Terrell always wore the latest fashion, had lots of girlfriends – and he drove a red sports car. Not a new one, but it was a sports car. Terrell had paid to have it painted red.

The smart kids didn’t like him because he had what they wanted and he didn’t want what they had.

“What’s up, T?” Terrell knew Jason would be at the snack bar around this time, so he came by to ask him some questions. As cool as Terrell always appeared, the discussion the other night about their student loans had bothered him.

“Well,” Terrell said sheepishly, “I went to the financial aid office this morning and it wasn’t good. They told me I had $31,000 in federal loans and that I should call my parents to ask about any other loans. I called and talked to my mother. She said they had taken out PLUS loans for $40,000 and that my aunt had cosigned a $10,000 loan for me.”

“Wow. That’s a lot. I always thought your family had lots of money.”

Jason had never seen Terrell look so depressed. Even when he failed a course, it didn’t seem to bother him much.

“I guess the party is over. I’m going to have to have a long talk with my parents and figure out how to make this right.”

Jason was still incredulous, and said, “If I can be of any help, you know where I am,” as Terrell turned to leave.

Just then, Kate came over. “Hey, I’ve got great news!”

Barely audible, Terrell looked away and said, “I gotta go.” Puzzled, Kate look at Jason. “That’s great, Kate. Could you tell me later? I have to run.”

“That’s weird,” Kate thought. “I hope nothing’s wrong.”

Unfortunately for Terrell, there was a lot wrong. And it wasn’t all his own fault.

When Terrell said, “I guess the party is over,” he was right in characterizing the last six years as a kind of party. Except for having to change majors twice and failing some courses, he had enjoyed his friends, his sports car, his dates and spending money without any worries.

Of course, at times, Terrell knew things weren’t right, but simply ignored those moments of doubt.

Terrell’s mistakes are fairly obvious, but the mistakes behind them are less so. They were made by his parents.

Parents want what is best for their children and sometimes that leads them to say yes when no is what is needed. However, there are two other even bigger causes for mistakes parents frequently make in guiding their children’s postsecondary education choices. The first is being overwhelmed by the complexity of postsecondary choices and the second is having too little understanding of personal finance.

Postsecondary education is a complicated matter. For the most part, the guideposts from kindergarten through 12th grade are clear while the road beyond 12th grade is filled with guideposts that are confusing and often contradictory. Judging by the continuous articles in newspapers and online as well as the talk in most high schools, all roads lead to college. Not a two-year community college but a four-year college. Teachers, school counselors, parents and students all speak glowingly of attending college.

Of course, they all acknowledge that there are other choices. For example, a trade school or an apprenticeship is good for some. Entering the military or going to work is good for others. But “That’s not for me,” Terrell probably said, and his parents probably said, “Not for our son.”

“What shall I do after I graduate from high school” is possibly the most important question to ask, and it is likely a question without any certain answer. This is because the road from kindergarten to the present is so clearly marked, even if not always easy. But now, you must build your own road. A daunting task but one that can be made at least manageable with a store of knowledge about personal finance and about the primary postsecondary opportunities that are available (college, community college, a job, the military, apprenticeships and technical school).

We have said before that personal finance is perhaps the most important course you were never taught. If that is so for you, there are many self-help resources to improve your financial literacy. A good way to do this is to make it a family affair.

Terrell and his parents had too little understanding of personal finance. While at college, his parents provided him with a credit card and no restrictions on its use. He regularly spent more money than he or his parents had, and yet they continued to pay his credit card bills, pay for his sports car and continued to pay for college through six years.

To do this, Terrell’s parents repeatedly took out parent PLUS loans and even asked his aunt to cosign a loan for him. Neither Terrell’s parents nor his aunt understood the consequences of cosigning a loan.

Terrell isn’t a bad young man and his parents aren’t bad parents. Instead, they are simply examples of students and families who make serious mistakes because they lack the knowledge to avoid them. For this reason, it is important to begin acquiring this knowledge as early as possible so that parents and their children can grow together in an understanding of the terribly complicated landscape beyond high school, a landscape that is full of opportunity waiting for those prepared to seize it.


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