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Choosing wisely: College pick can contribute to size of student loan debt

Students throw their mortarboards in the air during their college graduation.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
FILE: Student debt often begins when college applicants make decisions without considering the financial burden of their campus choice, experts say.

For the last several years, policymakers, students, and families have been debating whether college student indebtedness is reaching a crisis in the United States, including California.

Amid that debate, some experts are focusing on one of the key factors determining the size of loans that a student takes out: the college a student chooses.

That pivotal decision can take place when the first college application is filled out.

For Makiah Green, the start of her college indebtedness began in 2009 during her senior year of high school.

“I got into UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, University of Virginia, Pepperdine, LMU… and a few other ones,” she said. So she had a choice to make.

Her dream university, University of California, Berkeley, didn’t offer her any financial aid. She eventually chose USC based on its good academic reputation and because it was the only campus that offered to waive half of its $20,000 tuition.

“My mother, she was saying, you worked really hard in high school and you should be able to go to whatever college you want to go to, and we shouldn’t allow money to be a factor in deciding which school you go to,” Green said.

But Maureen McRae Goldberg, executive director of financial aid at Occidental College, said parents absolutely need to consider the cost when helping their child choose a college.

Blindly allowing a student to select their favorite college can land the family in major financial trouble. Sometimes, parents need to say no.

“That’s a very hard conversation for a mom, or a dad or two parents to have with their children: 'I’m really sorry. The college can only provide X and we don’t have the ability to provide Y,'” McRae Goldberg said.

Makiah Green received several scholarships and took out federal loans to pay for what USC didn’t cover.

Green has learned to measure the value of college based on its return on her investment — the tuition she paid. She said she and her mother should have compared her expected salary to the amount of student loans she would have to take out.

“Every year, we see schools where students are typically graduating with very high amounts of debt or very low amounts of debt. In many cases, where students rarely graduate with debt or with low amounts are the elite, well-endowed schools,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at The Institute for College Access & Success.

High school students applying for college, she said, should be looking at the U.S. Department of Education’s new College Score Card website. It allows students and their families to look up college costs, see how much debt graduating students are carrying, and view the salaries and types of jobs graduates end up with to repay that debt.

Green owes about $60,000 in loans from her bachelor's and master of fine arts degrees. In addition, her mother took out more than $80,000 in loans to help her and her brother.

The grace period for making payments on Green's loans ends in two months. She said she’ll have to pay about $500 a month after that.

“It’s impossible. I’m currently working full time. I’m not making a lot of money," she said. "I’m living at home because I can’t afford to pay rent on my own, and so there’s no possible way that I’d be able to pay that right now.”

She's considering a program approved by President Obama that could cap her student loan payments.

She hopes to pay back her loans as quickly as possible while she pursues her dream to write and produce films and TV shows, focusing on positive portrayals of African-Americans in college.

Green's graduate studies at USC opened doors, she said, but she thinks she could have done just as well at a cheaper university. Which college you go to, she said, “doesn’t matter so much as what you decide to do once you’re in college.”

Green said she wishes somebody would have tried harder to convince her of this back in high school.

For more on rising higher education costs for students and their families, join KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez and the Milken Institute as they take on this issue Wednesday evening, Sept.30, at Occidental College. You can RSVP at or watch the livestream. This is the second in our series, “Rescuing the California Dream: Policies for an Affordable Future.”