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Q. Our daughter wants to go to an out-of-state college. We cannot help her financially, so she will need to borrow the money to fund her education. Since she will be paying her own way, I feel that she can choose whatever college she wants. However, her father disagrees with me on this. How can we help our daughter make a wise decision?

A. Not that long ago, it was customary to advise a young person to go to college and to borrow all the money necessary to fund his or her education. The idea was that a college graduate would quickly earn enough money to pay back his or her loans with plenty to spare. But due to a shifting economy and a new educational landscape, that advise no longer rings true.

With the rising cost of college tuition, it isn’t uncommon for students to have as much as $50,000 in student loan debt. Some even shoulder more than $100,000. Few careers can support this kind of debt load, which can make repaying loans a Sisyphean task. And to complicate matters, filing bankruptcy on student loan debt usually isn’t an option. In other words, no matter what is happening in her life, your daughter will have to repay what she borrows.

I encourage you to help your daughter understand the challenges of funding an education, and some of them are more nuanced than you might imagine. It might help if you explain that choosing to attend a university or vocational school is essentially a business decision. Vocational schools and colleges are themselves businesses, offering a “product” to your daughter.

Just as a person would do his or her research when buying a car or a home, so too should a person research higher education options. Of course, your daughter needs to consider the cost of getting an education, but she also needs to look beyond the immediate costs of tuition and fees. She needs to know what kind of degree she will need to work in her chosen field, the average starting salary she can expect to receive, where she will need to live in order to work in her field and the job outlook for the next 5 to 10 years after she graduates. She must also consider the placement rate for that college for the degree she is seeking. These aren’t necessarily easy issues to consider, but your daughter needs to know that the degree she is seeking will bring her a return on the debt she will be incurring.

The end goal is to get an education that will provide your daughter with a job with good pay and solid benefits, in a field she is interested in, with the least amount of debt. To incur less debt, your daughter would be better off choosing an in-state college. If she were certain that her credits would transfer, she could commit to a school closer to home for the first two years and then re-evaluate her plans. If she can attend college while living at home, she will save a substantial amount on dormitory and meal costs. If she can work during the summers and part-time during the school year, she can also take out fewer student loans.

Higher education is an investment that warrants careful consideration. I encourage you to help your daughter sort through her options so that she understands that the educational decisions she makes will ripple out into her life, long after she receives her diploma.

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Bonnie Spain is the executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Black Hills, a United Way member agency. To contact her, email

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