Author’s Note: Although this post targets parents and those financially supporting students applying to college, my hope is that anyone who works with parents and students may find this blog useful and shareable. Students: if you have financial questions for your parents, perhaps this post can kickstart a conversation.
Parents, have you had the “facts of life” talk with your high schoolers? No, not the birds and the bees version, but the one about paying for college – the financial facts of life talk.
A surprising number of parents are squeamish about discussing money with their kids – subjects like the cost of college and who will pay for it, or what might constitute a good educational value to the family. Money is a topic that’s often shrouded in too much mystery. There are many reasons some parents avoid talking about the details: we may consider our finances to be a private matter (not really our children’s business); we may want to shield our students from worry or anxiety; or we may just not know how to start what could be an uncomfortable conversation.
Each spring, college counselors across the country witness unhappy outcomes resulting from parents’ reluctance to talk openly with their teenagers about money and their family’s particular financial situation or financial values. For many, cost is the upfront driver of all college conversations. But every year, we also hear parents say, “Apply where you want, see where you get in, and we’ll find a way to pay for it.” Even though it’s a hopeful message, it doesn’t qualify as The Talk. Waiting too long to develop a financial plan with your student isn’t fair to them, or to you. In these instances, it’s likely that “the way to pay for it” will mean debt for someone, often too much debt to realistically take on, and you may all wind up feeling upset, confused, or shortchanged at the end of the process.
As I write this, a woman in my 50’s, I can specifically recall the moment decades ago when my own father told me that attending my East Coast “dream” school was not an option – long after I had applied and been accepted. That sum of money wasn’t available to me, and I was devastated. At that stage of my life, at that late date, I didn’t have the wherewithal or support to develop my own financial strategy. Turns out, my parents’ ideas about what made for a good value in undergraduate education and mine were not the same; the topic had just never been discussed.
I ended up at our state’s much less expensive land-grant university, which was (and is) excellent, and I was successful there. I’m an active alum and my own son is a recent proud graduate, so this isn’t a “woe is me” story. Things did work out in the end. But I remember those sharp feelings of shock and disappointment as I realized, so late in the game, that my parents and I didn’t share a college playbook. It created a lot of tension between us for a while, which could have been avoided with some family transparency. That moment influenced how my husband and I ultimately handled the process with our own children.
Listen, your kids don’t need all your gory financial details up front, but they do have the right to know what your family’s college-financing values and rules are going to be. It’s up to you to set the tone, and discussions can be calibrated for age-appropriateness, but it’s better for your kids to hear about the subject from you before they start filling in the blanks for themselves.
How to start? Step one is to educate yourself. If it’s been a while since you went to college, or if you didn’t attend, take the time to learn about current costs and common terminology (I recommend that all families working with me listen to Episode 6 of our Get Wise podcast series as a jumping-off point). Begin with an overview like that podcast, and then study the details. Pore over informative websites like Big Future or College Affordability. Consider topics like public and private school economics, merit and need-based aid, community college paths to four-year institutions, and what really goes into formulating those infamous college rankings (this short video from my colleague Arun is a good resource as you think about rankings).
There are also many excellent books about college costs and value. I’ve been reading Ron Lieber’s recently published The Price You Pay for College, but I’d also recommend The Princeton Review’s Everything You Need to Maximize Financial Aid and Afford College or its 8 Steps to Paying for College. Familiarize yourself with the resources offered through your children’s school, too – there is expert advice to be had here, and the topic is often introduced in the middle school years. Attend the school counselors’ information sessions, read their newsletters, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Next, assess your own experiences to understand how they might shape your college financial philosophy. Did you foot part or all of the bill for college yourself, and do you have feelings about that, one way or another? Did you dream of attending college but couldn’t afford it? Did your parents pay for your schooling, and is that something you are committed to doing for your own children? Do you wish you’d made different choices with your higher education, or are you happy with your outcomes? What other emotions, beliefs, and realizations are you carrying forward? In my case, I had some baggage about how my path to college unfolded, while my husband had a strong opinion about the amount of debt he took on for his education. We spent time hashing out how our individual experiences would factor into our parenting equation and agreed to a direction that fit us.
Finally, take stock of your current and projected income, expenses, savings, and family dynamics, and decide how your children’s college educations figure into your family’s financial plan. The resources I’ve mentioned can help you determine what that may look like for you. Think about the levels of saving and spending you’re willing, or able, to undertake, and how much financial responsibility you’ll want, or need, your children to assume.
In this process, please show yourself some grace. You may have to prioritize your family’s housing, healthcare, or other expenses above college, and this does not make you a bad parent. And neither does wanting your children to “have skin in the game” by establishing that they will be at least partly responsible for their college costs. But if your students are to bear some financial responsibility, begin that discussion early. This College Prep Checklist brochure, published by the U.S. Department of Education, does a nice job of laying out how to talk to your children about planning for college, beginning in elementary school and moving up from there.
Not everyone will be fortunate enough to have a partner who is on their same college wavelength, and your family make-up may look much different than mine. Each situation is unique and has its own complications, but the need to educate ourselves, assess our experiences, and determine our financial priorities still applies. Let’s take a deep breath and work to de-mystify the subject of college financing with our children, keeping the lines of communication open and the answers honest.
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