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.

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College tuition sticker shock

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I took our teenage son, a high-school senior, to visit a few of the colleges he’d like to apply to. For the most part they seemed great, everything a parent could want for his child—except affordable! How does anyone afford college these days?

A: I’m so glad you wrote—my daughter and I just came back from a similar trip and I was amazed that admissions directors could actually say the words, “$52,000 per year” with a straight face. Unfortunately, though, tuition sticker shock is no joke. According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, two-thirds of four-year students graduate with an average student loan debt of nearly $20,000. One-fourth of those students borrow $24,936 or more, while a tenth borrow $35,213 or more. Those figures are probably a little lower for state schools, a lot higher for private schools.

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