6 Reasons children should pay for part or all of their college education

During my last sermon I made this offhand comment that raised a few eyebrows: “I think it’s unwise for parents to pay for all or most of their kids’ college education.” Say what? How does a Messiah College student come up with $192,000 for their four years–or even a Millersville University student with the $112,000 they need ?

We didn’t put our three kids through college–not because we had this philosophy at the time, but because we couldn’t. When my oldest child started college, I was only five years out of graduate school myself. Although able to get through school debtfree, the day I graduated we had just $500 in the bank. Our children understood that college would be their responsibility. In the end, each acquired a four-year degree without borrowing thanks to savings, scholarships, jobs, and military service.

I’ve wondered what decision we’d have made if we had the resources. Probably paid between half and all of it. Which I now think would have been a disservice to my children. A few years ago when I asked each of them if they valued having had to find their own way to pay for college, each gave an unequivocal “Yes”. I realize you may come to a different conclusion but here are the six top reasons I think parents should think twice before paying for their kids’ college.

  1. It is not your obligation: At 18, your kids are considered adult enough to vote, and get a fulltime job. So why do parents fund their meals, lodging, schooling and good times for the next 4 years? If there was ever a way to cement in a young adult’s mind that mom and dad are always obligated to sponsor me, this is it. No wonder 52% of 18-29 year-old Americans now live with their parents (did you see Failure to Launch?). There’s nothing biblical about the widely held belief that parents owe their kids college. Too many parents buy the oft-repeated lie told by schools and politicians that the only way to succeed in life is with a 4-year degree. Yet I know many, many very successful business owners who didn’t go to college. I know many successful tradesmen who never went to college. With both an undergraduate and a graduate degree, I’m hardly anti-academic. But to say there’s no success outside of a college degree–and therefore good parents should do ANYTHING necessary to fund it, is little more than propaganda. Because 40% of college graduates take a job that doesn’t require a degree. Ten years after graduation, 20% of them are still not working in the field they trained for (Strada Institute for the future of Work, May 2018). There’s also a bit of vocational snobbery in play because some parents are embarrassed to admit that their son is a plumber, their daughter a waitress. They’d prefer to brag he’s an attorney, she’s a nurse. (We’ll have this discussion again sometime in the future when you can’t find someone to repair your toilet.)
  2. Paying students make smarter school choices: When it’s you buying the car–and you only have so much money, you pick the Ford even though you’d really like the Ferrari. If someone else is buying the car for you, why not get the Ferrari? Unless she realizes she can save a boatload of money, why would any 18 year-old pick HACC for her freshman and sophomore years to get general courses out of the way before going to Penn State for junior and senior years? “But all my friends are going to Penn State all four years!” Knowing it’s going to cost THEM an extra $80,000 will likely tilt their decision in a better direction.
  3. Paying Students apply themselves better: If it’s up to you to land what you want (new girlfriend, new kitchen, lose weight, new car), you apply yourself. But many young people go to college oblivious to the sacrifices momma and daddy are making to send them. After all, how many 18 year-olds know how much money mom and dad have, or understand the impact on the family finances of everyday things like a mortgage, taxes, cars, insurances, utilities, repairs–or college? Happily oblivious to the sacrifices others are making for their education, some end up partying the first couple of years before buckling down, while others never really apply themselves because they have no skin in the game.
  4. Paying Students get a great financial education: This may be one of the most valuable lessons college provides–something he/she won’t get in the classroom. College students who pay their own way by juggling savings, employment, grants, and loans, get a real world education about the consequences of working, saving, spending or borrowing large sums of money.
  5. Paying Students feel enabled, not entitled: When asked what word describes the millennial generation, 71% say “entitled”. But how did they get like that? If mom and dad give, give, give–then neglect to ask mid-late teens to contribute something (gas money for the car, or partial insurance, or do chores around the house), it’s no wonder young adults feel entitled when given a $100,000-$200,000 education with few or no strings attached. And don’t be surprised if this attitude endures into jobhunting: “I want to start at the upper middle if not at the top; I expect regular promotions, wage increases, and flexible hours–regardless of how well I perform.” Compare that with a student who works summers, is also employed on campus during the school year, and takes out limited loans to get the education he realizes not everyone has access to. He has already pulled up any entitlement roots that were growing in his soul.
  6. Paying students leave funds needed for parents’ golden years: Some people can continue to work well into retirement but health problems or employment challenges (we’re letting you go because we’re, ah, we’re…, ah… downsizing”) means there’s no guarantee. A friend who was 79 told me he was still working fulltime, and his wife was almost fulltime. Seeing my flabbergasted look he explained, “We refinanced our house to pay for our children’s college. We’re still paying that off.” I’m pretty sure that his now middle-aged children would not have wanted to put mom and dad in that kind of situation had they understood the implications at the time.

Don’t wait until your son or daughter’s a high school junior to inform them they’re going to be responsible for paying for most or all of their college. Tell them in middle school; yep, you heard me. Because schools are already talking to them about college. Teach them young to save. At ten, my daughter was already saving babysitting money for college. Help them apply for grants, or strategize how much they can earn during summers. Most likely your teen has never borrowed money before so if that’s part of their plan, give them good counsel. Parents are rightfully concerned that if they don’t foot the college bill, their children will take out ill-advised loans and end up deeply in debt. But if you financially parent your children (teach them what stuff costs, teach them to work, teach them to become increasingly self-sufficient), they’ll be willing to dedicate savings, choose a less expensive college, shoulder summer jobs as well as work while in school, penny-pinch on expenses, and work hard for scholarships if college is their goal. Teaching them such things IS a parent’s responsibility; paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to “educate” our adult children, is not. For it isn’t a liberal arts education that is the foundation of true knowledge, but the “fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:7).

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