Should Parents Be Prepared To Pay For Their Kids’ College Education?

Student loans are on everyone’s mind right now. The national student loan debt has reached over $1 trillion dollars. That’s more than credit cards or car loans. President Obama is on the campaign trail discussing the crushing burden of student loans on the backs of recent graduates. The House of Representatives is trying to find ways to pay for low interest rates on Stafford loans.

As a 26 year old woman who attended a private school in Pennsylvania, I’m pretty familiar with student loans. I have plenty of friends and family members who are still making payments, years after they’ve graduated and moved on to their “real lives.” And I think all of us realize the difficult place we’re putting young people in, where they feel like college is a necessity to earn a decent income. And yet, attending college puts them thousands of dollars in debt before they ever have a chance to get their financial footing.

Yes, as a young woman, I feel like the cost of a college education is something that we all should be discussing.

As a mother, this cost isn’t just something we need to talk about, it’s something that keeps me up at night. Recently, Republican nominee for President Mitt Romney suggested that students should borrow money from their parents to get an education or to start a business. More and more, parents are beginning to accept the idea that we’ll need to spend an incredible amount of money helping our children make it through college without crushing student loan debt. But are we prepared for that?

I consider myself to be a pretty lucky mother. I’ve been able to start saving for my daughter’s college education. By putting away about $500 a month, I thought that my husband and I would be well-prepared to take care of our little girl and her college expenses. Now I’m realizing that what I thought was a reasonable savings will only cover about half of the cost.

Using a basic college cost estimator, I’ve found some pretty scary figures. Attending an in-state public university for four years will cost about $173,568 when my daughter gets around to attending college in 2026. If she wants to attend New England private school, that would run approximately $415,696. Heaven help me if she considers a graduate degree.

For the sake of this being a Saturday, let’s use a nice round number. Let’s assume that my daughter’s education is going to cost her $200,000. With my current savings, which I’ve always considered to be pretty significant in terms of college preparation, I’ll still only have $108,000 when she starts college. That’s just barely more than half of the costs. Even with a substantial investment from her parents, my daughter would need to shoulder $92,000 through student loans or part-time jobs.

And let me remind you, this is considering a family whose has been saving since their child was an infant. Plenty of people are not in a position to save that kind of money when they have young children. In fact, probably most parents aren’t able to put back that kind of money every month just for future educations.

Oh, and we’re only talking about one child. Let’s not even go into the fact that we might have a second. I certainly wouldn’t be able to save $1000 a month, especially with the added cost of another person in the household. That extra mouth to feed and butt to diaper would make it even harder to save the original $500.

This sounds like quite a problem for me, right? I know I’m talking about college costs in terms of my own family, but every parent in the country is going to be facing the same challenges. Can we really be prepared to pay for this expense? Or will the current student loan crisis only continue to get worse?

What are you plans for paying for college? Are you trying to save to help your children? Should parents be responsible for helping their kids pay for college, or is that even going to be a possibility for the next generation of graduates?

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  • Andrea

    While I am certainly going to try, I think it is an incredibly unfair burden! I am putting away as much as can, but I know it won’t be enough. But how could my sons possible save even a fraction of that amount? What part time job is gonna even put a dent on those kind of costs?

    I think it’s insane! But how can I in good conscious ask my sons to leave college with such a gigantic burden?

    Something needs to be done to curve those outrageous costs.

  • Jules

    My grandmother had left my siblings and I trust funds for college. What she considered what would be enough for 4 years only got me through 3 (but it did pay for my sorority dues too). My tuition was only $4000 a semester (CSU) and my parents paid my living expenses for the final year because the plan was always that the trust fund would get me through 4 years and I wouldn’t have to take out any loans. Now I am in law school and am just wading through this student loan storm. Could my parents help? certainly. Would I ever ask? Hell no. I am an adult who chose to pursue an expensive degree and I don’t expect them to give me a dime.This particularly hits close to home for me because my car died and I recently had to buy a new one. Because I hadn’t budgeted for such a significant expense I am in a tough place and I took a job on top of all of my classes. I told my parents I didn’t need their money because they had given me work ethic. I think this notion that “oh, my parents will pay for it.” is dangerous because it may become an expectation. At 18 yrs old, your child is not a child anymore, the fafsa makes very clear the expectation of repayment and the interest They also have forgiveness programs and the like. I think if parents are willing to contribute, they should tell their kid this is what i’m willing to contribute, the rest is on you. Get a job, get a loan, live here and go to a community college for 2 years, it’s your choice.

