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Why You Need To Talk To Your Kid About Paying For College

It’s understandable that a lot of parents are concerned about their ability to send their kids to college. It’s not easy to find good information about paying for college and it’s also not easy for everyone to save for it. Add that to the scary headlines about how expensive it is, and a lot of parents just bury their heads in the sand.

The common narrative about the importance of attending college is that you MUST attend or you’ll be doomed to work for minimum wage your whole life.

I’m really encouraged to hear more and more coverage of college alternatives for high school graduates, because it isn't right for everyone, but, realistically, it is part of the plan for a lot of kids. I’m using the word “plan” really loosely here because the reality is that most families’ “plan” doesn’t go much beyond. “Yeah - my kids is going to college.” And is that REALLY a plan???

If you’re not talking to your kid about going to and paying for college, you’re leaving it up to them to interpret from your body language and side comments how you feel about it and what support they can expect from you. This can lead to some consequences like the following:

  • College isn’t important - Without a clear signal from you that you expect your kids to go to college they may decide it’s just not that important. Maybe they’re right about that, but it’s equally likely that they aren’t. Like I said, not everyone needs to or should go to college, but everyone DOES need a plan for supporting themselves. If you’re not talking about the future with your kids, then they may not place much importance on getting good grades or participating in extracurricular activities that could enrich their lives and give them valuable skills they can use in the future. Waiting till senior year to convince a kid that grades are important is too late.

  • We can’t afford it - Kids pick up a lot from the little things we say when we think they aren’t listening. If you’re talking about how poor you are and complaining about a lack of money a lot, they may just assume there is no way they could ever go to college. They are also hearing about how expensive the sticker price is, so parents’ comments can just reinforce that college isn’t for them. They may not be aware of all the ways there are to get an education for students of all financial backgrounds.

  • If I can get in, I can go anywhere I want to go - Equally damaging is the parent who somehow gives their kid the impression that getting in is the most important thing, ignoring the cost. Now, if your family has the means to pay any cost - great! That strategy may work. That’s not the case for a lot of kids though. Think how hard this makes it when your kid gets into the Ivy League school of their dreams but gets no scholarships or grants, which could be the case for higher middle class families. Are you prepared to put off your retirement for several years or take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans so your kid can get that fancy degree? By the way, this can happen with lots of schools that aren’t Ivy League and to lots of families who aren’t upper middle class.

I’ve worked with so many parents over the years who feel trapped by their family’s expectations, like single moms who are still working into their 70’s because they felt responsible for paying for the expensive college education of their children.

Talking to your kids ahead of time gets you both on the same page and ready to make compromises if need be. In terms of the negative consequences above, having the conversation in advance can turn those situations more into something like:

  • Planning for the future is important - Whether it’s college or some other path to a career, I need to be thinking about how I can achieve the goal of bettering myself and becoming a responsible and self-sufficient adult.

  • There are things I can do to help with the cost of college - I can work hard in school and do as many extracurriculars as possible to graduate with a strong college application, and hopefully I can find a school that offers a lot of need based scholarships or start out at community college to get my degree. Maybe I’ll have to work my way through school but I won’t be the first, and I can do it.

  • If I can get in and the finances make sense I can go to the school of my dreams - I will work hard to get into my dream school, but I also have a back up plan to save on cost just in case my first choice doesn’t work out for me financially. I don’t want me or my parents to be burdened by huge debt just so that I can get my education at an expensive school when there are less expensive options out there that are just as good.

When you’re all on the same page, it’s just going to be that much easier to get through that college decision process with a successful outcome that everyone is happy with.

Have you had the college conversation with your kid yet? How did it go?

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