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Inside the middle-class world of college budgeting

‘It’s like buying a pair of leggings. Are you going to buy the $130 ones at Lululemon? Or are the $19 ones in Marshalls going to last you just as long?’

For families who value education but also have other priorities (like, you know, saving for retirement), the psychological stress of budgeting can be as taxing as the admissions process.AdobeStock

How do ordinary people pay for college when the cost is often more than $60,000 a year? According to one report from the Education Data Initiative, Massachusetts has the highest average yearly tuition in the country; the total cost of attendance at an average private four-year institution is $65,784. For perspective, the Massachusetts median household income was $93,550 in 2022.

Getting into college is hard enough. Remember Operation Varsity Blues, where wealthy clients paid to inflate their kids’ test scores and bribe elite school officials?

“It felt like I had to give my daughter a chance at a future,” Felicity Huffman, one of the celebrities ensnared in the scandal, said in a new (and widely mocked) TV interview. “And so it was sort of like my daughter’s future, which meant I had to break the law.”


The conflama (that’s “conflict” and “drama” smooshed into one fun, fitting word) illuminated just how valuable and cutthroat college has apparently become, underscoring the kinds of dramatic measures people were willing to take to boost their child’s trajectory. And if you aren’t a former Desperate Housewife, there’s another hurdle before coasting toward happiness and success: actually funding it.

Yes, there’s financial and merit aid. There are loans. But sometimes even those aren’t enough, especially if you make too much to qualify for meaningful support. (For more on why colleges charge what they do, read Shock at College Sticker Prices? You Aren’t Alone.)

“My daughter is a senior, and the tuitions for the schools that she has applied to are exorbitant. It’s hard to convey … just how concerning and worrisome the financial aspect is,” says Shari, a Franklin mom of a high-schooler who worries that her child’s 529 account is “far from enough.”

For families who value education but also have other priorities (like, you know, saving for retirement), the psychological stress of budgeting can be as taxing as the admissions process. Did you miss the memo? Get too many lattes?


“We’ve known for many years that the price of college is beyond our reach. It is heartbreaking and extremely frustrating to witness the inequity of the college admissions process, especially as a resident of Newton, where most of my son’s friends seemingly have no issues with the exorbitant cost of higher education,” says Julie, whose son attends Newton North High School. Her family is considering schools such as Massachusetts Maritime Academy, with lower tuition and, in her opinion, a better return on investment.

But it’s hard to disentangle yourself from the prevalent high-achieving culture; it feels foreign to push back on social norms.

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“I have very few families who question the value of college, but I do have families who question the value of certain colleges that they don’t see as the same caliber,” says Dana Roth, an educational consultant in Sudbury. Often, families pinpoint one or two dream schools without fully doing the math.

“I think families often feel a lot of pressure for their students to attend the ‘best’ colleges, when there are so many colleges in the country where they can receive a fantastic education if the student puts the work into creating a community, building rapport with faculty, and engaging with student activities,” Roth says. “In some ways, living in Greater Boston makes this a harder pill for families to swallow, because they enjoy being able to have a fancy window decal for their student’s college. But there are so many other pieces to consider.”


It’s easy to lose sight of that when, so often, success is seemingly synonymous with an elite college education.

Julie, the Newton mother, remembers getting a message from school administration last year hailing the outgoing crop of graduates, pointing to the high number of Ivy League admissions.

“I believe Newton North is doing a good job providing information about alternative career paths, but the culture is still very much about four-year colleges, and specifically elite and extremely expensive ones,” Julie says. “That’s not a complete picture of success, in my opinion. And I think it’s important for our kids to know this.”

Auburndale’s Ian Lamont has two kids at public universities, and he worries about this climate of pressure and success at all costs. He emailed me a pamphlet from Solomon Admissions Consulting, whose website ominously notes that admission to top colleges has “collapsed” by an average of 50 percent.

For parents who want an edge, their program for high school students “helps them to increase their angularity in the college application process.” (Note to self: Look up “angularity” before child fills out applications.) They’ll help to craft essays, personal statements, and positioning strategies.

“I feel it’s deeply unfair that a significant number of admissions are apparently based on essays and statements that are crafted or rewritten by professionals. It also makes a mockery of the academic integrity policies that every American college espouses,” Lamont says.


So, what is worth it? A college diploma still matters; bachelor’s degree holders earn a median of $2.8 million during their career, 75 percent more than if they had only a high school diploma, according to research from Georgetown University. And there’s a deep fear among middle-class families that the opportunity for upward mobility is slipping away. College is one way to mitigate that. Parents put pressure on their children to go to exceptional schools; they also put pressure on themselves to pay for it.

