About the Author

Honey's main interests are online dating, long distance dating, and long term relationships. She met her boyfriend on MySpace and they have been exclusive since their first date over three years ago. Currently they live in Tempe, Arizona. Honey graduated with her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric in May 2009. You can contact Honey via email here or online here.

Why I Wouldn’t Pay to Send My Kid To College

Lance and I got into a spirited debate in the comments of a recent post about whether or not parents should shoulder the costs for their children to go to college.  Now, this issue is moot for me for a couple reasons:

  1. I’m not having children, and
  2. Jake and I have $100K in student loan debt – APIECE – so between funding our retirement accounts (we got a late start on that, too, since we were already about 30) and paying off our own debts, there’s no way we could afford to send our kids to college even if we had any.

However, it does deserve consideration as a thought experiment about what you value, if nothing else.  Plus he encouraged me to do a separate post on it, so here you go!   

Now, of the student loan debt mentioned above, I’d like to point out that none of it is for undergraduate education.  Jake took out a modest amount of loans as an undergrad and paid them off before going to grad school.  I was a National Merit Scholar and people basically threw buckets of money at me the entire time I was an undergrad (yeah, like DD, I don’t believe in modesty when it comes to academics).  So since both of us were able to get at least the BA without any help from our parents, it seem to me that paying for college on your own is pretty obtainable.  But in the interests of laying everything out, here are the main reasons I wouldn’t pay for my child’s education upfront, and what I would be willing to do instead.

The Tuition Bubble

I have worked in higher education for over 10 years, and I strongly, strongly believe that tuition is the next bubble. Tuition has been rising significantly faster than inflation for some time now, and because of the recent financial/economic crisis leading states to cut back so much on public institutions, lots of universities all over the country are going to raise tuition for the next academic year between 25-33%. This is because we didn’t really resolve what happened with housing, we just pushed the debt around and now it’s going to come out somewhere else.

This tuition bubble is going to have some significant consequences.  For example, I anticipate that lots of universities will fail when the tuition bubble bursts. Public universities will start exhibiting problems first (because they rely on state dollars to run), but private universities are also going to go under because once their endowments are gone, there is noplace for the money to come from. But there is also the possibility that private universities will become a bargain once tuition rates at public institutions surpass theirs and they’ll do great. There’s a lot to consider.  But I can almost guarantee that within 10 years there will be a HUGE, devastating meltdown of higher education in the U.S., so what is clear is that if you pay to send your children to college now, right before the bubble bursts, you’re buying at the top of the market.  Any economist or personal finance expert will tell you is the opposite of what you should be doing with your money.

Things To Think About Before College

First of all, skilled labor is at least as good of a financial decision, and sometimes a better one, than college. Lots of trade schools work with the industry to offer paid training and job placement upon graduation. I’ve only worked at 4-year universities so I’m less familiar with this option, but if I had it all to do again I’d investigate this with a lot more seriousness, and would definitely encourage my kids to do so.  If my children were interested in college (which is not an assumption I’d feel comfortable making in advance, hence no opening 529s for me), then they would have to prove their interest was sincere by taking the hardest courses they could and getting the highest grades they could while still in high school.  Also, AP courses give credit by examination and some high schools partner with community colleges so they could earn college credits in high school.

The cost of tuition can be controlled, albeit in a limited way, by only applying to institutions in their home state (don’t pay out of state tuition), going to a public institution (don’t pay private college tuition), and working full time while attending a community college for their associate’s degree and then transferring to a four-year institution.  Also on the finance/preparedness side, I’d also recommend that my kids visit their guidance office starting in spring of their Junior year of high school, asking what scholarship organizations they have on file, and applying for everything that they’re eligible for.  But I wouldn’t stop there – I’d have my kids get onto Google  (or Bing or whatever search engine is around at that time!) and start searching and applying for every scholarship they could find. I’m not just talking about the huge competitive ones that everyone knows about, there are TONS of little-known scholarships that are one-time and for lesser amounts of money, but every $500 scholarship my children earn is $500 out of their pocket that they wouldn’t have to spend themselves.