    • Suchende

      I agree that we shouldn’t expect parents to pay for school, but here is what parents can do: fight tuition inflation! Ask the Fed to stop handing law schools whatever tuition they dream up, which allows costs to increase! Federally fund research so Universities don’t rely on student tuition dollars to finance their important contributions to society! And for the love of God, when you alma mater decides to build that new athletic facility, write them a letter and tell them that this is morally abhorrent as tuitions continue to rise. Schools need an austerity package.

    • Jules

      @ Suchende
      I go to a private out of state law school and it is cheaper than an in state federally funded land grant university. Additionally my tuition of $4000/semester my senior year of college was cheap but it was over double my freshman tuition was $1800/semester. What did we get for that extra money? A university president with a large salary and school funded home, furlough days, cuts to student services and cuts to courses offered which jeopardized graduation for some friends of mine. There is a loan crisis, but there’s also an education crisis.

  • Amanda

    I think you have to be very wise about savings for a child’s education. Certainly, you shouldn’t be saving for a child’s education instead of your retirement. If you have nothing for retirement, you are actually going to be a greater burden on your children than their student loans will be.

    I think it has to be a mix of scholarships, some savings, some help from parents, and wise choices in attending college. I left college (both undergrad and graduate) with just $3500 in debt, with an education in music (I know, how useless can you get?). I chose less expensive school, worked hard for scholarships, and worked tons through the summers to pay for as much as I could (on top of about $13,000 savings my parents had put aside for me). I had an awesome college experience, and because I worked so hard I didn’t waste anytime changing majors or anything like that.

    What I am saying is it’s totally ok to save money for your child’s education, but don’t do it at the expense of your own savings or retirement fund. Don’t go into further debt. Look at it less like “I have to provide for your child’s entire college education” but rather as a joint venture you’re going in together. Those numbers in the future are likely very inflated and you’re not considering ANY sort of scholarships or anything.

  • CW

    I think parents should help out if they can. My parents scrimped and saved to help my brothers and I out with college. It didn’t cover the full cost at the private schools we chose, but it would’ve covered 4 years at our state’s public colleges. In contrast, many of my classmates had parents who went into debt to fund a lavish lifestyle (luxury vehicles, exotic vacations, designer clothes, etc.) and the kids got stuck having to take out student loans to fund their education. I don’t know how the parents can live with themselves knowing they were so selfish…

    • Jules

      Because the parents worked hard and made their own financial choices instead of considering themselves shackled to ADULT children. Sure my parents helped so that I could go to school according to plan and my school was pretty cheap but here’s the message kids need today- work hard, expect nothing, make well researched choices about debt. What do you think makes your classmates entitled to their parents hard earned money?

    • CW

      So you think a parent buying a BMW instead of educating their child ISN’T being selfish????? I seriously do not understand the mindset of a parent who would put their own desire for a status symbol ahead of giving their child a decent education. A parent is “shackled” to the child from the moment that he/she decides to raise the child himself/herself. If you aren’t willing to put the child’s needs ahead of your own selfish desires, then maybe you should reconsider your decision to take on the responsibilities of parenthood.

    • Jules

      Nope. Not selfish at all. Do they work for that BMW? Yes. A lot of parents are very selfless and raise their children for 18 years and see them leaving the nest for college as a time to finally be a little selfish. If you have done a good enough job raising your kid, they will be resilient and figure it out college financing according to their priorities. Be a good parent, for 18 years and then let them be and buy yourself a BMW for a job well done.

    • suchende

      Hahaha… My parents helped minimally with school. Mom drove a Mercedes at the time, dad a BMW. No, I don’t think it was selfish of them. I worked hard to pay my way through state school, and wowed interviewers by having done that and STILL graduating in 5 semesters. Because my parents were “selfish” enough to expect me to stand on my own two feet, I learned how to do exactly that.

