internet, electric/gas bills. If you live in the city, the rents can be well over $1,000 per month even when sharing a place with roommates, and if you live further out, you’ll likely also want to pay for a car and gas.

Then there are health expenses, household expenses, and food expenses. Grocery shopping is expensive enough, but if you plan on going out to eat or to bars with your friends, expect for hundreds of dollars to disappear from your account each month without much of an effort at all. And if you plan on traveling, it will take a huge toll on your budget.

When you then add onto your already tight budget hundreds of dollars to start tackling student debt, life can feel very tough. These payments will continue for decades, and it can be debilitating. Many recent graduates can barely get by let alone save. It can feel like getting your own apartment or one day purchasing a house are fantastical fantasies that will never happen for you.

“So what?” you might think. “I’ll just get a great job, earn lots of money, and it will be fine.”

You might be so lucky, but take it from someone who has been out of college for four years that most of my friends have struggled greatly to pay these loans.

Some haven’t been able to find good jobs because of the economy (and yes, this includes even students who graduated from Harvard).

Others have lost their jobs due to downsizing (which is very common right now) and gone through extended periods of unemployment.

Even the luckiest ones who have managed to get good jobs and hold them seem to be dissatisfied because the financial burden under them prevents them from taking a year off to travel or volunteer or do all the cool things they once wished they could do.

Loans are Scary and Colleges Don’t Always Tell the Truth

Taking out a loan is a very real thing, and once you are in that situation, you are stuck.

I’m not saying I don’t think you should consider taking out any loans because I think there are reasons why it can be worthwhile. There is definitely value to attending the school of your dreams. College can mean so much more than a degree. It really is a unique time in life where you have the opportunity to explore your passions and figure out who you are. That experience is worth a lot, and it is a shame to have to give it up due to financial limitations. Up to a certain point, a loan might be worthwhile to give you that experience.

But be careful.

Colleges have an incentive to tell you that you can afford to go even if you can’t. They will tell you that $70,000 is a manageable debt load even if it isn’t something you are comfortable taking on. Enamored with the prospect of attending your dream school, it can be easy to forget the magnitude of that obligation.

Know Your Limitations

You need to walk into the college process understanding your limits. How much money can your parents afford to contribute each year, and how much debt is too much? (US News and World Report has some helpful tips on how to figure this out).

Once you know these figures, look through your list of dream schools and figure out what you need to stay within a manageable debt range.

Do you need to apply for outside scholarships? They are a lot of work, but if you start early, you might be able to earn some serious cash.

Are there merit scholarships offered through the school that you can apply for? Make sure you look early so you don’t miss the deadlines (sometimes scholarship deadlines come before the regular application deadline).

What are the standard need-based aid packages at the school and how much of those packages consist of grants (which you don’t have to pay back) vs. loans?

If the financials are still not working out for you, it may be time to start considering some different options. What are the features you like about the colleges on your current list? Are their public universities or other schools with more generous aid programs that have similar qualities?

It’s a shame to have to compromise on college. You’ve worked hard, and you should go to a school that you love. But when you realize the consequences of making a choice without thinking about the financial implications, you may end up stuck in a place where you really don’t want to be. So think now, plan ahead, and figure out how you can love college and graduate without unmanageable debt.

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