Preparing Your Child for College and Career

Harvard Business Review

March 8, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

I believe that this is a tough time to be a 17 year-old in the United States. It’s not uncommon for graduates from middle-class families to leave college with $30,000-$50,000 in student-loan debt. Graduates from professional schools are often looking at over $100,000 in debt.

For graduates of elite schools in professional fields, this debt is not a problem. MBAs from Harvard and Lawyers from Yale are easily going to be able to pay off their debts. For others, this debt can be a huge problem. Graduates with degrees in history from small liberal arts schools may not be able to pay off their debts until they are in their 40’s.

Many 17 year-olds do not understand that student loan debt is real debt. In fact, with the new bankruptcy laws, the government is going to go after this debt for the lifetime of the debt holder – no matter what happens.

So, my first suggestion for you, as a parent – discuss money with your son. Let your son know the impact of debt. Be wary of college admission salespeople who may assure your son that this debt is “no problem” and that he can go to the “college of his dreams” and easily pay for it later. Unless your son is a top student, or unless you want pay for his college yourself, have him consider a less expensive alternative.

Another challenge that I see is the “do what sounds like fun for you” advice that many parents give their children. I am amazed at how many young people actually believe that they have a high probability of making a living in a “glamour” field – such as acting, fashion design, or writing. Good luck! The actual odds on making a decent living in any of these fields are astronomical.

I was recently interviewed by a writer from a much respected, youth-oriented magazine. After our interview, I asked him about his life. He was 26, lived in New York, and was barely making ends meet. Fortunately, his parents paid his way through college – and he had no student loan debt. Although he felt poor, he knew that he was a big winner in his field. He had an interesting job (even though his pay was less than that of an executive assistant) and (although he had no savings) he was not in debt.

When I asked my interviewer about his classmates, their stories were generally unhappy. Many were working in extremely low-pay jobs, had huge debts and were dissatisfied with their lives. Although their college experience may have been fun, their lives after college were far from fun.

My second suggestion for you, as a parent – discuss the real odds of your son’s actually making a living in whatever field he chooses. If he decides to “go for it” and try to become an actor, fashion designer or writer, that will be his choice. Make sure that he is going into his future with his eyes open and knows what his real odds for success are. Be wary of academic advisors who talk about the one success story in their program – and forget to discuss the huge majority of graduates who are not doing well.