How to talk to your kids about paying for college

by Grace

When should parents have the “talk” with their children?

Of course, I mean the talk about how their college education will be financed.  According to comments in a recent College Confidential thread, fourteen is too early and 12th grade is too late.  And just like sex education, kids should not be hit with everything all at once.

It’s like the sex talk … Tell them a little at a time in chunks they can understand.

“Parents of High School Juniors: Talk Finances NOW” is the title of the thread, and the original poster wants families to avoid the disappointment that sometimes occurs this time of year for high school seniors.

If you are the parent of a high school junior who will be applying to colleges next year, now is the time to take a close look at what you will be willing and able to pay toward your kid’s college education–and to make sure your kid understands it. You may never have told your kid about your family’s finances–now, you must do so, even if you’d rather not. Don’t be the subject of a thread next year when your kid says, “My parents told me I could apply to any college I wanted and they’d make it work, but now they’re saying I have to go to the relatively undesirable college that’s giving me a scholarship.”

So, look at some price calculators on college websites, get financial advice, think about whether your kid will have to have scholarships, what you feel comfortable borrowing (if anything), what you will expect your kid to contribute, whether you will expect your kid to pay back any of the money you spend on education, etc. And share the result with your kid. There should be no unpleasant surprises when acceptances come in next year–at least, there should be no surprising changes in your position.

In US News, Ryan Lane outlines a series of steps in planning for the talk.  It’s important to set clear expectations, and he even suggests putting it in writing to instill a better understanding.  Whatever else they do, parents should avoid the mistake of making a vague and uninformed promise that “we’ll find a way to pay” for college.

One way to begin the process is to run a few Net Price Calculators for some prospective colleges, including both private and public institutions.  It can serve as a reality check in laying the groundwork for the big talk.

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5 Comments to “How to talk to your kids about paying for college”

  1. My oldest is only a 6th grader, and I think I have a formula I’m ready to share with the kids.

    My guidelines are:

    1. 4 years only of support (unless for some unusual reason)

    2. Our yearly contribution would be no more than the cost of attending our flagship state university.

    3. If they go to school locally, they can live at home if they observe house rules. (I think at least a freshman year in the dorm is a good idea for social reasons, but I’m not sure we’d feel happy about paying for it.)

    4. Reasonable academic performance and reasonable behavior.

    I don’t see why that couldn’t be shared with an under-14-year-old. “House rules” might need to be spelled out in more detail at a later date, but everything else is age appropriate for a bright tween.

    I’d love to see a kid go to Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, Catholic University of America, CalTech, MIT or Carnegie Mellon, but if they didn’t get in, or if there wasn’t a reasonable financial age package, I hope we’d be able to walk away. I’m hoping that having at least one technically-minded girl will be a winning hand with regard to financial aid at one the last three. Otherwise, it would be hard to beat our flagship state college academically or our local college for financial value.

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  2. I agree that sharing this with kids younger than 14 is a good idea, but they may not really understand all of it until a later age. But it’s a mistake to start telling youngsters to shoot for Harvard or the like when in reality it’s an unaffordable option.

    Your strategy looks good. I also like the idea of giving my child the experience of dorm living, and one year may be enough if it’s a local college.

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  3. Grace said:

    “I agree that sharing this with kids younger than 14 is a good idea, but they may not really understand all of it until a later age. But it’s a mistake to start telling youngsters to shoot for Harvard or the like when in reality it’s an unaffordable option.”

    I think it’s worthwhile to run a home PR program, explaining that University of State is every bit as (and sometimes even more) respected than SmallObscureExpensivePrivate U and more people have heard of University of State and know it’s a quality school.

    I’ve probably mentioned this elsewhere, but when I was in high school in WA, kids would be impressed with those going to Pacific Lutheran University or some other very minor regional private college. Meanwhile, you’ve probably never even heard of PLU and would be much more impressed with University of Washington.

    I’m going to try to say this early and often, “UT Austin is a really good school.”

    Currently, the kids want to go to school in town, which would be financially very easy on us. It probably has something to do with all the inflatables and fun stuff the kids see going on on campus…Deep down I’m a little concerned that if the kids go to school here and live at home the whole time, they’ll never leave. I might especially encourage a study abroad thing for any kids that live at home.

    “Your strategy looks good. I also like the idea of giving my child the experience of dorm living, and one year may be enough if it’s a local college.”

    Yes. My sister (who has an 8th grader) also likes the idea of giving the dorm experience a chance, if even for a year. I’m a little bit more ambivalent about off-campus living for college students. 1) I’ve lived in one of those neighborhoods as an adult. 2) I did one term of it as a college student, and it was pretty lonely and I did a bad job of taking care of myself (I’m not sure I ate a vegetable at home in my apartment that whole term–in fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t). On the other hand, they’ve got to try independent living at some point, and the stakes are pretty low when they’re in college and coming home to parents at the end of every term.

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  4. “UT Austin is a really good school.”

    As a side note, I’m hearing that for many school districts getting into UT Austin is becoming ridiculously harder.

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  5. I guess I’ll need to revise that to, “UT Austin is a really good school if you can get in.”

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