    • Renee J

      If parents don’t help their children with college costs, I hope they stop taking the tax deduction after the child graduates high school. College financing takes the parent’s wages into consideration and assumes they are contributing a certain percentage. So, if a parent makes a lot of money, that child cannot get as much financing than if said child tried to get financing based on their own wages. I think declaring themselves independent can help, though.

    • NeuroNerd

      Renee J, you CAN’T declare yourself as an independent under the age of 23, unless you are married or you have a child, for FAFSA purposes. The government distributes aid based on the assumption that parents will help their children, even if parents don’t. There are very few ways to not take your parents’ income into account.

      With that said, I don’t think it’s selfish for parents to not foot the entire bill for college. I just graduated from an elite college with $53,000.00 in debt (that was with a partial scholarship). I have help from my grandmother in paying that off, but most of it is on me. Knowing that I would have that debt motivated me to graduate in four years, pick a major that would help me get a job, pursue honors, and network while I was in school so I could get a decent job. Most of the kids I knew who got the bill footed for them partied non-stop, took longer to graduate, and picked majors that don’t have good job outlooks.

  • Renee J

    Maybe I’m a little optimistic, but I don’t think tuition will continue to rise at the same rate it’s been rising. I doubt an in state school’s tuition will be $50,00 a year in fourteen years. It seems you hear these calculations mostly from
    financial institutions who want you to put huge amounts in their college savings programs. They make money off the the amounts you save and they want you to save a lot.

  • Lynn

    My parents didn’t really help me with college and I went to a four year private university. I have loads of student loan debt, as does my husband. But we are in graduate school now (with full tuition waivers and stipends because we worked hard and went to reputable schools that got us in to good graduate schools). I think it is perfectly acceptable for parents to have nice cars and nice vacations without contributing for college. I know my spouse and I will. We have worked really hard for what we have and plan to enjoy it once the kids are 18 and out of the house (whether they choose to go to college or not)

  • Rachael

    I’m in Canada and we have tons of American students here. Our best universities, at international rates, are about half the cost of tuition at universities of similar (or even worse) caliber in the United States. U of Toronto, for example, has often been ranked above Columbia, and its tuition is currently less than $20,000 a year for internationals. Something to consider when your daughter reaches that age.

    • suchende

      The thing is, if you’re being practical, you go to elite universities for top-notch employment recruiting and the extensive alumni network among the powerful and influential. High ranking alone can’t get you those things. Still, the thing that Americans loathe to tell their special snowflake children is, if you miss truly elite Universities, you should settle for an inexpensive community college and then state school. The tier just under “elite” comes with a lot of debt and opens few doors that a big state school won’t.

  • theresa

    It seems as though many college students feel entitled to choose whichever college they want regardless of cost, they want the “college experience” ie. getting drunk and having sex that dorming provides. The bottom line is to choose a school that you are able to afford, live at home for as long as necessary, don’t buy into the hype of “affordable, low interest loans” the colleges try to push and students should work throughout the school year, not only during summers off. I refuse to believe that state schools will ever be as ridicously priced as the estimates given in this article. Also, every school from pricey ivy league to community college teaches from the same textbook in undergraduate classes. Invest more in graduate school.

    • CW

      “every school from pricey ivy league to community college teaches from the same textbook in undergraduate classes”. Actually, this is not true- I sat in one time on some classes at our local state college and was shocked to see they were using the same books as my HIGH SCHOOL courses (not AP but regular H.S.). This did not happen at the Ivy caliber university I ended up attending.

    • WorkingMomof3

      The textbook comment is absolutely wrong. I’ve worked in Academia for over 12 years and my husband is a mathematics professor. He’s taught at highly competitive prestigious schools and less competitive state schools. The Calculus text book he taught out of at the highly competitive school is written by the same author and published by the same publisher as the one he used at the state school. The difference is the pace of the material and difficulty of the problems.

      That said – you absolutely do not need to spend a fortune on private schools to get a good education. Most state institutions have “honors colleges” within them for students who are academically advanced. If your children are *that* bright they will be admitted to an honors college and in some cases get a lot of perks. At one university, the honors college students get free tuition, R&B, and a laptop. At others, they get preferred registration and special “honors college only” classes that are more challenging.

