Luck or loans?

I got lucky. I knew it at the time, but right now it’s really hitting home.

When we were applying for college, my parents encouraged my sisters and me not to look at the price tag, just aim as high as we could and we’d figure out the money later. This wasn’t a guarantee, of course, but it did show a measure of faith in the financial aid system.

This was the time of need-blind admissions and a time when many colleges promised to meet the full financial need of everyone they accepted — and with higher ratios of grants to loans in the packages. I graduated with very modest debt, allowing me to pursue some adventuresome and not at all lucrative jobs in a — let’s face it — not particularly lucrative field.

That was then. Most schools have dropped need-blind admissions policies and financial aid packages are heavier on the loan portion. In 2005, the average college senior graduated with more than $17,000 in debt. At private institutions, the average is more than $22,000. Gone are the days when you could work all summer and save up enough for that year’s tuition.

Somebody with $22,000 in debt is going to think hard about whether they want to work for $300 a month at an overseas newspaper. They’re going to think even harder about when they can really afford to buy their first house and when they can start a family.

Beth Hawkins, in her first “Shelf Life” column, explores how the rising cost of college may affect how kids and families look at postsecondary education in the first place: Would I have taken intro to astronomy, for instance, if I knew that every class added several hundred dollars to my debt load? Would I have thought a little harder about pre-law? (Read her essay on page 10, and look for more from Beth every month as she digs into that intimidating wall of parenting manuals at the book store.)

And, before we all get good and despondent about those astronomical numbers, Kara McGuire has some calming advice for parents who have done more worrying than saving (see page 20). My favorite: Believe in the power of compound interest.

Once again, that’s no guarantee, but it’s a safer bet than hoping to get lucky.

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