On not paying for your kids’ college

Meagan Francis has this “bad parent” column today in which she confesses that she has no plans whatsoever to pay her five kids’ ways through college. Snippet:

Our plan is to assist each of our children with lots of support (including living at home if necessary), encouragement, and information; and as much financial support as we are able to — and that it makes sense to — give. […] Paying our kids’ ways through school has become such an integral part of “good” parenting that we feel pressured to do it even if footing the bill means mortgaging our own futures. Yet even Suze Orman warns that it doesn’t make sense to tap into our retirement funds or put our own finances at risk in order to subsidize the education of young, able-bodied people with lots of time ahead of them. By doing so, couldn’t we in effect punish those adult children when they have to, one day, support our broke and aging butts?

My wife and I are pretty much of the same mind as Francis here. I made it all the way through four years of undergrad (including two summers) and five years of graduate school with my mom and dad paying only for my utility bills during my final two years of undergrad (because I had moved out of the dorms), textbooks that my scholarships didn’t pay for, and some “allowance” money. Their total financial investment in the nine years between high school and finishing my Ph.D. (at super-expensive Vanderbilt, no less) was probably about $5000 and certainly less than $10,000. The rest was paid for through scholarships, assistantships, work-study, and part-time jobs. I never applied for a student loan, so I finished up my PhD with no debt. Plus, I gained some valuable life- and work-related skills through my work-study and part-time jobs that added a lot of value to my education. Having to work while in a rigorous major at an academically-focused university forced me to come to grips with time management and making good choices about my priorities, and I would like for my kids to get that kind of “education within an education” too.

So my wife and I are firm believers that socking away a fully-funded college fund for each kid is just not necessary. We plan on saving up enough to be able to help our kids through college but not to pay for it. Actually our plan is to instill an excellent work ethic and a love of learning in our kids on the front end, right now even before they start school, so that they’ll do extremely well in K-12 and end up getting a full ride somewhere. And believe me, if you’re a good high school student, you can get a full ride somewhere. It may not be at an Ivy League school or MIT, but it will very likely be at a number of really good schools that aren’t especially well-known but where you can get just as good of an education, if not better, than at the big-name places.

The important thing for students and their parents to keep in mind is balance. Francis’ advice taken to its extreme would have some students trying to manage 18-hour credit loads while working 40+ hours per week to pay for it, and that will lead to failures both at work and at school. If your financial situation is going to require this kind of insane schedule, it’s probably better to wait 3-4 years before starting college and get a job to save up money; or plan out a 5- or 6-year path through college taking about 12 hours a semester; or both.


Filed under Education, Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture

12 responses to “On not paying for your kids’ college

  1. Will Farris

    Lots of stuff to consider here. If my child had an academic ethos of learning for learning sake AND a plan for professional livelihood then I would consider it an obligation since my parent paid my way, but only to public university. It does not have to occur over just 4 years, so never ever take out a loan unless it is for med school.

    However, college is also a bit of a filter of people. Those who get to experience more classroom time, and perhaps positive social life experiences (read: Baptist student Union, not Gamma crappa crudda with all their drugs, alcohol, foulness in general that I was exposed to) will benefit in certain ways for dealing with the Darwinian survivalist nature of our competitive world.

    In my parent’s day the very real fear was that if a young person did not get into school quickly and get through ASAP, then there was the possibility of developing a relationship with the opposite sex that would lead to premature marriage and children, and then the odds of ever completing a college degree were very small, entrapping one into a lowly life that I have seen countless times firsthand. But today, there are other factors at work that make this a less threat.

    So a final question: is it better to do the traditional 4 year program as a matriculated student at a big time residential institution over piecing together a degree over many years at the junior college and then at the local commuter school while bagging groceries, etc.? This is a tough one, but overall, I vote for the traditional if at all possible economically simply because the opportunity only comes around once in a lifetime that you are young and primed for it in a certain way. But, if all one really wants is a piece of paper to put in a drawer then just piece it together. Except for the social point above. Higher education – it’s a love – hate thing.

  2. I believe it’s more important to give children a good education before they go to college than to support them in college. They can work or borrow their way through college if necessary, but they can’t go back and improve their secondary education. That’s why my wife and I are spending our money on private education now, even though that means we won’t be able to help as much when our children go to college.

