When our oldest son was 3 years old, we opened up a 529 college savings account. For 15 years we added what we could , which wasn’t much – usually $50 a month, sometimes more – but by the time he was ready to go to college there was a good chunk of change in there.
So when our first went off to live in a dorm and attend his first semester at a public university, we were more than willing to foot the bill. It’s our responsibility, right?
We always planned to pay for our kids’ college education. For me and my husband it was basically “what parents do” because our parents did the same for us. We wanted to be like our parents (who, by the way, had more than enough to afford it).
Well, that belief went up in smoke when our son told us he failed 3 out of his 4 classes. So, yeah. About $10K down the drain.
At that point we told him he was on his own. We didn’t have that kind of money to waste or gamble. He would have to get a job and take out student loans.
Since then he’s switched from a university to a community college, changed his major, held a full time job, and has never been more responsible than he is right now. He knows what he wants to do, he takes his classes seriously, and he has a plan for his life.
He’s also extremely thankful when he gets in a bind and Mom & Dad help him out.
In other words, he’s really grown up a lot since he started paying for it.
So, I’ve had a change of heart. I no longer feel like it’s my responsibility to pay for my kids’ college education. But even more so, I know I’m allowing for valuable life lessons if I don’t.
Sometimes it’s hard as parents to not eliminate struggle and hardship from our kids’ lives. We want to give them a clear, easy path to success. After all, they’re going to have enough failure in their lives.
But we really do them a disservice when we don’t allow the tough times to shape their character. It’s important that they learn how to fight for what they want – and figure out what’s worth fighting for.
After much thought, I realized there are several reasons why it’s okay – maybe even *best* – to put college tuition on my kids’ shoulders. Here are 9 reasons why I’ve decided not to pay for their college education.
#1 We Need To Make Our Financial Future’s Security The Priority
My husband and I have been diligent about building our 401K, but we’re still far from having the nest egg we’d be comfortable retiring on. We have about 15 more years before we even consider entering retirement, and between now and then we need to make our savings the top priority.
I would prefer my kids make their own choices about college based on their responsibility to pay for it, rather than choosing between the three of them who is going to take care of Mom & Dad because we don’t have enough money to take care of ourselves. I don’t even want to think about the financial, mental and emotional burden that could possibly be to them.
#2 We Will Help Them Cut Costs As Much As Possible
On one college visit we went to, the financial aid advisor told all the parents in attendance that looking for scholarships is like a part-time job. Your child must set aside time every week researching potential scholarship money, keep a record of what’s applied for, stay organized with the process, and make sure he is is following the rules for each one.
This could be overwhelming for some teens – especially those with “senioritis”. By their 12th year of school, a lot of kids are just done. It can be tough to be diligent with something that doesn’t provide any benefit until another year. Talk about delayed gratification – which most 17 year olds have not yet developed.
I understand this as a parent, and know my kids will need support during this process. I’ll help them with the research, the rules, and staying organized as they learn how the system works and figure out the best strategies to use. I’ll probably be the one thinking of the right questions to ask, knowing the right person to talk to, and searching for those “under the radar” scholarships that my teen wouldn’t think of.
I’ll also help them look for grants, navigate the student loan process (including FAFSA), and offer suggestions for cutting expenses. For example, many colleges now require freshmen to live on campus for their first year. This would add at least $5,000 to the bill. I’ve already told my daughter she could go to community college for the first year or two, save on tuition, live at home for free, and bypass the dorm experience (which she’s not crazy about) when she decides to transfer to a university.
Also, most teens don’t yet have a grasp of what college costs over 4 years, and they’re only steered by the name, the reputation, the location, the programs offered, what friends are going there, etc. – everything but how much money it’s going to take. I feel it is my responsibility to help them consider why and how lower-cost universities can be a reasonable and wise choice while still getting a good college education.
#3 They’ll Learn Invaluable Lessons About Financial Responsibility
It’s tough to be a grown up. The transition from carefree teenager to responsible young adult can be plagued with difficulties, mistakes, and regrets – some that take a long time to get over. It can take many years to figure out how to “adult” because wisdom and maturity require a lot of time to grow.
However, it’s amazing how motivated we can be when under pressure. When there is no safety net, we can learn quickly the importance of making good choices and the value of working hard. There is little room for foolish activity and squandering of time. Needs are the priority, not wants.
It’s difficult to watch, but I know it’s important for my kids to go through the struggle. They don’t have to figure it out on their own – I’ll help them with that – but I want them to do it on their own.
It’s like Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich once said – “Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.” I want my children to grow up into adults who have strength of character and conviction, and I hope through their struggle they will learn important lessons that will serve them well throughout their lives.
