Talking with kids about college tuition

I received this query email from a reader:

Good morning. I’m a single Dad. I have three children 23, 21, and 19. My 21 and 19 year old are boys in college. One is a freshman and one a junior. Their Mom is remarried. I probably make about 1/3 to 1/2 of what my ex and her new husband make. The boys think I should contribute 50/50 on all things with my ex. This is impossible to do for me. I want to try to help them understand why I can’t contribute at the same rate. Ideas/suggestions? Thanks!

Here’s how I responded:

college tuition, pile of money and hatI would say that it’s not your children’s place to say how much you should contribute and that at 19 and 21 it’s really nice of you to pay anything at all. I would simply say “I can pay $xx/month towards your college. If you’d prefer I didn’t, just let me know.” and hold your ground. I certainly don’t understand the parents going into debt to pay for the children to go to college, personally and I set up 529 savings accounts for all three of mine. That’s their $$ for college, and when that’s out, I’m tapped out.

Good luck! Money is never easy to talk about…

To take the topic further, I want to say that my parents paid for the first year of my college education back in the day, and that it was my responsibility to figure out how to pay for the rest, either through working, scholarships, grants or even a loan or two. I received some grants and opted to work. In fact, I was being paid as a tutor by the time I was half-way through freshman year, and worked full time my junior and senior year (a job that included tuition reimbursement, which was terrifically helpful).

I don’t necessarily expect my own children to pay their way through college, but I’ve saved up about a year’s worth of college expenses for each at this point and I’m going to pay it forward the same way, encouraging them to figure out how to manage their own college and life expenses.

Of course, they’ve got an advantage I didn’t have when I was in college, though: their Mom’s family will likely be able to pay all of their college expenses for the 4-6 years that a typical undergraduate now takes to complete their degree. Unfortunately I also anticipate that my relationship with my kids will subtly change when “Mom pays for this” and “Mom pays for that” and I simply say that I believe they’re old enough to not need assistance.

Sometimes parenting is a long game, is about making decisions and doing things that you know are going to be unpopular in the moment because they’ll be beneficial in the long run. And oh, do I have experience doing that sort of thing. And once they’re 19, 20, 21? Time for them to step up to the plate, in my opinion.

How about you? What’s your plan for paying for your children to go through college / get started?

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