Discussing College Costs with Your Kids

This spring did your facebook feed light up with high school graduation announcements? Did you see the pictures of young men and women dressed in caps and gowns?

Do you know what comes after those photographs? A litany of college announcement posts; smiling graduates holding up acceptance letters, dressed in the colors of their new colleges and holding up plushy stuffed animals in the shape of college mascots.

College Concerns

You know what you don’t see? The worry and stress on the parent’s faces that plan to fund those pricey schools or worse yet the acknowledgement of debt these kids just signed up for.

Parents say, “Get good grades, participate in sports, earn high SAT scores and you can pick any school you like.” So the kids follow their parent’s orders. They work hard, study and earn their way into highly acclaimed schools that come with large price tags.

Those eighteen year olds stand tall, beaming with pride and excitement just as they should, but where is the reality check? Who is asking why are you going to school? What do you want to become? How much will you earn in your future career?

College Expenses

And most importantly, (at least in the short term), how much will college cost? Not just how much will it cost right now, but also how much will it cost if you are still paying for student loans ten to twenty years from now.

My parents are amazing people, but they never asked the majority of these questions. In fact, I bet most college students can’t tell you how much they are paying for tuition or room and board. I certainly didn’t know.

Parents talk to their kids about the importance of achievements and hard work, but they often fail to talk about money. This places an unfair burden on everyone.

Discussing The Costs of College

I have forty year old friends who are still paying off student loans they signed up for twenty years ago. Yet they are repeating the same pattern with their own children. Rather than talking to their kids early on about the various costs of schools, they tour campuses and let their kids pick out the most expensive options.

We have a number of friends who have agreed to pay for their children’s educations, but they haven’t funded their own retirements. They plan to take out large loans to pay for school.

I weigh the pros and cons of paying for my sons’ college education quite often. I can totally relate to the desire to remove financial burdens for your kids, but I worry about parents who go into debt to pay for ridiculously expensive schools.

Shouldn’t conversations about college include conversations about money with our kids?

Our Plan of Attack

We talk about money a lot in our household already. Around the age of three we begin discussing financial topics with our kids. We initially introduce them to coins and counting. Later we add ways to earn, (lemonade stands), ways to save, (coupons), and ways to invest (with trips to the bank).

Anytime we spend money on the children or with the children we talk about expenses. Why should college discussions be any different?

When our children begin to think about applying to colleges, (mid-way through high school), I plan to break down the costs of each school. Not just in terms of overall comparisons, (this one costs $20,000 per year and this one $30,000), but by breaking down the numbers into smaller units. How much will it cost per day, week or month to attend.

Setting Expectations

I think it’s important for children to know how much parents are willing to spend up front and in advance. Whether you plan to pay for all of it, some of it or none of it. It helps to let your kids know.

If paying for school is a financial strain I think it helps to tell your kids that too. We lived in a single-income household for many years. My parents never remodeled and we rarely took vacations, but my dad let us know early on that he would do his best to pay for school.

He told my brother and I he would sacrifice to prepare us for better futures. I took academics very seriously because of this fact. I knew my dad was offering an incredible gift and I did not want to let him down.

At this point in time we plan to pay for in-state tuition for our children. (We’ll see if our opinions change as they get older.) If my sons have their hearts set on a school outside of our state we will talk at length about the difference in price and what they will be expected to pay.

Talk About Careers

It’s tough to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. I’m in my early forties and I still haven’t figure it out, so how on earth can we expect an eighteen year old to choose a future career. Still I don’t see how we can have conversations about college without including questions about future careers.

If you plan to graduate with a six figure income then it may make sense to shell out more for your diploma, but what if your intended career doesn’t rake in the big money?

When the time comes my kids and I will research the projected incomes of their desired careers. If they have a passion I wholeheartedly believe in pursing it, but it’s also important for them to understand how income impacts future goals. And how debt, (in the form of student loans), will delay them.

Create a Mock Budget

The best way to visualize money is to break it down into smaller units. A yearly salary seems like a lot of money until you pay all of your bills. So I’ll ask my kids to create a mock budget that includes housing, food, transportation and other expenses.

If my kids require student loans we will run calculations to determine minimum monthly payments. Those totals will be added to their mock budget so they can see how much money is left over at the end of each month.

I hope this will help my kids see the projected numbers and contemplate the weight of their college decision.


By the time my kids are in high school I am certain they will be rolling their eyes about these conversations, but the younger we can start the farther ahead they will be. These days students can save money by passing advanced placement tests and even taking introductory courses at local community colleges.

If we do pay for school I want my children to know that they must study and work hard just like they did in high school. They are not at liberty to goof off just because they are not footing the bill. In fact, my husband and I may also make part time work and internships part of the deal.

Debunk Status Symbols

I can still remember the excitement around applying to colleges and waiting for those infamous acceptance letters. Students chatted often about where they were going and rattled off the names of prestigious schools they got into.

Our high school guidance counselor posted the results on a large sheet of paper outside of the main office. I read through that list of names and associated colleges. The decision seemed so utterly significant at the time.

But where are those friends now? Did degrees at expensive schools earn them a better college experience? Did they step out of school with higher incomes and earning potential? Or did they walk out with a diploma in one hand and debt in the other?

We can all rattle off the names of prestigious schools, like Harvard, Yale, and MIT, because they are known as the best colleges in America. I will remind my kids that name recognition may be important, but is not mandatory for success.

Like any name brand purchase they will have to ask themselves is this “name” worth the extra cost?


I don’t want to discourage my children from dreaming. If they have their hearts set on a specific college or want to pursue a degree that is offered in a limited number of locations I will not discourage them from pursuing those schools.

I will encourage them to apply for scholarships and to find ways to reduce their overall expenses by becoming a residential advisor or looking into work-study programs.

I will also tell them to reach for the stars while gently reminding them to review each school’s financial package.

My goal is not to tell them where to go or how much to spend. I simply want to provide them with as much information as possible to make their decision. College is extremely expensive. I want them to keep their eyes wide open as they choose, because this decision can impact them for decades to come.

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