Sather Gate at Cal Berkeley

Scrolling through my Facebook feed last night I stumbled on a story about a couple that was up to their eyebrows in debt for their son’s college education. We’ve all read these before. They were in so deep retirement was only a dream. Their son, with a communications degree, worked a service job and still lived at home.

I’m a little suspicious of some of these stories. We all know that educational debt is at record highs and is a growing social problem.. But I also know that reporters are often attracted to worst case scenarios. That couple was a story not because they represented the average but rather the extreme. The Project on Student Debt put California among the “Low-Debt States” in 2013, with graduating seniors at all four -year colleges owing an average of $20,340 — the second-lowest in the nation behind New Mexico.

But it is a real question faced by families with kids on the cusp of college. Just what is a reasonable investment for a bachelor’s degree? How far are we willing to go for our kids?

When the question came up at my house – expensive small private school versus U.C.— the kid got a choice: go to the J.C. and then transfer to expensive private school, or four years at big urban public university. Same price.
As a mom I secretly wanted the kid at a safe small private school. Practical Dad’s will prevailed. And I’m glad. Hey, Steve Jobs himself dropped out of that same small private college because it was too expensive. He did OK.

Unless you’re shooting for the top in some high prestige profession like medicine or corporate management or law, or higher education, how much does your alma mater matter, particularly 10 years into your career and in a world where careers are constantly changing anyway and grad school may eventually trump that expensive B.A. anyway? Is a bachelor’s degree from a pricey school worth being enslaved to crushing debt for years to come?

California state schools, despite sickening tuition hikes, are still way more affordable than private schools, unless you win a lottery of scholarships and financial aid. My first thought about these indebted parents was, “Dumb.” Invest in an education you can afford and find the best bang for your buck at one of the better state schools. Start at the J.C. if you must. It’s no shame and is invisible on a job ap.  All that matters is the degree. Starting life deep in a debt hole is debilitating.

But then I ran across another posting further down the feed. A grim story from The Atlantic about how it’s almost impossible to get into U.C. And not just Berkeley, which has a dismal admission rate of only 18 percent. That included most U.C. campuses in the system. Not only that, but even the California state universities have gotten so crowded they’re turning qualified students away.

A high school counselor in L.A. was quoted as saying “Students who would’ve gotten into UC’s are lucky to go to CSU’s, and students who would’ve gotten into CSU’s are being locked out.”

Students are being counseled to look at private schools or public schools out of state that are more welcoming to our kids. But that also means out of state tuition surcharges. Go Ducks, anyone?

We’re being warned about the dangers of educational debt at the same time the lower-cost fallbacks are falling away.

‘Tis the season for college applications. I’m wondering how other families are working around this cruel educational squeeze?