    • Will Farris

      A very good point indeed, about not being able to go back to high school. That time of life is a different vibe from remedial ed that adults do go back through. Was it Mark Twain that said education is wasted on the young?

  3. Unless my husband ends up staying in the Navy and we can use the GI Bill, this is our plan for our kids too. We only have one son right now but we plan to have more. I want to help our kids out as much as possible, but I think it is more important for us to save to buy a home and to save for retirement. We want to encourage our kids to get scholarships and to work part-time through college.

  4. This is one of those discussions I barely feel qualified to contribute to, since I don’t have any kids. However I’ve noticed while teaching high school that plenty of kids go off to college just because they don’t know what else to do and their families would feel embarrassed if they didn’t. Or in a worse case, the kid doesn’t want to go to college at all and would be happier learning a trade, but acquiesce to their parents’ wishes anyway – not going to college or delaying it until there is a purpose behind it is simply not an option. These kids are not preparing for a particular career or even learning for its own sake – they are just wasting time and money.

    • Will Farris

      That new book out by the Philosophy professor who prefers motorcycle mechanics: Shopcraft as Soulcraft (even made the Colbert Report 🙂 says we are way over educating the masses, and that many need to go for skilled trades and we need to remove the stigma. Very intriguing theme.

      But, in my parts, if you are a highly skilled NASCAR mechanic making lots of money you are still, well, an uneducated car mechanic who is not very likely to contribute to the discussion of , say, the ontology of logic. Not that most college grads will be able to either, but we’re dealing in probability.

      Getting an education is like getting married: it is extremely personal, will cost you and/or your parents untold sums, and says quite a bit about you, especially your folly-of-youth quotient. Mine was, and still is higher than I care to admit.

  5. Susan

    I have 2 in college now. Few scholarships anymore, little federal aid, nor jobs on campus (they go to international students since 9/11). Few jobs off campus in this economy. Few summer jobs in this economy.

    And college costs twice as much or more.
    Each of our kids is taking out loans, many loans, and we’ll help as much as we can. We have 2 more to go into college in 2 years.

    As for high schools – live in a great district (my step-daughters) or go to a great charter school (my sons).

    • Lynn

      I also have two in college this year (next year it will be three). I am committing 1/4 of my paycheck to each student every month. It is all that we can do. And you are right, Financial Aid has dried up and the Federal Loans are not sufficient to cover the expense.

      My husband and I decided that we would not take a home equity loan or a “parent” loan for any child, because we have 2 more at home, and our goal is to do what we can within reason.

      In 2000, I went back for a Master’s Degree. Between the time I enrolled (2000) and the time I graduated (2003), tuition had doubled. I was attending a state university and I could not believe that the state-wide tuition increases during those years got such little press. If the electric company doubled your bill in one year, there would be a public outrage! I heard a barely audible whisper from a few parents.

      • Susan

        The tuition is up so high because the states have stopped funding education to a large degree.

        Most states pay much more per prisoner than per student. Crazy! If they paid many prisoners to get an education, it would be cheaper? huh?

  6. Lynn and Susan: Just curious- are your kids going to state universities, or private colleges? At my school (a private liberal arts college) very few students have the sort of trouble you’re describing getting financial aid. It may not be a full ride but the discount rate plus available scholarship money is pretty impressive. A lot of small private college have even more to give away than we do. I’m wondering if the phenomenon you’re describing is happening only at state schools, where there was not a lot of scholarship money to begin with and what little was there is now drying up with the state funding.

  7. Susan

    Both kids are at private colleges – tuition, fees, etc. total about 48k, each got about 16k in merit. We pay some 16k and they can pay some (about 1-2k) so that they’re each taking out about 14k in loans per year. If we didn’t help – they’d be getting loans for about 30k per year.

    BTW – no jobs for college students this summer. Most folks can hire adults who will work through the fall.

    And this year, many schools have less to give to incoming students with endowments hurting. And many students get just a one year scholarship (signing bonus?).

    If they’d gone to the state university they’d have some scholarship and loans would be at most half this. Of course rather than 15 in a history class (both of them it’s their major), there would be 300. They made choices.