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Everyone talks about student debt, but what about the debt parents take on for their child’s education?
According to the College Board, 59% of students who graduated in the 2016/17 school year had debt. The average amount owed was $28,500, but that’s not the whole picture. A Brookings Institute report shows that parents are borrowing at least an additional $16,000 annually (per household on average) to cover the rest. That’s a lot of money.
College savings accounts, scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and paid internships can help your family get ahead of college costs. The secret to unlocking all those tools? Teaming up with your teen to choose—and pay for—a college education. Here’s how.
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Start the Conversation Early
“Far too many parents in America make the mistake of only really talking about college when their kid is in high school,” says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a personal finance expert and author of 15 books, including “College Secrets: How to Save Money, Cut College Costs, and Graduate Debt Free.” She’s also a mother of three.
As a parent, it’s easier to tell your child they can be whatever they want to be and go to any school on earth. However, if you do that for years and then break it to your 17-year-old that you can’t afford their top-choice, you could face some emotional backlash.
“Your high-performing kid is going to say, ‘I did everything you told me to, and now you’re saying you can’t afford it?’” Khalfani-Cox explains. “In that scenario, you’re going to feel emotionally guilted, like you’re depriving your kid.” That’s a recipe for making financial choices that might get in the way of your retirement savings or credit later on.
Instead, be honest and open with your student. Let her see how you manage the household’s money as early as middle school so she has more context for how expensive college really is. And if you’ll need your student to help pay for a college education, make sure they know that you’re all in it together.
Schedule a Family Meeting
Shana Lipscomb, a college and career specialist at Edmonds Woodway High School, recommends setting up a time to talk about college, as opposed to springing the topic on your teen when they might not be in the right headspace to open up.
For that first meeting, your goal is to figure out where your student is at. Ask open-ended questions about his interests and his thoughts on higher education. And just listen.
“It can be easy as a parent to assume you know what’s best, but your student is getting a lot of information from other students, counselors, faculty members, and college representatives,” Lipscomb says. “Sometimes they know a lot more than you might be giving them credit for.”
Before scheduling a second meeting, do some research on any schools your student mentions. Use the net price calculators on college websites, and the federally-provided FAFSA4caster tool, to get an idea of what your family can afford. If you find out your teen’s top choices might not be practical, come up with some alternatives to discuss with him or her at your next meeting. “Make sure it’s a two-way conversation,” says Lipscomb.
Think of Paying for College as a Team Effort
At the end of the day, your student’s choice of college is going to affect her life a lot more than it affects yours. Plus, it’s easy to find loans for education, but there’s no loan that will help cover your retirement.
For that reason it makes sense to give your student a lot of ownership over the college savings process, especially if paying for school would put your retirement savings at risk, says Khalfani-Cox.
“With our son, we had a lot of conversations about what we as a family were able to pay, and what debt obligations both we and he would have to take on,” says Lipscomb.
Because teens sometimes have a hard time really picturing the burden debt can create, those conversations were accompanied with mockups of his future budget, based on estimated loan payments and average salaries for his major of choice.
Showing your student that he’ll have to ride the bus to work for the first five years after graduating can be a pretty good way to illustrate the impact debt could have on his life, Lipscomb says. That can be a good motivator for a student to pick up a part-time job and start saving.
It’s Never Too Late to Start Saving
Khalfani-Cox recommends opening a 529 College Savings Account in your student’s name as early as possible. The money put into that account comes out tax-free and won’t be counted against you when your financial need is calculated. It’s also transferable between your children if your oldest decides not to go to college.
However, you can start saving as late as their senior year of high school, and you’ll still be able to chip in for their final years of college.
When your student is applying for schools, be sure to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), regardless of your income bracket. It could make your student eligible for need-based scholarships, as well as merit-based scholarships for everything from grades to artistic talent to community involvement.
“Also, make sure your child knows that once they get into college, it does not stop there,” Khalfani-Cox says. You should be continuing to save for tuition every year, and your student should be applying to new scholarships before each school year.
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Accept That You Can’t Pick Your Student’s Major
Some parents may choose not to help pay for tuition for a number of reasons. For example, they may believe a certain degree won’t benefit their child. However, the student will then have to pay the entire “expected family contribution,” which is based on the parent income listed on the FAFSA, even if the parents don’t chip in. That can put an undue burden on the student to work long hours during college in addition to taking on extra debt they’ll have to pay off after school, says author and college consultant Elaina Loveland, who has been writing about higher education for more than 20 years.
While that decision is up to each family, Loveland suggests working with your student to come up with a plan that’s agreeable to everyone. That could involve asking your student to consider a double major instead of a single fine arts degree, for example, or coming up with a list of colleges that have similar but more affordable programs.
“Ultimately, you have to trust the lessons you’ve given to your child,” Lipscomb says. “Help them choose a college based on their interests and your financial ability, but know that if they work hard, they can make their way with any degree.”
Do What You Can to Avoid Heartbreak
Finding the right school is all about finding the right fit, and that can happen at a school of any size or level of renown. Encourage your student to apply to a handful of colleges, including ones where acceptance seems like a sure thing, and universities that seem like a reach. Here’s the tricky part: Don’t let your kid get too attached to any one school.
“In my household, we banned the phrase ‘dream school,’” Khalfani-Cox says. “I tell my kids that there are over 2,500 nonprofit colleges and universities in this country. It’s not Stanford or bust.” Remind your child that his identity doesn’t depend on the school he goes to. That can help him avoid crushing disappointment if he does get a rejection letter.
Conversely, if your student does get some exciting acceptances, hold off on buying that college sweatshirt right away until after you get the financial aid package a few weeks later, Lipscomb warns.
Learn to Shrug Off the Social Media Buzz
“I think there’s a lot of pressure for students to apply to these prestigious or name-brand schools,” says Lipscomb. In reality, though, it might be the public university 20 minutes from home that has the best program in your student’s preferred field of study.
Talk to your student about their social motivations and fears. Also, be sure to consider your own preconceptions before you push them to choose one school over another.
Look at all schools objectively, determine what’s the best fit academically and financially, and forget what everyone else is saying.
“I tell students to ignore all the social media chatter about who was accepted where,” Lipscomb says, “because when they step onto campus their first day of college, every single person there will have made the same decision they did.”
Don’t Sweat It if Your Student Picks a Private School
It’s a big misconception that lower-income students can never afford private schools, says Loveland. That’s because private schools usually offer more scholarships.
“Often, that private school will cost just as much as the state school down the street once you get your aid package,” says Loveland. “So wait until you get your financial aid package before you decide.”
Consider Community College
Spending your first year or two of college at a community college is a sure way to save money on tuition, says Loveland.
However, to get the savings, you’ll need to do a little research to make sure all the credits will transfer seamlessly—and you need to have a strong strategy for graduating on time.
“Community colleges have very low rates of graduation, and students can languish there without the right motivators,” Khalfani-Cox says.
However, Khalfani-Cox says community college can be a smart choice for students who are uncertain about their academic aspirations. It gives them time to see whether college is for them without taking on a huge financial burden, she explains.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.