By giving them the responsibility to pay for their college tuition, I hope they will be more motivated to make wise decisions, such as:
- Being purposeful with their money
- Taking their higher education seriously
- Exploring different areas of study before investing in a 4 year degree
- Choosing a college that not only meets their educational needs, but also doesn’t exceed what they can afford after graduation
- Spending the time necessary to figure out if college is really for them (I took off 5 years between high school and college)
- Considering careers that aren’t just fun and exciting, but can also support a family, a mortgage, and anything else that fits in their vision of a successful life
- Learning the value of a dollar
As long as I am on this earth, I will always be available to help guide them and offer advice. I want my kids to learn from my own mistakes, but I know the best lessons are learned from personal struggle.
#4 I Want Them To Keep A College Education In Perspective
As parents, we all want our children to succeed and have the best chances at having a fulfilling life. Many of us think college is the safest choice, some of us think it’s the best.
And, in some instances, it is. But not in every instance.
I used to have the expectation that all my kids would go to college, and that just fed into my belief that paying for it was up to me. After all, if I was telling my kids they are going and don’t have a choice, I felt it was my responsibility to make it happen.
After things didn’t work out the way I’d planned for our oldest, and I realized our financial support was not influencing the amount of effort he was willing to put into his education, I had to challenge my rigid thinking and reconsider what was best for our kids.
First, the decision has to be theirs, not ours. If your kid was not a great student in high school (like ours) then he’s not going to change his ways just because college is “the next thing to do”. He has to have his own emotional investment in that decision, and that doesn’t happen when he feels there’s no other choice. It’s important to me (now) that my kids know going to college is not a requirement for Dad & Mom to believe in their success. Is it our wish? Yes, because college can be a great experience and open doors later in life. But the decision has to be theirs.
Second, I want them to be guided by their hearts first, not their heads. Not every career path depends on a four year degree, and I don’t want them to limit themselves to only the choices that do. My son was naturally good at math in high school, so he thought the best choice was to become an engineer. When he failed calculus his first semester in college he realized he didn’t have the drive to push through the higher levels that did not come naturally to him. He decided he wanted to instead pursue something that allowed him to be outdoors in nature, something he loves to do, so he switched his focus to becoming a park ranger. Will he need a four year degree? Yes – but now he has an emotional investment in his decision and he’s working hard to achieve his goal.
Third, I don’t want my kids to have this perception that college is a place to “figure things out”, or “find myself”. Knowing they’ll have to shoulder the expense, the chances are greater that they will take the time necessary to have these experiences before they enroll for classes that cost $1000 a pop. If they follow our advice, they’ll discover they can do this *without* going into debt – even better yet, you can “find” yourself while living at home, working a full time job, and saving up for tuition.
#5 I’m Paying For Their Pre-College Education
Even though my kids go to public school, there are still expenses for helping them get the most out of it.
There are AP exams, extracurricular activity fees, private tutors and educational trips. Also SAT/ACT study books and exams, instrument costs and maintenance, athletic and concert uniforms. Another opportunity for me to support my kids before going to college is paying for any CLEP exams that could allow them to bypass expensive college courses.
Then there’s the college visits which may require airplane tickets and a hotel room. College application fees add to the rising total.
All of these we’re more than happy to pay for, even if it means sacrificing in other areas.
Aside from a financial standpoint, we make sure to support them in their high school education by attending all teacher conferences, holding them accountable to their responsibilities as students, and encouraging good grades. We attend every sports game, music concert, play, and award ceremony they’re a part of. When they show an interest in something, we support them with our wallet and our time.
#6 Financial Responsibilities Can Build Character
Taking on a huge debt in your own name is 1) a choice, and 2) a *huge* responsibility with long term consequences if it’s not paid back. It takes some serious consideration to sign the dotted line and commit to years of payments.
Many life lessons in adulthood don’t come packed with the grace and patience you’ll find in “teachable moments” from Dad & Mom. Creditors and bosses don’t care if you didn’t “feel” like being responsible, or if you “forgot” the deadline for that payment or project.
Nope, feelings and memories are rarely considered when it comes to real life responsibilities. What does matter is reliability, integrity, and commitment (just to name a few). Building genuine character happens in challenging experiences over time, such as:
- Having to make sacrifices
- Delaying gratification
- Rearranging priorities
- Making tough decisions
- Working hard for little credit
- Developing a good work ethic
I don’t like the idea of my kids struggling to make ends meet, but if that is the pressure they need to become stronger in their character, it’s worth it.
#7 Financial Burdens Can Build Faith
We’ve raised our kids to go to church, to pray, to study the bible and have faith in God. We have taught them that He is the One that provides and we need to put our trust in Him.