Things to Think About In College

Again, lots of opportunities here that most people don’t think strategically enough to take advantage of.  Work-study is a FANTASTIC opportunity I wish I’d taken advantage of – you automatically get a job, you work on campus, and they’re obligated to work around your school schedule. Plus I know lots of people who were work-study while they were in school who got offered full-time jobs with benefits in the same department they’d been working in upon graduation.

As soon as my children were in college I’d also have them investigate whatever pre-professional organizations there were for their major/field and encourage them to start doing internships – they may not be paid at first but some are, and even an unpaid internship early on usually equals lots of connections and better PAID job offers later.  I’d want my kids to declare a major their first semester – even if they end up changing later, having any memberships or internships on their resumes is never a bad thing, plus the sooner they start trying to get involved in a specific field, the sooner they can find out if they aren’t enjoying it (and get an idea of what they really want to do).

In other potential cost-cutting/cost-controlling measures, lots of universities are offering degree programs entirely or partly online, so if my children could adjust their courseloads such that they were available during business hours, then they could work full-time while they were taking classes (though I wouldn’t recommend this right away, since I’m sure my kids would want to get an idea of how much they could handle — and full-time work AND school is too big of a load for lots of folks).  At the very least, they could get a more lucrative and/or relevant part-time job than something like retail or food services.

There are also sometimes positions open at universities that are full-time and benefits-eligible that only require a high school degree (reception, groundskeeping, maintenance/janitorial type work) and one of the benefits that universities frequently offer is tuition assistance. At the university where I work I can take up to 9 credits per semester for a flat fee of $25, for example.  Actually, my spouse and any of my dependents get the same deal I do, so if I did have children and they went to the university where I work, their education would be practically free — I’d be happy for them to use my benefits although I’d require them to pay the $25 tuition and any fees out of their own pocket.

Finally, I’d expect them to line up full-time employment for summer and winter breaks (when they’re not in school) so they could pay for a lot of expenses with their own hard-earned money. Or, if that didn’t sound appealing or feasible,  they could take coursework in winter and summer sessions and aim to graduate in 3 years instead of 4 (plus if they were taking coursework during the breaks, then they could still do work-study).  Graduating in less than 4 years is also nice because tuition gets reset (read: raised) every year, and the quicker they could graduate, the more tuition hikes they wouldn’t have to worry about.

Things to Think About After College

My biggest fear (as I alluded in my comments on Lance’s post) would be that my children would be using my money to avoid working/”the real world,” that they would be using my hard-earned money to live large without acknowledging my sacrifice or intending to pay me back.  I’m not implying that they’d do so out of greed (though some young adults do this, and it’s not always the result of bad parenting), but lots of young adults are scared and will grasp at any straw to avoid the plunge.  So I’d encourage my children to use all the methods of paying for school above (which I think would help make them a lot more responsible and hard-working than students who get a free ride from their folks), and require them to take out student loans to pay for anything they couldn’t cover.  However, I would be open to other types of financial help.

The first would be charging them rent during summer and winter breaks, and putting that money aside in a high-yield savings account for them (if they wanted to live at home while going to school, I’d be willing to do this throughout undergrad).  Then when they graduated the money could be used for something like a deposit on an apartment (since after they graduated I wouldn’t allow them to live with me), or buying a decent used car outright, or some other financial goal that was prudent but that they couldn’t afford as a new graduate.  Of course, I wouldn’t tell them in advance that I was going to do that, since they’d work harder if they believed everything was their own responsibility.

I’d also be open to making their student loan repayments for them provided they had full-time jobs.  You have a 6-month grace period after you get out of school to find a job before you have to start repayment, and if you haven’t found a job by then then student loans can be put into forbearance until you do.  But as long as they were proving to me that they were using the education that they worked so hard for, then I’d help them however I could.  Again, I wouldn’t tell them in advance that I was planning on doing that.  If they wanted to make their own additional student loan payments out of their salary, then any money they contributed would go straight to principle and drastically reduce the lifetime of the loan – for BOTH of us.

Basically, I think that if I can teach my children how to think critically and outside the box, be aggressive and motivated, work hard for things that are important to them, and take responsibility for all their own actions, then I’ll be doing them a far greater service than I would by throwing a giant pile of money at some faceless Registrar.

