When Connor Higgins was in the fifth grade, his parents began taking him on college tours with his older brother. Connor eventually fell in love with the University of Maryland, where he could study fire science at the College Park campus, at a perfect far-enough-but-not-too-far distance from his Springfield home.
But that was before his parents lost most of their savings in the stock market crash. College tuition didn't get the memo and continued to skyrocket. Maryland's out-of-state tuition, plus books and boarding expenses, total upward of $40,000 this year.
Connor, now a senior at Robert E. Lee High School, isn't going to Maryland.
"It's a great local university, it would be a perfect fit for him, but it's just unreachable," said his father, Scott.
(View a graphic that shows how much tuition has risen at local colleges over the past decade)
With many families hurting from the recession and college tuition doubling at some schools in just a decade, parents are sitting down for tough talks with their high school students as college application season begins. And as student debt hits $1 trillion, local high schools say they're talking more and more with families about weighing "dream schools" against financial realities.
When Judy Hingle began working at Fairfax County Public Schools in the 1990s, finances were considered a privacy issue that schools would avoid. "That's radically changed, especially in the past four years," she said.
(View a chart with a break down of college expenses at local universities)
Now, school counselors talk about "financial safety" with college-bound students. "Students are applying to 'reach schools,' 'likely schools' and 'safety schools,' academically," Hingle said. "We also tell them to pick 'financial safety schools.' "
A school is too expensive if a student would rack up more debt than he or she can expect as a starting salary, said Heather Jarvis, a lawyer specializing in student loan debt. "If your whole goal is to become a social worker and you know social workers don't earn good salaries, you should ask yourself why you're choosing an expensive school," Jarvis said. Engineering degrees, however, are a different story.
But parents shouldn't get automatic sticker shock: Many pricey schools, such as Harvard University, have hefty endowments and can offer more resources to a struggling family than some seemingly cheaper options.
Last year, Kensington mom Karen Lee tried to bargain with her oldest son's dream school when it didn't offer enough assistance. Oberlin College, which costs nearly $60,000 annually with room and board, books, and travel expenses, offered the Lees $3,000. "Which didn't make a dent," she said.
She ultimately had to tell her son, Zane, that Oberlin was no longer on the table. "It was very tough," Lee said. "No, it was very tough. He took it really well. At first he said, 'Oh, I'll just take out loans,' because I don't think kids understand what that means at 18. That's a tough concept for an 18-year-old starry-eyed about college."
She is preparing for the same talk with her younger son, a junior at Albert Einstein High School who is considering top-10 universities. He will be able to attend only if he receives a generous sports scholarship. Either way, Lee said Karl will be fine; Zane ended up at a smaller school in Pennsylvania that was able to offer more money, and he's happy there.
Scott and Louise Higgins say they expect Connor to find something that makes him happy in-state; his older brother, Andrew, is enjoying his freshman year at Virginia Tech after turning down his too-pricey first choice, Pennsylvania State University.
Their sixth-grader likes Tech, too. "We go visit Andrew, and the campus is so cool and pretty, and she's like, 'I want to go to Tech,' " said Louise, noting that the decision is far off for her 12-year-old.
And anyway, Louise chooses not to think about how much college will cost then.