Dear Career Doctor:
My wife and I are in our late 40′s and have a mortgage and not a lot of savings. We have three children and the oldest is a junior in High School. We are starting to think about college and I am starting to worry about how to pay not only for him, but for the other two. Nobody I know talks about having their kids pay for college or get college loans, so I feel like a bad parent to even be thinking that I wouldn’t pay for everything. Do you think this is a parent’s responsibility? And if not, how should I talk about this with my children.
No matter how wealthy a parent is, I think it’s a good idea to expect a child to contribute something toward their college expenses. At the very least, they should work summers or have a part-time job at school to help pay for their living expenses. This gives a child a sense of reality — and a stake in keeping grades high and expenses low.
But you don’t sound like you are wealthy, so I understand why you are worried. In this (or any) economy, people in their late 40′s have to start saving for retirement — or as a cushion against losing a job. At the same time they are faced with the horrendous cost of college, which has risen far more than seems reasonable.
You haven’t said what your child wants to study or how gifted your child is. This is a factor since many of the best schools accept students on a “need blind” basis and then help students find a way to pay. There are also some excellent schools that are free (like Cooper Union) and often state schools are a better (and cheaper) choice than private schools.
Meet with your accountant and discuss your assets and what you can afford to contribute to your children’s college expenses. Then I suggest a meeting with your child and his/her college counselor to discuss college expenses and possible financial aid. Tell them what your accountant says you can afford to contribute and have an open discussion about college costs and choices. Let your child be a partner in this decision that affects everyone.
Often the best gift a parent can give a child is a sense of economic reality combined with loving support. So don’t feel guilty about asking your child to assume some or most of the economic burden if you can not afford to assume it.