We have been truly blessed in our family, always having a comfortable home, enough income for our needs and a little fun now and then. We’ve had some hardships too, and our small share of tragedies. In it all we keep worshiping God and trusting His will is perfect.
My husband and I pray that our children’s faith will only continue to grow as they get older and do life on their own. One of the toughest areas to trust God in is with finances, but it’s also a huge faith builder when you have to rely on Him to provide for your needs. I don’t want to get in the way of what God wants to do in their lives, and sometimes that means stepping back just far enough so they can’t even rely on us for certain things.
We hope their prayer life will also strengthen as they turn to Him in faith, humbly presenting their requests before Him, trusting His Word that promises He will meet all our needs.
#8 They’ll Be More Prepared For Adulthood
Not having a free ticket to college will make my kids stop and think about what they really want to do with their lives, and which path they want to commit to. They won’t have an extra four years of free living, or the time to be choosy with accepting a job that meets all their expectations. They will need to start “adulting” pretty quick, such as:
- Learning how to budget and manage their money wisely if they don’t want to end up with additional debt and bad credit
- Planning far enough ahead to get their financial aid in place before it’s required each semester (my son learned this one the hard way)
- Having a job to pay for part of their schooling to keep student loans to a minimum
- Being intentional about which classes they really want to go into debt for
- Keeping that part time job even if it means they don’t get spring break off
- Driving a paid off older vehicle instead of adding more debt with a newer model – or maybe learning to survive without a car at all!
- Understanding it’s the employee who does that extra 10% that gets the promotions and raises
- Figuring out their wants from their needs
All of these choices will help build good habits that will serve them well their entire lives: Being intentional with their time and money. Finding creative ways to lower expenses. Building the capacity for delayed gratification. Learning to be content with frugality.
Of course, I don’t expect my kids to figure all this out on their own. They will inevitably make wrong choices. They’ll call for help because they didn’t plan well or made a mistake. Dad & Mom will always be there to guide them, support them, even pull them out of a hole if we feel it’s the best thing to do.
But giving them the responsibility of paying for their college education will put them in a position where they have the *opportunity* to learn from their mistakes and make choices that have tangible and immediate consequences.
#9 Sometimes Life Just Doesn’t Go As Planned
I decided to add this last reason for those parents who really wanted to pay for their children’s college education, but life took an unexpected left turn somewhere along the road. You had good intentions to save up the money, but life threw you some curveballs and that college fund had to be used for something else.
Maybe you lost your job. Or got injured and can’t work. Maybe you went through a divorce and now you need every penny to stay afloat.
For our family, it’s been a mounting pile of medical bills that we never thought we’d be under.
Someone once said the most predictable thing in life is its unpredictability. This is also a great life lesson for our kids to learn. Life is not linear and rarely goes as planned. That’s why it’s important to control what you can (your thoughts and actions) but always remain flexible for those monkey wrenches God likes to throw in the mix. Be prepared for surprises.
If you somehow feel guilty about this, or are even *thinking* about taking out loans to cover the costs – hear me now:
It’s not the end of the world. And it’s not the end of a bright future for your kids.
They can still go to college and get a degree and have successful, fulfilling lives. They’ll just have to work harder to get there – and that is okay. They will be better people for it.
I know it’s our nature to put their welfare before ours. But the circle of life doesn’t stop for anybody – and there’s going to come a time when you are too old to work and bring in extra income for all of your health care needs. If you don’t save your money now, your kids may end up footing the bill – when they’re raising kids of their own.
There are other ways to support them (some ideas on this list may be a good start). You have a lifetime of wisdom and experience and skills to guide them, and you will always be their greatest cheerleader.
In A Nutshell
College is a huge financial undertaking. As parents, sometimes we assume it’s our responsibility to make sure our kids get the best education after high school, so we feel it’s on us to pay for it.
However, as our kids move out one by one and we enter the empty nest season, followed closely by retirement, we need to make sure we’re taking care of our own financial health first. For many of us, it may not be wise to pay for our kids’ college tuition.
The good news is that putting that responsibility on your kids isn’t a bad thing – in fact, there are a lot of benefits to it, for both you and your kids.
Besides you being able to save more for your retirement, your kids will learn some valuable life lessons as well. When your kids know they’ll need to find a way to pay for college on their own, they’re given the opportunity to learn how to manage money more effectively, take their education seriously, and be more motivated to work hard for raises and promotions.
As parents we have to protect our kids against the negative influences of our culture, and do what we can to teach them how to be responsible and reliable people of integrity and commitment. Sometimes this means pushing them out of the nest so they can struggle with finding their wings. They’ll be stronger for it.
What is your opinion on paying for your kids’ college education? Do you have a personal experience that has influenced your decision? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!