10/02/2012 10:58 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

College Debt How Much Is Too Much?

Its fall and that means senior students are busily putting together the list of colleges they will apply to. I can see them toiling away at their computers putting the finishing touches on their admissions essays. This is the time of year I begin thinking about how I can improve the information I give to students. It's important that they know in advance what hurdles they will face between selecting that dream list of colleges and waving goodbye to their parents as they begin their college journey.

One of the most important things we talk to students about is becoming better consumers of their education. Some important tasks that move them toward being a better consumer are; to know what the job projections are for the careers they are considering, to know what the typical starting salary is for those careers, and to know the 4-year graduation rates at the colleges they are considering. Student should have a ballpark figure of how much debt they can take on and comfortable pay back upon graduation.

To put this all together takes a fair amount of research and a little calculating but it's a must do. This is one of the main reasons it's easier for families to work with a company that can assist them in this endeavor. But all this lead me to think about the college's part in this. How they could and should better serve their students. Each year students receive and agree to an offer of financial aid. But the offer covers only one year. No where on the offer is there an indication of how much debt they or their parents will potentially take on to earn the whole degree.

When I think about that it seems ridiculous. There is nothing else I can think of that any of us would agree to buy that way. Can you imagine going to purchase a car and being told that the first year you will be paying $X. Next spring we'll tell you what you'll be paying for the next year and so on for the next four years. That's absurd. How could we agree to that? I certainly wouldn't and yet this is what the colleges expect our children and parents to agree to.

No wonder students are so deep in debt. No wonder they just keep agreeing to the additional debt each year. While in school they don't have to make any payments nor do they know how much the payments will be when they graduate. I think colleges need to change the way they present their offers of financial aid. I think they need to give students and parents a four year estimate.

I understand they will be raising tuition every year so it's "hard" to provide an accurate estimate. It's also difficult because the available amount of the Stafford Loan increases so students will take on more debt each year, but I think colleges should be able to come up with a reasonable estimate. There is also the question of whether the student will perform well enough to maintain their financial aid. But even with all of the issues taken into consideration it seems as though the college should be able to come up with some kind of estimate. If a car dealership did try to sell a car that way they would be in trouble for unfair business practices. Why is it acceptable for colleges to side step what their total cost will be?