My 10-year-old and her best friend have a plan for their future. They're both going to get full scholarships to Harvard. From there, they'll go on to be lawyers, speech therapists, swimming instructors and mothers. They may also take a teaching job or two in their free time. These girls are nothing if not ambitious, and I applaud their initiative. I'm particularly happy that they plan to get full scholarships -- which, according to my daughter, will also include a stipend -- because there is no way I could pay for what she wants to do.
Unfortunately, I'm not certain that Harvard is aware of my daughter's plan, let alone if that storied institution is in concurrence with it.
The current reality
The sad fact is that a college education is not something most people can afford. According to CollegeBoard.com, a state school can cost residents $7000 a year. Coming from out of state? Expect to pay $11,500 annually. And private schools? The average cost is $26,000 per year. Ouch.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that if you picked up the tab for $40,000 of college, you could expect to pay $460 every month for the next 10 years. Hope you weren't planning on retiring… ever.
Of course, not all parents are able -- or willing -- to pay for their children's college years. After all, plenty of our own generation took out student loans, and our kids can do the same, right? Consider that about half of the people who did get those student loans still owe over $20,000 15 years after graduation.
So, who should pay? And how?
Plan as early as possible
If your child is still bringing home scribbles that pass for artwork, you might be tempted to think that college is w-a-a-a-y in the future. Banish those thoughts. It's never too early to start planning ahead.
At the very least, figure out if you plan to pay anything towards your child's higher education. If so, how much? And will that figure change if you have more children? Try to get some numbers down on paper, and see what you can start putting away each month, even if it's just a small amount.
It's also important to make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page. Talk over your finances, your expectations, and your wishes. Be honest about what's realistic. If one set of grandparents is wealthy -- but you haven't spoken in ten years -- you can't count on their financial support. Similarly, if one spouse isn't comfortable asking for parental support, that's also a consideration.
On the other hand, many grandparents are happy to contribute towards their grandchildren's future. Although it may be a little bit awkward, talk to your parents and in-laws about their potential involvement.
Talk to your kids
Whether you plan to foot the bill or whether you'll simply hand those bills to your child, talk about what you expect from the time your kids are young. Stress the importance of good grades for scholarships, saving a portion of money earned from various jobs, or contributing positively to the family -- whatever your reality dictates.
As your kids get older, your discussions can be more frank. Let your kids know what they can expect from you -- whether its your very best wishes, a set amount of financial help, or a free ride -- and help them understand what their responsibilities will be. Sit down together to consider different options, and make sure your kids know that even if you can't help them financially, you are always a source of emotional support.
Explore creative solutions
Yes, college is expensive, but there are ways to ease some of the burden. Kids who complete AP courses in high school can place out of some classes in college. Attending a community college for a year or two before transferring to a larger school can also cut costs. As technology races, more and more distance learning options become available, many of which are more affordable than traditional models. Think outside the box to find a way to lower your total costs.
Consider scholarships as well -- and remember that it's possible to receive them from multiple sources. Some students apply for and are granted hundreds of separate scholarships, dramatically lowering their tuition bills.
Don't let college expenses derail your finances -- or set your kids up for a lifetime of debt. Show your smarts by planning wisely.