Sticker prices at the top private colleges exceed $60,000. Even with scholarships, typical middle-class families face bills totaling $24,500 a year at private colleges, and $16,500 at public ones, the Department of Education reports.
Think you'll have to tell your kid that her top prospect isn't a possibility? Better to do it sooner than later. "Ideally, parents would have the affordability conversation when the child is starting high school so he or she can be realistic," says Mark Montgomery, a college-admissions adviser in Denver.
The Ground Rules
Get the facts. Prepare a summary of your family's financial situation along with the amount you can afford to contribute to college expenses vs. the net prices provided by the colleges' aid letters or their net price calculators, says Deborah Fox, a college-funding adviser in San Diego.
Be the grownup. Don't let your kid's anger and disappointment cause you to do something you'll regret, like fighting back or taking loans you can't afford. "Hold your line," says Mashpee, Mass., social worker Beth Wechsler.
When You're Face to Face
1. Show, don't tell: "Honey, we are so proud of you. But you've heard how the prices of some colleges have gone crazy. Let's look at our family finances to see whether your top picks are in our reach."
Why this works: "Saying no without explanation may cause kids to shut down," says Nathan Dungan, a Minneapolis family wealth consultant and founder of ShareSaveSpend.com. Instead, treat your child as the adult he or she is becoming: Explain what you can afford, what the school will cost, and the impact of any gap.
2. Apologize: "We're sorry. We should have looked at the numbers before promising that you could go to any school you wanted."
Why this works: Some children will become upset at parents who change the terms of a commitment, says psychologist Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.
You won't be able to move the conversation forward until you acknowledge the mistake, she adds. Apologize without getting defensive about past spending. "Don't say, 'But the old car was breaking down.' Say, 'I know how you had your heart set on going there. I understand why you're so upset,'" Markham advises.
3. Allow for grief: "Let's take a break and reconvene later."
Why this works: A child who is fixated on a particular college "will go through all the grieving stages, including denial, rage, and acceptance" when that dream dies, Markham says. To have a productive conversation, wait until the emotions on both sides calm down.
4. Ask open-ended questions: "What about this school made it so attractive to you?"
Why this works: By pinning down what the student is seeking, families can focus on lower-cost alternatives that still match the student's dreams, says Wechsler.
5. Make a game plan: "Let's figure out what our options are."
Why this works: "You're getting the family working together as a team" while nudging the child to take responsibility for charting his own future, says Montgomery. Offer help with options that won't harm the family's finances, such as applying for more aid, starting out at a lower-cost school, or deferring for a year to allow Junior to work and save.