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Money for College: Should Parents Pay?

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College can be incredibly expensive. As I mentioned the other day, the cost of a college education is rising rapidly, and “How will I pay for college?” is a legitimate concern for most people. Few people pay for college completely out of their own pockets— the majority of college students have some type of financial aid— but young people planning to attend college immediately following high school often mistakenly assume that a college education is a right that their parents owe them.

A College Education is not a Right

Obviously, parents have responsibilities for their children until they’re of legal age, but plenty of parents assume that college is a mandatory obligation they must endure. Might sound selfish or harsh, but it’s not— and there are plenty of benefits to an adult child paying for their own college education.

Although some parents— and their children— might argue otherwise, a college education is a privilege, not a right. A July 23, 2010 Wall Street Journal blog reported that most Americans — 42.8% — said this year that saving for their own retirement was more important than saving for their child’s college education, indicating an increase from last year’s 40.7%.

I was fortunate enough to have numerous scholarships and grants that covered the majority of my undergraduate expenses, but my parents helped me out financially by paying for textbooks, lab fees, and school supplies. I also lived at home during school—rent free—and my parents paid for my car insurance. At the time, I was envious of friends that lived in dorms or off-campus apartments, but looking back on things as an adult I can see what a huge financial benefit it was to live at home. I’m still in touch with college friends who complain about their massive student loan debt, which was drastically increased by their room and board fees.

Although I always worked during college, the money I earned at my part-time jobs was mine to spend as I pleased. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family—far from it, actually—but my parents didn’t ask me to contribute to household bills, and I was too naïve to set money aside into a savings account. I wouldn’t say I was reckless with money, but I definitely didn’t have a huge understanding of income and budgets.

Why Parents Shouldn’t Pay for Everything

A lack of financial responsibility is just one reason that some experts feel parents shouldn’t completely pay for their children’s college education. In addition to unintentionally creating a warped understanding of money, paying for your child’s degree may:

  • Create a false sense of financial security. The job market is pretty bad right now, to put it mildly. If your child is used to having their bills paid for them on the spot, how are they going to handle student loan payments if they don’t even have a job? MSN Money contributor Liz Pulliam Weston explains that the average level of education debt is about $21,000 (according to The Project on Student Debt, anyway) but student loan debt of $30,000, $40,000 is not uncommon.
  • Provides plenty of room for laziness. There’s no doubt in my mind that my parents’ financial assistance—as small as it was—instilled a bit of laziness in me. I was a full-time student, I actually went to class, studied and earned good grades, but I wouldn’t say I ever went “above and beyond” during school. I didn’t go out of my way to search for additional scholarships, and I knew that when the time came to make a big purchase, my parents would most likely help me out.
  • Paying for something yourself makes you appreciate it. When I entered “the real world” and began paying for things myself, I appreciated them a lot more than I did when my parents bought them for me. The same can be said about a college education. I have a friend that paid for everything completely on her own during college, and she has a sense of pride about her degree that I don’t see very often.

The Worst Things that Parents Can Do

Some parents opt to borrow money from their 401(k) retirement plans in order to finance their child’s college education, but the College Board warns against this habit. Why? Borrowing from your 401(k) plan limits the potential growth of your retirement assets, and you might not have enough funds left when it’s time to retire. It might be painful, but parents need to remind themselves that students can take out loans to finance their education; parents can’t take out loans for their own retirement.

Parents are often known to co-sign student loans or take out private loans to pay for their child’s education. MSN Money claims that if you’re a parent, all of your debts—including your mortgage payments, credit cards, car loans and education loans—shouldn’t eat up more than 35% of your gross pay.

Lisa Belkin began an opening post to the New York Times magazine with the following words: “Now that my son is a college freshman, I see everything in terms of tuition payments. I know that our monthly mortgage is less than our monthly college bill.” This is just one example of the way that many parents are willing to “do whatever it takes” to finance a college education for their children, but once you start borrowing it’s easy to get in over your head. You may not even realize how much you really owe in education loans if you’re borrowing from multiple lenders.

A New York Times article from 2006 quoted Ellen Frishberg, director of student financial services at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, as saying “What I’ve really seen in the last 10 years is a generational shifting of the responsibility. Our parents helped us pay for school. These parents are not as willing to help their children pay for school.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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