Can We Afford to Send Our Kids to College? Do We Even Know What It Costs?

Dear Mr. Dad: Our son is a high-school senior. He’s a good student and wants to go to college next year. Seems odd to be worrying about this already, but there’s no way we can afford to send him to the places he’s looking at. My husband lost his job, I’m working only part time, and we weren’t able to put enough into our son’s college account as we’d hoped. What should we do?

A: Welcome to the dizzying world of college finances. In every other generation in recent history, children have done better than their parents. They get more education, have better jobs, make more money, and live longer. Until now. Children growing up today are in the first generation that will be doing worse than their parents in just about every measurable area. And perhaps the most obvious sign of this changing tide is how families are adjusting their college dreams.

According to the just-released College Savings Indicator study (done by Fidelity Investments), only 31% of parents with kids headed for college have adequately considered how much college will cost, the impact of graduating with a massive debt load, and how the choice of major could affect future employment prospects. Have you had the 21st-century version of “the talk” yet? If not, you should. Your son is young, but he needs to know that not every dream may be possible to attain—at least in the way he’s originally dreamed it.

Of the parents who have given their kids (and themselves) a financial wakeup call, most have had to change their (and their children’s) plans for the future. 38% decided to go with less-expensive colleges. 28% say they’re counting on getting more financial aid, and 16% have leaned on their children to change majors so they can get a better job. Unfortunately, though, many parents’ expectations are out of whack with reality. For example:

  • On average, parents expect to pay for 57% of their kids’ college education. But if you look at how much those families are saving, they’re on track to cover only 30% of the costs.
  • 78% of families say they don’t want their kids to graduate with a lot of debt.  But young grads leave college with an average of more than $25,000 in student loans.
  • On average, parents expect their children’s first post-college job will pay $70,300/year. But the average salary actually earned by class of 2012 grads is only $44,442/year.

Average tuition at private colleges, according to the College Board, is just under $28,500, with another $10,089 for room and board.  Frankly, from where I’m sitting, that’s quite a bargain. At my daughter’s college, full boat is $58,292 ($43,306 for tuition, $12,286 for room and board, and a few thousand more for books and other stuff). And that doesn’t cover expenses during the summer and flying home twice a year.

Fortunately, sensible thinking about paying for college is becoming more common. In the Fidelity study, 57% of parents expect their children to work part-time while taking classes and 49% say they expect their children to live at home and commute to a local college to save on room and board. That’s up from 34% just five years ago. And half of parents now expect their children—as young as 13—to start socking away money of their own to help pay for college.

Finally, be sure you’ve fully explored financial aid and scholarships. Two excellent resources are Jodi Okun’s College Financial Aid Advisors (collegefinancialaidadvisors.com) and Monica Matthews’ book, “How to Win College Scholarships.”

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