The news this past week was inundated with stories about a young teen from New Jersey who sued her parents to pay for college. Parents all over the country have weighed in. A recent poll conducted by NJ.com asked parents if they agreed with the lawsuit. The poll results were not surprising: 5% said parents should be required to pay; 95% said they should not.
With college costs rising, and more and more parents trying to find a way to pay for college, many parents are asking if they should pay, and if so, how much? Whether you can afford to pay or not, it's a question every parent should ask: "Should we pay for college?" And when asked that question, there are three schools of thought:
1. Parents are responsible to pay for all of it.
2. Parents should help, but the student should contribute.
3. Students should pay the entire cost.
Understanding these three premises, what they entail, and what the consequences are for your student, will help you make your decision.
Parents should pay for the entire cost of college
Most parents want to be able to pay for their children’s college education; and most believe their children will perform better because of their willingness to pay. Parents cite three common reasons for this: Their student won’t have to spend time working; they aren’t burdened with student loan debt; and they will have more time to study, which translates to better grades. Paying for an education is just as necessary to these parents as taking care of food, clothing, and medical expenses.
Many parents work hard, save money, and expect to pay for college. But before your family foots the entire bill for your student’s education, remember that no job, no responsibility to repay loans, and more free time for leisure activities, such as partying, can have an impact on your child’s academic performance.
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Parents should help, but expect their student to contribute
The overwhelming school of thought among educators is that your kid needs some skin in the game. Even if you can afford to give your child a full ride, you probably shouldn't. There’s nothing wrong with expecting your child to make good grades in high school, work during summers, save for college costs, and even apply for scholarships. Students who contribute to their education are more likely to take it seriously.
Working 20 hours or more a week in college may be difficult for some to maintain good grades, but 10 hours a week is much more manageable for the average student. Research actually show that students who work a modest number of hours during college make better grades and are more likely to persist and earn degrees.
Professor Laura Hamilton, an assistant professor of sociology at University of California, examined data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics to determine what effect, if any, parental support had on college outcomes:
The fact is that it's really tough to work your way through school these days. The cost of college has more than doubled in real terms since 1980, and even public colleges now cost more than $20,000 a year. Financial aid is largely determined by parents' income and assets, so if they opt not to help, the student may have few options other than massive student loan debt.
[Learn about 529 Plans and other college saving options.]
Parents should not pay any college education costs
A small number of parents believe that once a child turns 18, it’s their responsibility to support themselves, including the responsibility of paying for an education. You might think it’s impossible, but in reality, it’s not. Frances Thompson, a parent of 12, believes that parents should not pay for college and in a recent article outlines how he did it:
All 12 of my children have college degrees (or are in school), and we as parents did not pay for it. Most have graduate degrees. Those who are married have wonderful spouses with the same ethics and college degrees, too. We have 18 grandchildren who are learning the same things that our kids learned—self-respect, gratitude, and a desire to give back to society.
Here’s a short list of possibilities that could free you from paying any education costs:
- Encourage your child to apply for scholarships
- Insist they make good grades in high school which translates into merit aid
- Encourage your child to work during summers and save for college
- Have your child take AP (Advanced Placement) classes and dual credit classes to get college credit
- Discuss the possibility of community college and living at home while attending
- Pursue all types of grant money available
- Consider entrepreneurial activities during high school and college
- Encourage your child to study for the PSAT to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, which can translate into a full ride at a number of colleges
- Take out minimal student loans
All of these tactics should allow your child to pay for their own education. As you can see, it requires participation on their part and a willingness to commit to funding a college education. It is also almost a guarantee that your child will graduate with some debt, but it will be manageable if your student starts saving money early.
What should parents do?
Everybody is different—each parent and family must debate and decide on a college payment plan that fits their specific needs. Knowing what the consequences for each scenario might be should help you decide which is best for your family. Parents should have a thoughtful discussion with their children about the cost of a college education and what they expect from them. Underscore the fact that this is their job for the next four years, and that you aren’t an ATM. If you do decide to pay for their education, explain that they have a responsibility to reciprocate with good grades and a degree. The best advice is to expect them to invest time and effort in their own education, whether they are paying for it or not.
What is your philosophy about who should ultimately pay for college? Parents, teens, or both?