“Now, we’re seeing the first generation of students who most likely will not do as well as their parents. We don’t know what jobs will be when our kids are out of college 10, 15, 20 years from now. There’s an enormous amount of stress and anxiety in the air, whether parents are aware of it or not, and we are absorbing these macro-economic forces,” said Jennifer Wallace, author of the new book “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — And What We Can Do About it,” when I interviewed her about academic pressure a few weeks ago.

“We’re well-paid professionals who are firmly upper-middle-class by national standards but sometimes feel middle-class relative to the local cost of living and the wealth of some of our neighbors. We’re well-off, but college is still an enormous expense for us,” says a suburban father of two whose family lives in a less expensive condo instead of a single-family home for financial reasons, college among them. He asked to be anonymous. A diploma might be pricy, but it still matters to him, so he’ll make trade-offs.


“My wife and I went to elite schools … and our goal was to have the finances to be able put our kids into elite schools (if they wanted to and could get in) with no debt,” he says.

It makes sense. But, in trying to cement their kids’ security, parents shouldn’t upend their own.

“The average American has $87,000 saved for their retirement. That’s one year of a lot of colleges,” says Julie Beckham, a financial education development and strategy officer at Rockland Trust Bank. Beckham’s stage name is Ms. Money; a trained performer, she appears at schools around the area singing and performing money lessons for kids — and their parents.

“If [parents] are allowing their child to go to a school that they truly cannot afford, then they are using every asset that they have to pay for that. They are taking on loans. And their child is probably taking on loans that will be with them for a decade or more,” she says.

Beckham urges parents to look at schools that will offer merit aid. This type of aid is calculated based on academic, artistic, or leadership qualities instead of financial need. Sometimes, it might be offered by your child’s top choice. But keep an open mind. Diversify. Broaden your search.

“Somebody wants you. Someone will need the person who’s the all-star athlete who plays the tuba. Go into it thinking: ‘This is an opportunity for my student to really branch out and see what’s out there’ instead of being lured in by name colleges. I think it’s a financial trap for a lot of people because they’re not seeing college education as a college education. We’re trying to go back to a time when you could send your child to college to quote-unquote discover themselves. Well, it’s $400,000 to discover yourself,” she says.

Between 1980 and 2020 alone, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169 percent, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Total US student debt is $1.77 trillion, more than Americans’ credit card or car debt.

Beckham’s son goes to Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., which isn’t as well-known in the Northeast. The family sat down with him to calculate what they could contribute and what he’d owe. It’s a school where he fit in — and that felt affordable. But he had to do the hard work of breaking from the pack.

“He was in a friend group that was very Ivy League-focused. It was challenging for him socially to navigate his choices. But I think, ultimately, he’s made the choice that was best for him,” she says. “We did practice what I’ve learned because I’ve just witnessed so much stress around this. And, fortunately, he was an active participant.”

She urges families to be transparent with their children about what they can pay, to understand the implications of student loans, and to think about the process holistically, something that’s tough as a teenager and requires parental support.

“It’s a combination of the feel of the school, what you want to pursue, and how much it’s going to cost. You have to weigh those equally, in this environment. Or you’re in for a lot of financial heartbreak,” she says.

Roth, the education counselor, also says that families can contact financial aid offices directly to negotiate after receiving a package.

“You can absolutely appeal the decision … It really depends on the school. Some colleges will be very inclined to say, ‘Let’s take another look. Let’s see what we have.’ Maybe financial needs have changed. Maybe the student’s grades improved,” she says.

After all, financial aid officers are people, too. Really!

“I’ve basically cold-called, very politely, [our] financial aid offices and then by phone was connected to our assigned staff member, with whom I advocated for our family, with good results. In fact, I’ve spoken with the same lovely woman at Boston College off and on over the years,” says Kate, an Arlington parent with two children in college.

Ultimately, the college search is about fit and price. So tune out the noise. Do what’s right for your sanity and for your family, even if it means being ruthlessly realistic.

“I expect my children to attend school where they get the most or close to the most money in scholarship and potential financial aid. They won’t have a blank check to go just anywhere, even if we can afford it in the future. I think there’s value in learning that higher cost doesn’t always equal higher value, and also learning about trade-offs in life,” says Rachelle, a mom of young kids in Cambridge who funded her own education.

Or take it from Ms. Money: “The truth is, it’s like buying a pair of leggings. Are you going to buy the $130 ones at Lululemon? Or are the $19 ones in Marshalls going to last you just as long?”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.