College: It’s going to cost HOW MUCH?

In my last post about planning for College I pointed out that I don’t feel that parents have to pay for their child’s college education. It really depends on your family, your budget, and your child. That being said, there are two things that I think all parents should do: 1) Make decisions early on and 2) Communicate!

Decisions, Decisions

Most parents I’ve talked to/read about fall into three camps:

– Fully paying for their child’s education
– Partially paying for their child’s education
– Not paying for their child’s education

Easy, right? Not so fast. Have you really thought about what that means? Let’s say you’re on the boat that says that all parents should be responsible for their child’s college education. That sounds great. But do you actually have the funds to back that up? Does your child have the choice of going anywhere, no matter the price? Or, will there need to be restrictions, for monetary or other reasons? Are you willing to pay for any major? And for how long? Four years? Five years? Longer?

So, what’s a parent to do? To start with, you need to sit down, crunch the numbers, and really think things through. First off, are you willing to contribute to your child’s education? If so, how much can you afford? Once you figure out how much you can afford, how much are you willing to pay? Yes, those are two different questions. Maybe you can afford $10,000 a year. But maybe you have other things you need that money to go towards. or, maybe you have a second child starting to college a few years after the first. Is it fair to pay $10,000 a year the first 2 years for child #1, and only $5,000 per year to each of them after that?

So, you’ve decided whether or not you are contributing, and if you are, how much. From there, it’s time to think about restrictions. This is important. You may see little Bobby as a responsible, level-headed child. But maybe he gets half-way through Freshman year and decides to switch from a Business Major to a History of Rock and Roll Major. The argument can be made that a college degree is a college degree, but there’s no denying that more/better job opportunities exist for certain majors. If you’re only willing to put your money into certain degree programs, your child needs to realize this from the get-go.

How long are you willing to contribute? Undergraduate degrees are generally designed as 4 year programs. But it’s becoming more and more popular for students to take 5 years to complete them. And then, there are the “Professional Students”, i.e. those that continually switch their majors to delay graduation for 6, 8, 10+ years. Is there a limit to how long you’re willing to pay?

If you decide not to pay, are you willing to help with other expenses? For example, can your child live at home while going to school? If you’re currently paying for a car and/or insurance, will you continue to do so?

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

In my opinion, it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about college. Just make sure you’re keeping the conversations age appropriate: No reason for your 5 year old to be having nightmares about his future student loan debt! But in grade school, I think it’s okay to start discussing your feelings about college, how important you think it is, and whether or not you expect your child to go to college.

By the time your child starts High School, it’s time to start being a little more concrete. Why? Well, what your child does in High School has a large impact on college. Grades and activities will impact their ability to get into a school, and it starts accumulating from the first day of high school. If your child will be expected to pay for part or all of their college education, grades and activities will also affect their eligibility for merit based financial aid. Again, don’t overwhelm them with information. But, giving them some idea that what they do today can make a big difference in their future is important.

Usually Junior year is when most High Schoolers start really thinking about College. They’re taking the SAT. They’re starting to consider different schools, maybe even filling out applications. Now is the point you want to start getting really specific. And here is where I see so many parents fail. Juniors and Seniors have a relatively narrow concept of money. I’ve seen so many parents give their children vague information, mainly because they haven’t crunched the numbers themselves.

A few years back a friend was discussing her frustrations with her Senior daughter with me. The daughter wanted to go to a pricier State school a few hours away. My friend kept telling her daughter that they wouldn’t pay for all of it, so she needed to figure out how she was going to pay for it. She was frustrated that her daughter wasn’t doing anything. She encouraged her to get her grades up, apply for scholarships, etc. But her daughter wasn’t doing anything! I asked how much her daughter needed to come up with. The friend admitted that they hadn’t figured out how much they were willing to pay yet, and didn’t know for sure how much the school would cost. They just knew they couldn’t afford all of it.

The concept of how much “life” costs is a difficult one for many High Schoolers to grasp, especially if their parents are providing them with a comfortable lifestyle. What would I have done? I would have figured out an exact amount I was willing to contribute, along with any stipulations that went with that money. Then, I would have sat down with my child and had a discussion. Almost all colleges and Universities now offer a tuition calculator on their website. So, get the tuition estimates for all of the schools your child is considering. Subtract the amount you are willing to contribute. Subtract any student loans your child has qualified for, along with any scholarship that your child has been awarded. Note: Only count awarded scholarships, as there are no guarantees your child will receive any further scholarships. You now have concrete numbers to discuss with your child. How much are they short? Are there ways to bring down the costs, like not living on campus? Warning: Some schools require Freshman to live in the dorms. What are some ideas for ways they can make up the difference? Don’t forget to consider things like books, which can run as high as $200-300 dollars per class.

If you’re only giving your child a vague idea, like “You’ll have to come up with some of the money yourself”, then they really don’t have a grasp of what is expected of them. “Some money” to them could mean a few hundred dollars, easily made at a summer job, when in reality it could mean several thousand. Explaining in detail what they need is important. You should also include discussions on Student Loans, and how it the payments will affect them after graduation.

What happened with my friend’s daughter? The money never materialized, so she never went off to school. After about 6 months of hanging around the house, she got a part-time retail job. A year and a half later, she’s still living at home, working part-time. I’m not blaming her parents… if she had been motivated to go to school, she would have found a way. But I think better communication might have helped her to make better choices.

– Ms. W

What are your plans for your children’s college education? Or your own? Do you think parents should be responsible for paying for their child’s education?




  1. I don’t think parents are responsible for paying for a child’s post-secondary education. My parents didn’t, and I managed just fine, with a combination of part time jobs and the co-op program.
    Well, I live in Canada so tuition is a lot cheaper. In the US you probably look at us and say “oh that’s so cheap!” and you’d think that Canadians complain less about tuition, but that’s really not the case.

    1. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how affordable Canadian schools are. I keep hoping that schools in the US will adjust down to more realistic pricing, but I don’t think that’s coming any time soon. But there are still affordable schools in the US, and lots of opportunities if you’re willing to work hard and be creative. I put myself through a pricey private college without help from Mom and Dad, and with very little loans. And I’ve met loads of people who did it way better than I did!

  2. Two options with prerequisite (SAT 2300+ w/GPA 4.0+)

    1. The kid moves out after HS and lives/works independently for a full 12 months. Apply several elite private colleges as a “Head of Household”. With less than 30K a year full-time job and great SAT score & HS GPA. The kid most likely will be accepted and has free ride for 4 years.

    2. The father (ME) quits his one-income W2 job the year before the kid goes to college and minimize his “includable” assets. Then the kid applies several elite private colleges with great SAT score & HS GPA. The parents “borrow” money from life insurance cash value to live for the 4 years. Again, the kid most likely will be accepted with 4 year free ride.

    Conclusion, Nope, I am not paying for $250K for the kid’s 4 year college. And YES, these are truly my plans (get 100% aid from both Federal and the school). Of course, the kid has to be very good.

    1. #1 isn’t that straight forward. Although I’ve heard some claims that people have gotten around it, FAFSA is pretty strict on who has to give parental information. Living independently and claiming Head of Household do not get you out of providing your parent’s info. Being above a certain age (25 or 26?), being married, being in the military or a veteran, and having children all qualify. Living and working independently for a year does not meet their criteria.

      The second part of your plan sounds a bit extreme to me. There are a lot of options out there for paying for education. But, to each his own!

  3. Thank you for info, Cindy. Guess now I have to look for Plan C. 🙂

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