Millennial Mom Ponders How to Pay for Her Kids’ College Tuition
Should parents feel obligated to pay for their childrens' college degrees—and do they need a degree at all?
A few weeks after my son was born, I woke my husband in a surge of panic. “What if Kenny wants to go to college like you?” I whispered.
It was my husband’s first day at grad school. “We can talk about this tonight,” he muttered before rolling over and going back to sleep.
I was wide awake. I pulled out my phone and looked up the predicted cost of college in 2031. Based on most estimates, we would be looking at around $100K for just tuition. I heard my newborn whimper from his room (did he know?), and as I went to comfort him, I started whimpering too.
Is a college education the best gift we can give our kids?
Whether to pay for our kids’ education is predicated upon the belief that they need a college degree to succeed. Unlike the majority of Americans, I don’t think success requires a college degree. My family is full of entrepreneurs, homemakers, and tradesmen, and none of these occupations require postsecondary education. However, I’m not ruling college out as a possibility for my kids.
After all, my husband is on his way to earning a Ph.D., and I have a bachelor’s degree. Most of our friends and all of our family have postsecondary degrees.
If my kids want to attend a university, I don’t want them saddled with an unreasonable burden of debt as they start their careers.
A debt-free start to adult life is one of the best gifts we can give our kids, but we’re not completely sure that we can provide that.
What will my kids expect?
In general, parents who can afford to will pay for their kids’ education. My husband and I have started robust college savings accounts, but depending on the sticker price of attending a university and how many kids we have, we may not be able to pay for all our kids and their entire education.
Instead of approaching savings as all or nothing, we are saving all we reasonably can for their education.
Even if we remain financially comfortable and can continue saving, we won’t lead our kids to expect anything we can’t deliver. They may have friends whose parents can pay for everything, and they may have friends who have to take on tons of debt to graduate. For our kids, we will use clear, pre-emptive and ongoing communication about college funding.
Once our kids are old enough to start talking about careers, we’ll start talking about education. We desperately want our kids to have a debt-free start to life, and we believe that teamwork will help them eliminate debt before they ever take it on.
Our kids can expect us to save and invest some money for them, but in turn, we expect a lot from them.
For example, we expect them to work during high school and college, and they may need to choose a low-cost school if scholarships can’t fill the gap between what we have saved and the cost of tuition.
If we can’t pay for everything, will we feel guilty?
In a recent study, Sallie Mae classified parents and students into four broad categories.
- Determineds — Unwavering advocates of higher education
- Reluctant borrowers — Those who see college as a means to an end
- American dreamers — Believe that college is beneficial outside of financial reasons
- Procrastinators — Sensitive to financial issues, and low expectation of college attendance
Although my parents and grandparents were American dreamers, I am a reluctant borrower. I want to give my kids an advantage as they start their careers, but college is just one route for that.
Like other reluctant borrowers, I will look for creative ways to earn money and to spend less, but I won’t shortchange retirement to fund my kids’ education.
This mindset means I don’t think I will feel guilty if my husband and I cannot fully fund our kids’ higher education. If we raise our kids as strong, capable young adults then I have no doubt that they will be able to fund a large portion of their education themselves.
Unlike me, American dreamers and determineds may feel significantly more guilt if they cannot pay for college for their kids. They are more likely to take on loans, to defer retirement savings, or otherwise stretch themselves financially to put their kids through school. Each to his/her own.