It's the best time of your lives! This is what we most often tell kids about their upcoming college years. But what we don't say is how expensive paying for college can be. An article on CNN Money states that, "There are more than 4,400 colleges in the U.S. with prices ranging from zero to more than $60,000 per year." With these kinds of staggering numbers, the real question is: Who foots that bill? We spoke with real moms to find out how tuition money is managed in their homes, and bank accounts.
That's just what a mom does!
Traditionally, or at least in the movies, Mom hugs Junior on his high school graduation day as Dad pats him on the back and slips him an envelope with all the money he'll need to fully enjoy college with full financial freedom.
There's a reason this is a mom — and dad's — dream: We want to keep taking care of our babies.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, explains why this kind of helping falls into the category of positive parenting, "Helping with your kids' tuition can lead to kids finding a path that best suits them and lead them toward happiness versus finding a major that secures the highest paying job upon graduation. It also decreases the daily stress of trying to make ends meet while carrying a full course load."
On a practical level, while saving for (high!) college tuition seems daunting, Kathryn Parker MA, NCC, CT, says that it definitely can and should be done. Parker says, "It really starts from the top down when it comes to prioritizing what is financially important. It may mean that a parent doesn't buy a new suit or that coveted pair of shoes and instead saves that same money to help pay for their child to get a higher education."
In her practice, Parker has seen the anxiety of teenagers trying to wrap their minds around paying off student loans in a tough economy and wonders if going to college is enough pressure all on its own for teenagers without adding the very adult burden of paying for college on top. Parker says, "The transition to college, living on their own and learning how to manage new pressures are challenging enough for a teenager's developing mind without the added stress of being saddled with tremendous debt!"
Let them eat (ramen!)
On the flip side of the coin, there are so many benefits to both learning how to be financially responsible at this stage of life and to approaching college as something earned rather than something given.
Hurley says, "Students who pay their own way through college become more independent at an earlier age and are likely to prioritize their studies. When you have to pay the bill, the parties seem a little less important."
Christina Newberry is the author of The Hands-On Guide to Surviving Adult Children Living at Home and founder of the site Adult Children Living at Home. She says, "I paid my own college tuition through scholarships and part-time jobs and my parents took care of most of my housing expenses for the first two years. While what I did would likely not be possible with current tuition rates, I am a firm believer that it's a good idea for kids to have a financial stake in their college education by paying at least some of their own tuition. Having some "skin in the game" helps them take their years at school more seriously and feel a sense of ownership for their education. Similarly, if students are living with their parents to save money while attending school, I recommend they pay some kind of rent — even if it's only a token amount or if the payment comes in the form of doing extra chores around the house. This all helps with the transition from childhood to adulthood and starts to create realistic expectations about what's required to survive in the real world."
Balance it out
As with all things parenting-related, the answer to this hovering four-year question may not be cut and dry. The stakes are (monetarily!) high, and the considerations are varied.
Make a deal
Many parents help their children pay for college — conditionally.
Krystal Morris, a public relations executive, traveler, daughter, sister and dog mom, explains, "My parents made a deal with each of their kids: If the kid graduates from college — with a maximum five-year attendance — the parents pay. However, if the kid drops out, doesn't pass their classes and gets kicked out, or it takes more than five years to graduate, then they have to pay every penny. Personally, this motivated me to do well and graduate!"
Price it out
Veering this discussion a little bit away from our children to ourselves, Abby Knuckey explains that parents can't actually decide this philosophically, they have to look deep down — into their purse-strings.
Knuckey says, "Who should pay for college is more than an ideological question, it's a practical question. If a family is struggling to pay its bills, then saving for college isn't an option even if the parents feel they should help foot the bill. Given that many schools now cost over $60K per year, parents that can help pay for college, should definitely do so. If the child does not receive any financial aid, how is the child supposed to afford $240,000 for her four-year education without the help of a parent? Even if the child opts for a less expensive local college, the cost can still be $80,000 for four years! In deciding whether or not to pay for college, parents should never use retirement funds — that's just not a wise trade-off. Selecting the best school for your child at a price that you can afford is the wisest decision. I have a high school senior now, and the cost of college will definitely weigh in our final decision."
You get what you need
Marina Kamen, a music and TV producer, billboard charting composer and vocalist, choreographer and 54-year-old mother of three grown children, adds one more twist to this already complicated topic. Marina suggests that the answer depends on the kid. Does fair mean that everyone gets what they need?
Kamen explains, "With three grown children, two of whom have outstanding college loans, I believe it varies depending upon the major and work opportunities for each young person. Our oldest child, Justin, graduated from Columbia University and then headed on to law school. He passed the New York State bar and landed a six-figure salary job as an attorney in Capital Markets. Given his salary and probable movement as an attorney with security given this stature, we've since passed his college loan obligation on to him. The case is different for our middle child, Tyler, who is five years younger than his older brother. Tyler attended Sarah Lawrence College as a music major. His interest has always been in our business of music production and writing. Because this is a difficult, competitive and insecure industry, we are prepared to help him cover his college loans as he finds his way in his young life."
Bet your bottom dollar?
There's so much to consider when it comes to this complicated — and expensive! — topic. We can all agree that what's important is to make this decision thoughtfully. So share with us: Who do you think should foot the college bill?