Many parents wait to talk about paying for college until it’s too late. Here at OnToCollege, we encourage all parents to sit down with their students before 11th grade to have the “Money Talk.” Long-time suburban Chicago counselor Pat Olsen-McGee illustrates why this is so important:

The most common family story is this one, and it drove me crazy. Students would say that they wanted to go to Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Notre Dame, or some other well-known big university. My question—to both students and parents—was what is your financial “safety school”?

“We do not have one. We will just “find” scholarships if he gets in.”

So he gets in!  And the costs vary from over $22,000 to $52,000 at each school. They start working on scholarships in March! Then they come into my office soon after this initial search.

“We cannot afford any of these schools. What do we do?” 

There’s not a lot that can be done at this point because merit scholarships have a deadline! Many of these four-year college students have to start at community college or over-borrow simply because they never had an honest “Money Talk” about the typical net cost for each college on the list and the family’s true capacity to pay it—sad, sad story, over and over and over again.

During my first year of counseling, I watched a competition for a local $1,000 scholarship. One of the citizens awarding the money asked one of our seniors how he would pay for his college, Drake University, which at the time cost about $27,000 a year. His reply was “My parents are taking out a second mortgage on our house.”

I almost had a stroke. He had a C average in high school. The cost combined with his lack of study skills landed him back home—at least $20,000 in debt after just one year. All of this could have been avoided with an honest money talk, a cap on annual debt, and serious consideration of comparable colleges with lower price tags.”  

One family did get it. They took their daughter to Iowa City, where the University of Iowa offered her a $5,000 scholarship that very day. The Dad asked his daughter on the way home where she wanted to visit next and suggested some less costly schools: Central Michigan and a few others. She replied, “I do not want to visit any other schools. I am going to Iowa. They are giving me a scholarship.”

He tells her that $5,000 is like a 10 percent off coupon and that they could not afford Iowa. Both parents were unwilling to go into significant debt when comparable college options existed at much lower price points.

So the daughter becomes surly. She would not look at other schools, despite multiple talks with her counselor and her parents. She ended up at the local community college, where she matured, did well, and transferred to a four-year college, where she is very successful.

That girl could have earned a much lower net cost at a “lesser” four-year school, but she wouldn’t listen after seeing a school that she only learned after the fact was out of her price range.

Moral: Talk about money for college long before visiting the “Mercedes Dealer.”

In fact, there are plenty of Mercedes-quality vehicles on the used Chevy lot. Most vehicles, if driven well, can get you to the same destination—i.e. solid “value colleges” with a net price of less than $22k a year are often more prudent choices than brand name schools with a net price of more than $35k annually.

Curious? You’ll find a lot of Value Colleges in OTC’s America’s Most Affordable Colleges, found at

Excerpted from Reaching Higher: the Simple Strategy to Transform America’s K-12 Schools, copyright 2015 by John Baylor