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  • Sara

    I’m saying this not to be controversial, but because I’m legitimately interested: it’s interesting to me that you have a strong opinion on parents paying for kids’ schooling, and you also don’t believe in buying houses because you think it’s a bad/stupid investment, and yet, went $100,000 into debt for a PhD in humanities, which is risky in itself – you the opportunity cost of what you’d have made in salary all those years, along with substantial debt to go into a field with very limited job opportunities, even for top graduates, and with not particularly great earning potential.

    I’ve always been of the opinion that grad school is an investment that should pay off (and would therefore only really consider going to a professional program at a top school), which is why I agree with a lot of people who think that grad school in humanities is a waste of time and money unless you’re already independently wealthy and just doing it for the fun of it. I normally don’t tell people this because I don’t want to belittle anyone’s choices, but you have such a strong opinion on these related issues, and I’m curious to know why you thought going into so much debt for your advanced degrees was acceptable.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    Sara – Because I loved what I was doing so much that I didn’t care if I had to live in a studio and eat ramen every day forever (which was actually, literally, my plan going in). I knew that I was deciding to be poor, possibly forever, and that was worth it to me. However, it means that I can’t make any other comparably risky financial moves (like owning a house) because I’ve already consciously made the one :-)

    I also didn’t ask my dad for a penny at any point in my education. Just because I was willing to go to the poorhouse for my education didn’t mean it was ethical for me to send him there on my behalf.
    .-= Honey´s last blog …Why I Wouldn’t Pay to Send My Kid To College =-.

  • angie

    One observation I’ve made over the years is that people who are not parents usually have some pretty strong ideas/opinions about exactly how they would raise children if/when they become parents (myself included). This goes for everything from sleeping habits to discipline to food to rules to curfews to college financing. And almost without fail, when people actually have said children, somewhere between “some” and “many” of those previous ideas go out the window. It just boils down to the fact that no two kids are alike, no two situations are alike, no two parents are alike. Even in the same family, sometimes different rules need to be applied to different kids.

    I also know that no non-parent I’ve ever talked to has given any credence to my observations above, so I take no offense if you tell me that I’m full of myself, and you’re the one who would absolutely without a doubt do everything the way you said you would. And maybe you would! I know that I had some pretty strong ideas before becoming a parent and am doing things vastly different now than I thought I would (I have a high school junior and a 7th grader) and I think that’s a good thing.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    Angie – part of the reason I feel the way I do about this particular issue is because I have worked in higher education for over 10 years and many (if not most) of the people I see should not have gone to college and are (in my opinion) wasting their (or their parents’) money. Also, I read The Chronicle of Higher Education online obsessively and have for years, and I am completely convinced that tuition is the next “bubble” and that no one will be convinced of this until it is too late. I am actually terrified that within 5 years I will lose my job and not get another because the whole industry will be so screwed.

    But I do admit it’s possible that I would feel differently if I had children of my own. We’ll never know, though, since I’m not having any :-)
    .-= Honey´s last blog …Why I Wouldn’t Pay to Send My Kid To College =-.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Lance

    Good post, glad you decided to write about this. I debate with myself often (like, everyday) the value of my graduate education. I’m fairly certain I could have attained the same skills and knowledge base with basically no cost simply by reading, joining writers groups, and doing things online, similar to how a personal MBA is structured. But back when I did graduate school (several years ago) the online portion of that strategy was pretty much non-existent. So, at the time, I don’t think I could have achieved the same skill level that I have because of the degree program.

    Is the degree worth the money? I got a fair amount of student loans to finance the degree even though I had a nice 75% scholarship and I always worked part time. Still plenty of debt. An English masters isn’t worth squat in the job market, as you know, and you HAVE to get a doctorate to become a college professor. So if you know that you wanna be a college professor, that’s simply part of the game. There’s absolutely nothing unethical about it. You pay to become a lawyer and a doctor too. Besides that, it’s only money, right? You’re supposed to spend it.

    On another note, there’s no question I leverage my good writing skills in my tech career now. I mean, I write proposals and business emails everyday and those take a fair amount of skill. Again the question is it worth the money? I sort of think so. I’m also the first person in my family ever to get a 4 year degree and a graduate degree, and that fact alone makes it worth it for me. Someone had to break that barrier.
    .-= Lance´s last blog …Why I Wouldn’t Pay to Send My Kid To College =-.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Lance

    My 2 cents on another issue, I would definitely pay as much as possible for my kids to go to college, although I probably won’t have kids either. This is assuming they are serious students and want/need the degree to advance in life. Obviously, if my kids were slackers I’d adjust that. I’d also buy them their first car and help out whenever I could. Fuck the retirement.
    .-= Lance´s last blog …Why I Wouldn’t Pay to Send My Kid To College =-.

