My College:
Family Life

I Struggled With Helping My Sons Make Their College Decision

Lisa Samalonis


It’s college selection time and students are receiving their financial aid packages. This is a daunting decision for a student and family to make. Educating ourselves and reframing the “dream college” conversation helped my own family choose well.

“See, Mom,” my older son said, as we followed the tour leader down a hallway and into the design studio of the college’s school of design.

Male and female students chatted to each other as they hunkered at workstations cluttered with wires, molds, pieces of wood, pliers, drills and soldering irons. I took in the student projects in glass display cabinets, and the equipment that lined the space. The air buzzed with energy.

I understood what my son meant. This was the place for him.

He had visited this small private college a few weeks before and shared details about the lab and the students’ work. From an early age he loved making things — first cards with paper hearts that popped out when I opened them and flip books with pictures of a stick boy running across the pages, then large scale Lego sets and a K’nex roller coaster and Ferris wheel.

I was used to pointy parts jabbing my bare feet as I crossed the carpet. Radios and remote controls lay open with their innards exposed on the floor.

“I just had to see inside and know how it worked, Mom,” he'd say sheepishly, his marble-like blue eyes wide with wonder.

He and I went on just a few college tours at schools close to our home during his junior year of high school. As a single mom, I had rebuilt our life after divorce when my children were six and eight and vowed never again to be caught up in the despairing debt cycle.

Through brief conversations over the years I tried to help both my sons understand money, having them contribute to items they coveted and save their crumpled dollar bills for new toys if they carelessly broke or lost them. We talked about personal finances including value, the price of food, household expenses, credit card debt, realistic goals, and the stresses that come with costly loans.

When my boys grew concerned about how we would afford to send them to college, I reassured them that we would figure it out.

As junior year approached, the pressure swelled. Talk turned to AP class loads, standardized test scores, campus tours. High school friends shared university wish lists.

I sat my older son down to reframe the “dream college” talk.

“The way I see it is the best college for you will, first, offer a good education in your major, second, be a place you can see yourself, and third be one we can afford,” I said. “That way you'll be well-educated and happy, and you won't be too stressed out by debt when you graduate.”

It's not easy telling our children that the school they want is more than we can afford or have saved for — after all, no one wants to be the crusher of dreams — but we can guide them on making decisions we all can live with. High school students have a tough time understanding student loan information, interest rates (heck, don’t we all), and what that burden will feel like coupled with the other expenses of being an independent young adult.

It was my job as a mother to help educate us on this and be honest with them about the load I could carry. I had been thinking my oldest would commute to a local engineering school and possibly live at home to cut costs.

“But the state school doesn’t have this program,” he said quietly.

This program was only offered at one in-state school hours away from home (not a good fit) and two private colleges across the river and in a neighboring state. He did his applications and contacted the D2 athletic coach at his favored school. Private colleges were in another financial bracket and while I researched and talked to friends, I knew I could not put myself on as a cosigner to a student loan because the stress and debt would be too much for me.

Upon acceptance my son earned a merit award which made the school more palatable but still out of reach. We continued to talk to the coach and also discuss the demands of a two-season athlete.

“It’s like a job,” I said, knowing how dedicated he was to his studies. “It won’t be easy.”

In the end he received both the merit and athletic scholarship which brought the college tuition within reason. Over the four years, he fulfilled his full athletic commitment, with many workouts and all-day sporting events coupled with marathon all-nighters in the design studio.

But not all students get merit or athletic scholarships, or if they do, the scholarships aren't enough to keep up with the high cost of tuition and on-campus living. My younger son had enough of organized sports and although he scored a spot at a five-year direct admit program at a private college, I could not shoulder the parent PLUS loans for the multiple six figures that would be needed to make that happen.

I dreaded the tough conversation. I reviewed the good education/good fit/low-debt criteria with him. I had to be honest. Living under the stress of high loans in addition to all I'd been juggling as a single parent would not be good for my health. Options became limited without a cosigner.

After reviewing in-state college and community college options, he chose commuting to the state university, which provided a streamlined, affordable education. He made friends and excelled there. This choice also gave him the flexibility to modify his career path and still graduate on time.

At times the college conversations and community chatter are overwhelming. I returned again and again to the idea that the true “dream college” was one where my children would come into their own and excel in their chosen field of study with the resources that we had.

Together, we made that happen.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Lisa Samalonis is a health writer and essayist from New Jersey. She is at work on a memoir about life as a single parent with her two sons. Lisa is also a medical editor and adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University. Her work has appeared in professional and consumer publications, including Shape, Grown & Flown, Care.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and MetroKids as well as in the anthology, Mourning Sickness (OmniArts). Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
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