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I had a conversation this week with someone who approached me for advice about their soon to be college bound son. The question sounded simple, but as I started talking through the issues with the father, we peeled back the layers of what becomes a very complex decision for many.

How much debt should I allow/recommend my child to take on in pursuit of a college degree?

Heading into the fall of 2013, his son’s junior year, two schools were pursuing the gifted soccer player for an athletic scholarship in addition to other academic and need-based aid. In his second to last game, coaches from both Division II schools attended to make a final evaluation of his talent.

A few minutes into the game, he scored an impressive goal.

A few minutes later, he broke his leg.

While sidelined for his senior year, with physical therapy he’s expected to fully recover and be able to start playing again next fall. The athletic scholarships, however, have vanished. The student is left with the decision to pursue the same two schools, both quite expensive, in the hopes of making the team his second year and earning an athletic scholarship for his final two years or give up collegiate athletics and look at other, less expensive options. If his athletic career doesn’t pan out as hoped, even with other aid and assistance, he’d be looking at more than $80,000 in debt if able to graduate successfully in four years.

So, back to the question. How much debt should this young man be willing to take on in pursuit of his degree? With many variables, there’s no good rule of thumb to reference as the debt many of today’s college graduates face continues to climb to new heights. While a tough one, the question led to some really good conversation around what to consider when deciding what’s best for you or a loved one.

Some of the issues included what field the son might want to enter and reasonable expectations for entry level salaries in that field. Getting into debt too far beyond what someone might expect to earn in that first year of employment is as good a baseline as any to use in terms of what they could reasonably afford. His older sister, for example, pursuing a degree in education, is very budget conscious and will leave school next year with less than $15,000 in debt. A much easier pill to swallow when she graduates and faces rent, car payments and other start up expenses as a young educator.

Could he start at a community college and then transfer should things go well? Would the credits earned transfer? If not, how much work was he willing to put in only to have to re-take certain courses? Would taking this path rob him of some of those important life lessons a student has by going away to school? You could see the father start to weigh the importance of pursuing athletics over being best prepared to enter the real world.

Would the student be ready to move back in with his parents at the end of school if soccer failed to work out and debt did mount? More importantly, would he and his wife be willing to have their child move back in while he worked to pay the debt down to more manageable levels?

Most importantly, we concluded it was good he and his family were having these conversations now, not one, two or four years into the process. Being rational and clear with his son wasn’t limiting his dreams as was the father’s concern. It was giving him the most realistic, honest view of the world he could provide which will serve him well both in making decisions and learning to think through what’s really important.

Being available to help put numbers to some of these important family and life discussions is one of the things we take very seriously as advisors. Sometime having a third party available to bounce ideas off of and offer guidance can be invaluable. As these issues come up with you or your loved ones, don’t hesitate to ask if there’s any way we can be of assistance.

Have a great week!