How to Think about Paying for College

If you have a kid that may one day be interested in going to college, it can be helpful to think about how your family might prepare for that expense as far in advance as possible. 

Most importantly, you’ll need to set expectations about money (Who’s paying? How much are they paying?) as early as possible, so everyone’s on the same page and there are no surprises. Even if your kid has just decided they’d like to go to college and they’re graduating high school in a year or two, it’s never too late to start having this conversation.

But before you can get practical about how you might pay for college (which will come later in this article), it’s important to put your thinking in perspective by reflecting on your values and priorities when it comes to college.

Identify Values

In order to create any kind of plan to pay for college, you have to know how each member of your family (both parents and kids) values and prioritizes a college education. In other words, why (or why not) do they think going to college is important?

That said, if your kid is still in diapers and isn’t even speaking actual words yet, it might be tough to get a sense of how they feel about college. In that case, spend time discussing some of these ideas with any budgeting partners you have, and then plan to pick up these conversations with your kiddo when it makes sense. 

If your kids are ready to spend time surfacing and reflecting on these values with you, then gather them up to get the conversation started. 

What does college mean to you and your family?

College doesn’t mean the same thing from person to person or from family to family. Some folks primarily see college as an opportunity for career advancement. For others, college may be an opportunity for personal growth. Some may find it important—or not—for other reasons. 

Depending on their age and other factors, your kid may or may not have a sense of what their values are when it comes to college. As the parent, you can help them surface some of these things through meaningful conversations. Whether or not you went to college yourself, now’s a great time to share about your own experience! 

Did you go to college? If you did, what was that experience like for you? What kinds of factors did you consider when deciding to go or not to go to college? How might you envision college—or some other career path—shaping your kid’s future? Why might you want your kids to go to college? Or not go to college?

Sharing these kinds of details and answering some of these questions can help get your kid thinking about how going or not going to college might impact their future, and inspire them to think about what they want their life to look like. 

And once they start to get a sense of their values around college, you’ll all be better prepared to get more practical about planning for the costs. 

Where does college fit in your list of priorities?

When it comes to budgeting, the reality for most of us is that we won’t be able to afford all the things we want and still have enough for the things we need. That means we’ll need to prioritize so that we’re spending, saving, and giving towards the things we value. 

First, think about what other kinds of financial goals you’re working on. Do you have a sense of how they rank or how long they might take to complete? Where do you feel college sits on that list? 

This might sound like a strange thing to consider, but here’s an example to highlight why it makes sense. If the most important goal you’re working on is saving up for a down payment on a home because you know that will provide your family with stability, then you might choose to push other things, like saving for college, further down the list so that you can accomplish that goal. 

So, it’s clear that understanding how your priorities rank is important. When you know where things fall, then you can communicate that reality to your kids, and ultimately, make a budget that makes sense given those priorities. 

But, not only that, it allows you to have a real conversation with your kids about expectations around what you can reasonably provide for them.

Get practical

Now that you understand your values a bit more, you can spend some time getting practical about how you might make college work financially. 

It’s important that you include your potential college-goer in these conversations because you won’t be able to answer many of these questions without them. 

And don’t worry if you can’t answer all of these questions now. Thinking about them now will get the thought process started, and you can check in about them as time progresses. But don’t just count on remembering—be sure to have a plan for when you’d like to restart these conversations in the future. 

The point here is to start by listening to how your kid might envision their future college experience. Once you know what they’re looking for, you can start getting practical about how their desires might impact the cost of college, and what that cost means for your family. 

How much might you be able to pay? 

It’s true that your income might change between now and when your kid goes off to college. But it’s still worth spending time estimating how much you think you might be able to contribute. 

Using the budget you have now, think about how much you can set aside for college savings. If you have a surplus in your budget that’s not being allocated, then that’s an easy place to start. If you don’t have leftovers, then think about where college falls in your list of priorities and use that as a framework to help you adjust your budget so that you can make space for college savings. 

If you expect your income or goals to change, use that to help you project what your savings might look like later down the road. 

If you don’t have a budget, use the How to Make a Budget guide to create one. Be sure to make room for college savings if it falls on your list of priorities. 

How much can you expect kids to pay, if at all? Do you expect them to work during college?

This is a question of practicality as well as values. The reality for a lot of parents is that they won’t be able to pay the full price of college tuition. But even if they can financially cover all of college, some parents still ask their college-goer to pay for some of the cost. That can allow kids to take some ownership of their education. 

Whatever the reasoning may be for you, think about whether or not you’d feel comfortable having your kid contribute some or all of their college expenses.

If you would, how much might you expect them to pay, given your own contribution? How do you feel about asking them to work during college? Is that something they think they can do? If it isn’t, how else would they plan to cover their portion of the costs?

If you all do decide that your kid will contribute, spend some time thinking through some of the common ways people pay for college

What kind of school might they attend?

The kind of college your kid attends will have a direct impact on cost. Four-year universities can cost more than community colleges, and private schools often cost more than public ones.

If your kid has an idea of where they might want to attend, let them tell you now. Once you know their ideal plan, you’ll have a better idea of the kind of costs you might be looking at, which will then help you figure out the plan for paying. 

Where might they live while they attend?

This is another choice that will have a direct impact on the overall cost. Once your kid has an idea of where they’d like to attend, you’ll be able to talk more about where they’d like to live as well. 

If they plan to attend a school that’s close to home, that opens the door for you all to consider having them live at home, which is the most cost-effective option. But also be sure to talk through and consider the possible benefits of living on campus at least during their freshman year. 

If they aren’t looking at schools close by, then they have options of living on or off-campus. Off-campus can be the less expensive option between those two. 

Again, once you have an idea of what they hope for, then you can decide on an option that makes sense financially. 

At the end of the day, this guide is just a starting place. Continue to build off of these conversations and check in with each other from time to time to see how feelings or expectations may have changed. 

As a result of listening and communicating as a team, you’ll have a better idea of what college means to you all, and you’ll be more equipped to actually start saving for college

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