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Don’t let emotions lead you to an unaffordable college

It’s that time of year when parents and high school seniors are struggling with college choices. For many, the decision isn’t easy and can lead to family feuds.

A dad from Virginia wrote to me asking for my thoughts on his family’s decision about where his daughter should go to college.

Here’s the background:

The couple have a high-achieving daughter. She’s taken Advanced Placement classes and performed well. She has great grades, exceptional ACT and SAT scores and has been involved in charitable work. “Proud and fortunate does not begin to describe the feelings here,” he wrote.

She is planning a career that will require a graduate degree. “My current belief is while her undergraduate pedigree is somewhat important, it may be better to focus on the graduate program as this ultimately provides your career brand moving forward,” the dad wrote.

The couple has saved a five-figure nest egg to cover her college expenses as if she were attending an in-state school.

With sufficient savings, one would think that they wouldn’t have any problems.

But they do, and here’s why:

The daughter did not want to attend an in-state school and applied to several top ­­out-of-state schools. She also applied to international programs.

The daughter was accepted into two of her top picks: one ranked nationally, and the other an international school also highly regarded and where her boyfriend happens to be attending his freshman year. “Though I do not see that as what is driving her decision entirely,” the father said.

At the U.S. university, the daughter was accepted into an honors program and given a scholarship that would cover a significant portion of her tuition and expenses. In fact, she would have money left over from her college fund to help pay for her graduate studies. She did not get any money from the international university.

“My belief is both options are excellent schools, and either would position her well for graduate school, with the greatest determinant of success moving into graduate studies being her grades rather than the undergraduate brand,” the dad wrote. “As such I am not entirely sold on investing more in one over the other.”

The discussion centers on this:

The daughter wants to go to the international school. If she goes, she would end up with significant debt just for her undergraduate degree.

The father doesn’t want to overextend beyond what he and his wife have saved. “I feel it is appropriate to commit to her success and fully support her undergraduate education at in-state costs,” he said.

But the mom wants to do more. “My spouse differs, taking a position that we should fund the best school possible, with no boundaries, which runs contrary to my current thoughts on responsibility, ownership and entitlement risks.”

The parents agree their daughter should be free to choose her own path. “I see value in her owning both the choice and the outcomes,” her father said.

Here’s what I think:

I’m not completely convinced that the daughter’s decision isn’t being influenced by the fact that her boyfriend is at her top choice.

The decision of what college to attend should be made together as a family. I don’t believe parents should abdicate the college decision to a teenager who doesn’t have a penny to pay for his or her choice.

The student gets a say but not the final word.

This is a great test for a young adult on how to make sound financial decisions. All too often folks give in to emotions when it comes to college choices. If both schools achieve the same end goal, which is a great education, why wouldn’t you opt for the one that is much more affordable and have money for graduate studies?

So here’s what I would do:

I would put my foot down for the U.S. university.

It makes more financial sense to choose the school that is giving her a scholarship, thus freeing up money for her graduate studies.

If my daughter refused to listen to me and opted for the international school, I would still give her what I’ve saved. She deserves it. But she would then be responsible for coming up with the difference for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. I would not take on any parent loans. I would not co-sign on any student loans she may take out. I would not dig into my retirement savings.

In the end, if she wants to make a grown-up decision, she has to come up with the money and then live with the financial consequences of her choice.