  • http://dadshouseblog.com dadshouse

    I think a young adult gets a great deal of positives from spending four years in a college environment. For one, they are exposed to different ways of thinking. That’s better than just taking a job at the local mechanics shop. Also, college-educated people tend to make more money in careers. Not that money is the end all, be all – it’s just an enabler. But I’d rather make more money than less.

    I agree there are tons of way for students to get/find money, through scholarships, work, etc. But being a full time students means they focus on school and the campus environment, and that’s a good thing.

    In short, I am paying for my daughter’s college for the next four years. And I have no qualms about it.
    .-= dadshouse´s last blog …Grey’s Anatomy – Okay For Teens? =-.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    DM – The 4 years I spent as an undergrad were awesome, no doubt, and totally contributed to who I am today because of the experiences I had outside academics – living on campus, not working the first two years, being in a sorority, etc.

    But I paid for all of that myself through scholarships. Asking my dad for money never even occurred to me. I think I asked him for help twice after turning 18 – once because I needed my wisdom teeth removed and I couldn’t afford it, and another time because an apartment complex needed a cosigner for my lease. He refused to help both times, and everything worked out fine. He did give me a car when I was 19 and paid for the insurance, but after I was in an accident he told me I was on my own, so I bought my own car and paid for my own insurance.

    In short, for me (since I obviously can’t speak for anyone else) it would have been a violation of my own personal ethics to ask for financial assistance from my parents. If my children asked for financial assistance from me then I would judge them according to my own ethical code. It would be the ultimate proof that I was a horrible parent.
    .-= Honey´s last blog …Why I Wouldn’t Pay to Send My Kid To College =-.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    I think a car is totally unnecessary and even harmful in high school. If they were working while going to college, I’d probably help them buy a car. But it definitely wouldn’t be new!
    .-= Honey´s last blog …Why I Wouldn’t Pay to Send My Kid To College =-.

  • http://hammer86blog.com Hammer

    Why this doesn’t work for me:
    1. Not paying for my kids tuition would involve disowning my kid because I’m going to be disgustingly rich.
    2. My kid won’t have time to work-study in college because of the entrepreurial opportunities he’ll be making for himself and the copious amounts of tail he’ll be getting.
    3. There will be an ROI in investing in my kid’s tuition because as he becomes filthy ridiculously rich I will be more-so.
    4. The meaning of life can be summed up in one word: legacy. For most people one’s genetic legacy is infinitely more important than one’s actual impact on the world, which is why giving my child the greatest possible advantages is beneficial to me. An ivy league education and the networking opportunities that come from it is one of these advantages.
    .-= Hammer´s last blog …Day 12: Weight Gain Saga =-.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    As long as people have thought through their reasons, I don’t think that everyone has to come to the same conclusions that I did (I’m certainly not out to convince anyone because I am on the same page with the only person affected by this decision, Jake).

    But for me, the idea of a “legacy” is just a pleasant fiction that we tell ourselves because we haven’t come to grips with our own mortality. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m going to die someday, so I don’t need the idea that I am leaving my genes around to comfort me.

    Personally, I think that the harm the world would do to my child would be greater than any good that my child could give to the world, which is part of the reason I don’t want kids. I’m also not convinced that humanity is worth saving, anyway :-)
    .-= Honey´s last blog …Jesus This Is Funny =-.

  • http://hammer86blog.com Hammer

    Sounds like you should consider quitting life.
    .-= Hammer´s last blog …Day 12: Weight Gain Saga =-.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    Nah – I have a rich and rewarding life. I am very happy, but it seems to me that most people are not.

    Though, as I stated in my “sort-of” resolutions post, I am going to be evaluating a lot of the things that I do this year so that I can make room in my life for the things that make me happiest :-)
    .-= Honey´s last blog …Jesus This Is Funny =-.

  • Offwinger

    I think you make a lot of good points. I think tuition and higher education are “bubble markets” right now, and I think government funding has contributed to the educational ‘arms race’ that is driving tuition increases that outpace inflation.

