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Color of Money: The college admissions scandal isn't just about rich, entitled people -- it's a mirror of the March madness that befalls a lot of parents

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- Please, let's stop pretending that the college cheating scandal is just an indictment of overindulgent, wealthy helicopter parents.

The Justice Department has accused dozens of super-rich parents of making $25 million in illegal payments -- and, in some cases, taking a tax break to boot -- to get their children into selective colleges.

If true, these parents broke the law. They could face some prison time. But in the coming weeks, a lot of parents and their children, who've been legitimately accepted to pricey colleges, will make a move to put themselves in another type of prison.

Certain madness takes over this time of year -- between late March and early April -- when the college acceptance letters are sent out. Hearts are elated if children are accepted to prestigious public and private universities. Then comes the financial reality: Going to these dream colleges often means taking on substantial student loans.

Outstanding student-loan debt at the end of last year was $1.5 trillion. Education debt ranks second in consumer debt nationwide behind mortgages.

Parents will sentence themselves and their children to decades of debt because they believe attending a select school is a must for their children to succeed. They will trade financial stability for the status symbol of a brand-name college education.

 

The recent admissions scam has been used to underscore the pressure parents and students are under to get into "better" schools, as if the thousands of other colleges and universities in the country just aren't good enough. Heaven forbid you suggest a student attend a community college first, if money is woefully lacking. The pushback is typically substantial -- and illogical.

Dripping with disdain, parents and students say that if the acceptance to an elite college doesn't happen, there is always the "safety school." What's financially sound and safe about struggling under the weight of enough debt to equal the price of a home?

And the financial imprisonment is even harder for low-income families, particularly minorities. Many students from these homes run out of money before they can graduate. They end up with debt and no degree.

Last fall, I met a mother at a financial-literacy program in Delaware who was very concerned about how to pay her parent PLUS loans. She had taken out more than $100,000 to help send her child to the top-rated University of Michigan to study to be a teacher.

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