I’m a big believer in not telling other people what to do or what not to do. There’s so much variety of experience and circumstances out there, so many exceptions to every rule. I’m not great at saying Do This or Don’t Do That.
But today I want to strongly suggest that parents of college-bound students stop saying three very common things parents say to their kids about paying for college. In fact, they’re the three most common messages I hear parents give. I’m also going to suggest some other things to say instead.
One thing I hear parents say about the cost of college is “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it covered.” Only a minority of families can afford to say this, because college is really expensive. Unfortunately, though, plenty of parents who can’t actually afford to say this…still say it. They don’t want their children to stress about the cost, or they don’t want their children to know that they can’t afford it. Or maybe they just don’t realize how expensive college really is. Unless you’ve clearly been living a wealthy life for some time, your child is still going to worry about it. What do their parents mean when they say it’s covered? Where did these piles of money come from? How come their parents said they couldn’t afford some of the less-expensive things they’ve asked for, but now say they can afford college? Are the parents going to take out huge loans, and should the children feel cautious or bad about that? Are their parents lying about something really important? Saying “don’t worry about it” will only change the contours of your child’s worries, not eliminate them.
And when you say “we’ve got it covered,” what do you have in mind? Is it the same your children have in mind? If you’re thinking about in-state tuition at LSU (around $12,000 per year), but your student is thinking about Tulane (around $56,000), then you’ve got an extremely expensive misunderstanding between you. If you’re thinking about living in a dorm all four to six years but your kid is imagining off-campus apartments, then there’s still a lot to talk about.
Even if you really are wealthy enough that you can afford just about any college experience, you probably didn’t get that wealthy by ignoring opportunity costs or writing blank checks to 18 year olds. Give them some parameters.
What you can say instead:
“Through savings and income, we can afford a good college experience for you. You don’t need to worry about affording college. Some colleges are more expensive than others, of course, and we can’t promise extravagant living or overseas trips—we’ll still have to discuss costs as we go. But fortunately paying for college is something you won’t have to worry about.”
“We can easily spend _____ per year on college. That’s enough to cover some, but not all, colleges. Apply to the schools you think are the best fit, but please understand that without extra financial aid we may not be able to pay for all of them.”
Another common thing to hear from parents is the opposite message: “We can’t afford anything, so you’ve got to get a full scholarship.” For most families, this is closer to the truth than “don’t worry about it.” But still, unless you’ve clearly been living in poverty, then you’re going to need to give more details. The first thing to think about is how much you realistically can afford. If your student came home with a financial aid package that covers all but $2,000 a year, will you have to say no? What about $1,000? What about $500? What about $5,000? Go though some possibilities, and think about where your line really is. Then let your child know what that line is. If it truly is zero, say so, but make it clear that you went through the numbers and really mean it. Your college-hopeful student needs information to work with. When you say “we can’t afford anything,” your student might hear a number of things: “we haven’t got any extra money for college,” “college may be important to you, but it’s not important to me so I’m just going to say we can’t afford it so I don’t have to think about it,” “I want you to go to college, but I want you to be responsible for it, no matter how much I can or can’t afford,” “I might help you pay for college, but I shouldn’t and you should feel guilty for accepting my help.” They may hear “you can’t afford college, so don’t bother.” Whatever message you really want your kid to hear, make sure you make it clear and explain yourself.
What you can say instead:
“Like most families, we don’t have enough savings for college, as expensive as it is. We can help with the financial aid paperwork, but we’re only going to be able to spend ____ cash. There’s a lot of aid money out there, so please keep that in mind when looking at colleges.”
“I know working to pay for college is going to be hard for you, but hard work and family support is how we’ve made it through so far. We’re going to support you in ways other than money, but we need you to work hard—at school and a job and a career to pay off loans—to help support yourself.”
“There’s more than one good school out there for you. Please apply to a variety, so we can find the best aid offer possible. We’ve only got _____ on our own, so finding the right financial fit is really important.”
By far the most common thing I hear from parents is “We fall into that window where we make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but not enough money to pay for college.” And in some ways they’re right. They haven’t got tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in a savings account. But they’re not going to qualify for much financial aid, because they have enough income/assets/borrowing potential to pay for a lot. So let me say this: every parent I’ve dealt with who said this has sent their kid to college. I have yet to come across the student who didn’t go to college because their parents made too much money. There are a lot of things that make it possible: once they do the paperwork, they qualify for more aid than they expected; they take on more loans—the parents, the student, or both—than they were hoping; they sell some assets or property they were hoping not to; they turn down acceptance to a more-expensive private college to go to a more affordable public college. If you’re in this category, I understand that it’s going to be tricky and involve sacrifices. I don’t want to belittle that. On the other hand, I want you to understand that you’re almost certainly going to make it work out, and letting your children know what the circumstances are—in detail—will help them also understand the sacrifices and limits. It was also put them in the position of helping to find solutions rather than just lamenting the problems.
What you can say instead:
“We’re not expecting to qualify for financial aid, but we haven’t got enough cash savings to pay full price. We’re going to make sure you get to college, but there are going to be some difficult compromises and sacrifices involved for all of us. Let’s talk about what those might look like while we’re looking at colleges.”
“We can only realistically afford _____ per year for college, and but we’re expecting our official EFC to be higher than that. We’re all going to need to work together to figure out ways to make college affordable for you, and we all need to stay up-to-date in the process. What’s our next step?”
I generally avoid talking about college admissions like shopping. But when it comes to the opening talks with your student about college, it certainly does help to think of it along the lines of other major purchases like a house or a car. It’s part product, part experience, and part investment. No matter what your income, you probably wouldn’t tell your child that you’ll pay for whatever car they want and not to worry about cost. You probably wouldn’t tell them there’s no way they’ll ever have a car unless they find a way to get one for free. You probably wouldn’t tell them that there are great cars out there, but you’re both too wealthy and too poor to get one. So please, parents, don’t say the same things about college.
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