      The author mentioned graduate school. There are many fields where it is possible for good students to go for free with the help of a Graduate or Teaching assistantship and small stipend. Law School and Medical School are always going to cost you unless you are the best of the best but the resulting salary if you are good – is worth it. I have three graduate assistants working with me. They aren’t living “high on the hog” but aren’t amassing debt either. My husband and I paid for grad school the same way. The hard part was watching all of our friends who were in the “real world” earn decent money, buy cars, houses, etc… while we were still living in student-mode but we walked out debt free!

  • Tiziana

    I am Italian, so I speak for another country.
    Here, the maximum you pay a private university is 8000€ at year. I went to some VERY good public university and I payed, every year, 2800€, which is the maximum. If you came from a low-income family, or if you have a scholarship, you can pay as few as 500€,
    Currently, many of our university degree are done in english.
    What I meant is: maybe you can think about university in another country. It can be done and it might be cheaper and just as good as many US university.
    Just my two cents^^ But, to help :)

    • kelly

      I agree! I’m currently a high school senior and have 3 weeks left to graduate. I’m going to attend college in Europe. The cheaper price was definetly an incentive for my parents. I was accepted to all the schools I applied to, including a few that cost $58,000 a year (all expensense included). Its ridiculous to expect an 18 year old to pay something like that a year. We wouldn’t be able to get into competitive schools if we spent our time focusing on making money rather than our grades.

  • Eileen

    Make sure your kid knows how much you can afford to pay well in advance of college applications. If she has her heart set on a place you can’t afford, and you can’t get grants, work-study, or low-interest loans, she can spend a year or two at a community college and then transfer. Also make sure she doesn’t think that she HAS to go to college immediately after high school. Let her know that you’ll support her decision to take a year or two off if she likes (figuring herself out, and potentially saving enough money to pay cash for a semester or two), or whatever non-college option it is that might make her happy.

    And don’t offer one cent for graduate school! College, at this point, may be an extension of childhood, but graduate school is for adults. She can pay for that herself.

  • Ellen

    NeuroNerd: “you CAN’T declare yourself as an independent under the age of 23, unless you are married or you have a child, for FAFSA purposes. ”

    This is completely untrue. I am 26 and have been filinf independant taxes since leaving my parents home at 18. I graduated from Columbia (with plenty of debt of course) and was never questioned about my independent status by Fafsa or our financial aid office.

    Of course if your parents pay your phone bill, give you any cash, and allow you to live at home in the summer time then you’re NOT independent, so you wouldn’t be able to file as such.

    I realize that this discussion is for priviledged people, but remember that there are plenty – I would argue a majority – of young people in the US who do support themselves entirely. The tax system allows anyone who supports themselves to file as such and Fafsa applications are based on our taxes.

  • kelly

    i commented earlier but I forgot to include AP classes. I’m about to graduate and already have over a years worth in college credits because of AP classes and a few actual college classes. Although the AP credits aren’t going to help me since I’m attending a university in Europe

  • Cindy

    We been pretty pro-active about getting ready for this very big expenses, we are putting away 20% of our salaries in a college approved account by the state. We use upromise which is a site that will give you a percentage back for buying particular brands, we also pick up a few side jobs a month to put all that money away for college. I know it’s hard especially since most families are making just enough to cover basic needs.

    I know that our children will probably not be able to depend on the government to help them with school, just like we wont be able to depend on SS when we retire. I think it’s best to save what you can and look for has many options to lower tuition. I personally attend school abroad it was a wonderful experience and was actually a reason why I have my current job.

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  • Pernanther

    Ms. Cross, you deserve the Best Mom award. I’m currently going to college and my mother has saved $0 for me. I wish I could have been as lucky to have an educated and realistic mother like you.

  • Cody Dalton

    I do wish I had prepared harder before college and knew more about the different scholarships that were available. I am still paying off college debt and it feels like I can never pay down the principle. I did however signup for college assistance ( that helped me save over $5000 while I was in school. If anyone has some good resources on paying college debt please post.

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