paying for college

This is the third of a four-part series on the subject of overparenting, this post digging into how to pay for college. Be sure to also check out our recently published posts on how to play an appropriate role in your middle schooler’s life and in your child’s college admission process, and stay tuned for our upcoming post on your role as a parent in the life of your college student.

At College Coach, we like to say that the college selection process is your child’s. And it is, up to a point. With today’s sky-high college costs, however, and the near impossibility of a child working their way through school on their own, parents simply must play a significant role in the college financing process. That doesn’t mean that college costs are the parents’ burden to bear alone and that kids should be kept in the dark though. If you don’t plan to issue your child a blank check to attend the college of their choice, think about how you can make financing a college education a family affair. The objective is to get a degree without crushing debt at graduation, and we’ve put together some tips for families to get their financial game faces on and work together as a team to tackle this goal.

DO set a plan of action: how will we (all!) pay for college?

DO share with your child what you can afford. Do you have savings? How long will those savings last at the schools your child is currently considering? Will you borrow? If so, is there a limit to the amount of debt you can take on (factoring in all the children you have to get through college). Use the net price calculators found on the colleges’ websites to see if you’ll qualify for any financial aid, and if a college is out of your price range after aid is accounted for, give your child the gift of a firm “no.”

DO tell your child what you expect them to contribute to this process: earning scholarships, using savings to pay for books and personal expenses, having a job during the summer and school breaks, etc. Have your child use a scholarship search engine to look for opportunities, and check with the guidance office at their high school for local scholarships. Getting your child started searching for scholarships and socking away some summer earnings as early as 9th grade will put time—and compounding interest—on your side.

DO discuss the dangers of borrowing too much. Have your child use a resource such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook or My Next Move to research the starting salary of the career that most interests them. Draw up a mock budget based on net salary and cost of living in the area where they plan to live after graduation. How much is left for monthly student loan payments?

DON’T be afraid to share your household income with your child, as well as any other debt you have that may prevent you from contributing more. When a child is in the dark about the family’s finances, they often think that the sky’s the limit. Trust your child with the full financial picture so that they can make informed decisions.

DON’T wait until April of your child’s senior year in high school to have these conversations. Families who discuss these issues throughout the process, and have set goals and expectations, will find making the final decision a whole lot easier.

DON’T hesitate to set parameters: what are the consequences if your child fails to maintain a scholarship, is not keeping their grades up, or is not on track to graduate on time? Be clear and follow through with consequences.

Paying for college is one of the most expensive undertakings a family will make, and it is not a responsibility to be borne by the parents alone. Including your child in the process will help them to better understand the ramifications of this large financial commitment, and the lessons learned throughout this college journey will help set the stage for a lifetime of financial decisions to come.

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Written by Jeanne Mahan
Jeanne Mahan is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. She worked as a senior financial aid officer at Tufts University and Quinsigamond Community College before joining College Coach.