Reader Question: Are parents responsible for paying for college?

by Julie on May 21, 2014 · 7 comments

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Last January I wrote about our oldest child leaving college, our youngest entering, and the financial changes that will bring.

(Quick update to that post: our son will attend Saint Louis University in the fall. That’s the school I was alluding to in the post and he did indeed choose it. Our daughter graduated with honors from the University of Kansas last week and is gainfully employed. (Happy dance.) She’ll be working as a producer for one of Kansas City’s local TV stations.)

A reader named Jon left a comment on that post asking the following:

Julie, I wanted to ask you a philosophical question after reading this post. Do you see paying for college as one of your responsibilities as a parent? By that I mean do you see it as your responsibility to ensure that your kids graduate from college debt free? My parents gave me tremendous support through school but as my wife and I think about becoming parents we are trying to determine what our role should be in paying for our future kids education. What are your thoughts?

That’s a great question, Jon. And I’ve been reading personal finance stuff long enough to know that people have strong feelings about this topic.

My short answer to Jon’s question is no, we don’t see it as one of our parental responsibilities to fully pay for college or ensure that our kids graduate debt-free.

And yet as parents we’re still paying for the bulk of college expenses and making it our goal for our kids to graduate debt-free.

So what gives?

The longer answer to Jon’s question would be that while we don’t consider it our responsibility, we’re in a position to help and we’re making it a priority.

If we were lacking the income, had more children, had no retirement savings, or were in a lot of debt, we may have decided otherwise.

I don’t mean it to sound like a slam dunk; we’re only halfway through this college journey as a family so it remains to be seen if we’ll meet that debt-free goal.

We also realize that an income – even a healthy one – isn’t the same thing as having savings in the bank. Incomes can wax and wane and disappear altogether, so having a fully funded college savings account would be preferable to cash flowing college like we’re (at least partly) doing.

We’d also like to be putting aside even more for retirement than we are (which means we’re only partly ignoring that don’t put paying for your kids’ college before saving for retirement rule).

But we feel secure enough to pay for a lot of our kids’ college, and we also expect our kids to do their part. They work and have scholarships (and making grades to keep those scholarships is part of the expectation too).

I don’t happen to think there’s any right or wrong answer to Jon’s question. But there’s one thing I do think parents owe their kids and that’s to talk with them about college – and their attitudes and expectations about paying for it – at least through the high school years if not before.

What are your thoughts on parents paying for college?

P.S. My daughter Lindsey and I wrote a post on the U.S. News site about this very topic: Should Parents Pay for College?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Sherri May 21, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Great question and love your answer. There really is no one “right” answer to the question, as you so eloquently responded. Each family has their own set of financial circumstances and must act accordingly, but you are correct in stating that the children should be included in the thought process and discussion early on. Nothing worse than having a child apply to expensive schools, get in, only to find out they cannot afford to attend. Our 3rd and final child graduates this weekend. We were able to send all of our children to the colleges of their choice (2 were Ivys, very expensive). But I understand, and they understand that they are very lucky to be debt free. Both my parents and my husband’s parents provided the same for us, so maybe it is just something we anticipated and accepted from the get go. I also think you need to understand what type of student your child is, and if the financial undertaking is going to pay off. In addition, I am sure there are parents who can well afford an expensive education, but choose not to spend the money for reasons of their own. As far as graduate school; that is another can of worms. Our older two did not attend grad school and do not need to. Our last may have to at some point, and I have already told him he will have to pay into that endeavor. If they have “skin in the game” I think they approach the entire experience differently! Just my own opinions!

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Carla May 21, 2014 at 10:09 pm

I think *IF* you can truly afford it, it’s a wonderful gift to give your children. But if you have no EF or retirement funds, it’s better to offer them free room & board while they go to school and let them work for their tuition costs.

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Jon Maroni May 21, 2014 at 11:36 pm

Thanks for featuring my comment Julie, and for starting a really good conversation. I think that our plan will be to put aside as much as we can in a college savings plan (in our name, not our kids name) and offer it to them when they begin school. The rest of the financial burden will be up to them. We want to make helping our kids (we are not even parents yet) get to the school of their dreams a priority but we don’t intend to cash flow their education. That is to say we don’t plan on paying more as they progress through school. They will receive from us whatever we can afford as soon as they begin school. They can utilize those funds as they see fit but whatever that amount is we won’t pay more than that. We also certainly expect them to pull their weight, getting good grades, getting a job etc. We also plan to encourage our kids to consider community and junior college to start. Doing so would allow them to lessen the financial cost of their education. All of this hinges on us having big nest eggs in our retirement accounts, which right now we are on track to have. Thanks again Julie.

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Sherri May 22, 2014 at 6:58 am

Just have a follow up comment (you can tell this issue has been on my mind alot). If a family can afford to pay college expenses without making any other sacrifices, I think it is a wiser financial move than to force the student to take out high interest loans. What happens is that the high cost of the education just gets MORE expensive with the added interest. Similar to having money to buy a home without a mortgage, but taking out mortgage anyway. The house winds up costing way more in the long run. Obviously, with the house we are talking huge sums so a mortgage is usually what most people do.

I understand that many parents want their children to have a sense of responsibility and really understand the costs involved, even if they can afford to foot the entire bill. But if I have the funds, it would really bother me for my child to have to pay the added interest on all of the loans. Tuition of $40,000 winds up costing so much more over the term of the loan. Ouch! Especially with todays low dividends and interest on investments, I feel if you have the funds, investing them in your child is the better alternative.

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Sharon May 22, 2014 at 7:12 am

This is a great post, Julie, and one that makes me stop and think.
We, too, are cash flowing college, with very little in our 529 plans to fall back on. I never felt the strain with my older two, although I shared costs with their father. (AND, college was a lot cheaper).
This fall my daughter will attend JMU, with a price tag of almost $19,000 a year. She will be responsible for books and expenses, but we will pay for tuition, room and board. (i.e. $19,000). This would be fine, except for the fact that my son is one year behind this schedule, so in August, 2015, we most likely will be cash flowing $38,000 a year.
Although my husband makes a good living, this will be a huge strain on the budget. We, too, are not saving quite enough for retirement (or so the pundits say), but we feel strongly that we want to give our younger two the same opportunities the older two had. (**We are saving 15%, so not a shabby amount).
What I didn’t count on was a wedding thrown into the mix. Ouch. Even though we are giving our daughter a set amount, there are still incidentals for the wedding that will blow any budget, and there is just no room.
So, although our intention is to get our kids through college unscathed with student loan debt, they may have some.

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Nadine May 22, 2014 at 5:05 pm

This is an excellent question and I have enjoyed reading everyone’s personal experience. I would like to share and echo that it truly is a family decision. In our tribe we launched 2 wonderful girls, one is working on her masters at Boston U and the other is in her sophomore year at ASU. Which after attending the car show I am pretty sure that adds up to the Maserati + Lexus + the Jetta TDI, I could be driving.

Sharon made a good point, that there is always something thrown into the mix. We also had an unexpected wedding that dipped into our college savings. Depending on our financial situation that given year we paid for the girls’ education, directly out of pocket, using fed loans (2 years) and the preferred method was a better late then never 529 account. Knowing now (I work in the trade for giftofcollege) I should have opened the 529 much earlier…like at birth ☺. Oh and yes they both hold down part-time jobs and contribute toward living expenses.

Good news is that the girls will graduate on time but bad news is each will have a small amount of student loan debt.

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Julie May 23, 2014 at 8:29 am

You guys! These are such smart, thoughtful comments. I’ve loved reading them all. Thanks, Jon, for the question and thanks to all of you for weighing in.

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