    My parents didn’t believe in paying for my college education either (note that they DID pay for private school K-12 though, but that’s because they wanted religious schooling & education). They might have kicked in a little money for a local, public school (and living at home) if the circumstances warranted it. I received two different merit-based scholarships that made my private, away-from home, undergraduate education free – including my living expenses.

    I was willing to take on debt for my professional graduate education, though I was able to minimize this by working and saving. I was able to pay this debt off early, and ten years after completing my education, I have a wonderful career as an academic and I’m 100% debt-free. Meanwhile, my husband has a wonderful career, and he never went to college at all. Instead of accumulating debt, he got a head start on a successful professional career, and that opportunity cost along with no debt set him up pretty well during his 20s too.

    We don’t have any kids now. I know that it is impossible to guess right now what the university/college education model will look like when any currently unborn children graduate from high school. So I don’t make any bold pronouncements.

    However, I am extremely wary of saying that the only reason to go to college is about job training and the economic return on the investment. I also don’t see the point in asking my kids to work hard if it comes at the expense of their education either. And by education, I don’t just mean going to classes and taking tests. There is significant value in traveling, learning new languages, sports, or instruments, volunteering, and otherwise doing something outside of coursework. I don’t believe in giving a ‘free ride’ to every 18 year old, but I don’t think the choice has to be either/or as you present it.

    Beyond that, I recognize that I was able to go my route because: (1) it was available to me at the time I was that age; and (2) I had the academic abilities to take advantage of those opportunities. Saying “I worked hard and I did find in school and I got scholarships” has the arrogance to assume that everyone is just like you (or me). Guess what? They aren’t. Not every kid can get a merit-based scholarship for being in the 99.9% of the population when it comes to particular academic abilities. Just because your kid doesn’t meet that criteria doesn’t mean that he or she shouldn’t go to college.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    I think it is amusing that everyone takes this entry as a hard line (that I’d never do anything but exactly what I say above).

    That is patently, utterly false. This is, as Cher says in Clueless, “just a jumping off point to start negotiations.”
    .-= Honey´s last blog …How To Get A Totally Jacked Chest That Women Will Love =-.

  • http://katwilder.com Kat Wilder

    Well, my parents very generously paid for my college education. I now, decades later, finally make what my dad did when I was a kid. But, whatever. Always loved what I do.

    But I am unable to pay for anything more expensive than the local community college for my kid. He also knows if he wants a car, better have a job and save up; he is!

    Times are so different now with the way parents and kids approach college, testing, etc. Makes me sad, as I never felt that pressure. But, I would help pay for college if that’s what The Kid wanted and if I could. Like everything else, I’d hold him accountable for how he approached that situation.

    The time to hold kids accountable doesn’t start when they’re teens; you always do it! Then, they know.
    .-= Kat Wilder´s last blog …Settling for Mr. Good Enough isn’t enough =-.

  • http://anhonorableestate.blogspot.com A-L

    Writing as one of the more stupid people in this bunch (I only had a partial academic scholarship paying for about half of my out-of-state tuition, room & board), I would help my kid out financially. It’s unlikely that my (future) husband and I will make anywhere near the same amount of money as my parents did, but at the very least I would like to cover in-state tuition, room and board. If they chose a different college then perhaps they’d have to find a way to fund it themselves. But as others have said above, it’s a great way to meet people, expand your views, experience new things, and in general have an absolute blast.

    If my child didn’t want to go to college then I’d probably end up using the money toward a car and/or house payment (probably more on the house than the car). I don’t think that my child “has’ to go to college, though I want that to be an option for him/her.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey

    I think so much depends on where you go – I would have probably needed to take on some debt if I had gone out of state or to a private institution. The reason I was eligible for a full scholarship was partly due to the place I chose to go to school.

    A great way to make sure that you can afford to help your children with college is to only have as many kids as you anticipate being able to help financially. For the vast, vast majority of people, this means one (or in my case, none). Having 2 or 3 kids and deciding “it will all work out in the end” is a huge problem, for a variety of reasons.
    .-= Honey´s last blog …How To Get A Totally Jacked Chest That Women Will Love =-.

  • http://honeyandlance.com Honey