Bah! I’m not paying for college

You know the bumper sticker that says “My son and my money go to UCLA” (or some other university)? I am not qualified to put that sticker on my car.

I have two sons in college, and I’m not paying for either one of them to go. Does that make me a bad dad? (They get aid as part of my veteran benefits, but it certainly doesn’t cover everything, and of course it’s not the same as my paying out of pocket.)

I feel like I’m the only parent in the world who (1) isn’t paying cash for college and (2) isn’t hiding behind the excuse of not being able to afford it.

Yes, I’m divorced from their mother and remarried. Yes, my wife and I have a preschooler. Yes, our expenses are considerable. But my position on paying for college would be the same if I had stayed single after the divorce or never gotten divorced.

Here is my position: Being autonomous is the only way to learn autonomy, and that is a fundamental part of a proper education.

It’s cheap and easy for me to take that position. Some might even call it a cop-out. I don’t care. It’s what I actually believe. And I don’t think it’s a win-lose position.

Its Fatherhood Friday at Dad Blogs. The theme is Back to School.

It's Fatherhood Friday at Dad Blogs. The theme is "Back to School."

One benefit of my ‘cheap and easy’ position — from my sons’ perspective, not mine — is that they don’t (and won’t ever) have to answer to me for how they live their lives. If they goof off and get poor grades, that’s their business. If they drop out, that’s their business. If  they get their degrees and then decide to become monks, that’s their business. If they rack up too much debt during college, that’s their business. Whatever they do with their investments is their business.

In the three years my oldest son has been in college, I’ve never had the slightest inclination to judge how he has spent his time or money. I’ve given him advice, but we both understand that he doesn’t answer to me. I think he is better off because of this, and I think my second son (and, down the road, my third) will be better off, too.

Still, most of the world seems to believe paying cash for college — giving till it hurts — is a sacred obligation of parents.

There’s a whole page at FinAid.org dedicated to trashing parents who, for whatever reason, don’t pay. Here’s a little excerpt:

Some parents feel that they can’t afford to pay for college or are up to their eyebrows in debt. They don’t realize that paying for your children’s college education entails sacrifice. The parents will have to forgo buying a new or second car, clothing or big-screen TV, going on the annual vacation to Aruba, eating out every night, and a few other luxuries to help pay for their children’s education. It won’t be easy, but most families can afford college if they really try.

I know paying for college entails sacrifice. But whose sacrifice should it entail?

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16 Responses

  1. My wife and I have this argument. We both attended the same state college but her parents didn’t pay a cent for her while mine paid for most of college.

    I think parents should absolutely help pay, but with restrictions. The kid should have a job while in school (as I did) and the parental payments stop if the kid screws up or stops trying at school. I had to maintain a certain GPA for my scholarship and for my parents. This made me work harder. And spending money for groceries, meals, etc was my responsibility too.

    My wife doesn’t want to pay for my son’s college when he’s old enough but that’s just nuts. It’s so expensive and I don’t want to saddle him with all that debt. Sure he’ll have some loans to pay off, but I think it’s a parent’s duty to help out.

    Kids can learn independence while away at school while still getting assistance from parents.

    • Hey, Aaron. I appreciate your thoughtful comments on this.

      We seem to agree that it’s appropriate for the student to bear some costs.

      The approach you describe seems appropriate for a lot of families (maybe most families). It does require parents to police their kids’ choices and academic performance and make subjective assessments on whether they are still ‘earning’ the help. Some parent-child relationships don’t support that level of scrutiny.

      (I’m a fan of Daddy Files. Happy Fatherhood Friday.)

  2. I am with the paying with restrictions. My sister-in-law wasted her parents money, and never finished. My wife and I have had to pay for our own. I am willing to set up a colledge fund for the girls, but they will only beable to get it if theyare enrolled and doing well.

    • Zerzix: Sounds very reasonable. Having boundaries you can enforce will probably help you preserve good relationships with your girls. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      I’ll be over to kelloggskorner in a little while. Right now, I have preschool drop-off and that pesky day job!

  3. My 12-year-old daughter has been talking about earning a full-ride academic scholarship to Yale for two years now. That would be pretty sweet because our family definitely cannot afford an $80K+ tuition. We’ve never talked about paying for school, she’s just always assumed it was up to her.

    • Tom: That’s quite a girl, already thinking in such concrete terms about the college experience she wants and how to get it. That’s what I’m talking about!

  4. I will definitely help our children pay for college. These days you basically have to go to college and it is very expensive. I don’t want our kids to have a mountain of debt as soon as they start off in the world. Of course there will be restrictions. They need to work for sure because I don’t want to support them totally. I only want to make sure they have every opportunity for a great education. Whatever perks they think they need will be mostly up to them.

    • Hey, Otter. I really like the distinction you make between “support them totally” and “make sure they have every opportunity…” Well put.

  5. My wife and I will certainly do whatever we can to help defray the cost of a college education for our son. We will encourage any opportunities for athletic or academic based scholarships, but we feel it is part of our responsibility to prepare him for the world.

    There will be expectations that come with our level of support and we will not hesitate to withdraw said support should those expectations not be met. How much we can help really comes down to what the tuition environment looks like in 16 or so years.

    I just spoke to a friend of mine who is an alumni development officer at our university and in the ten years since I’ve officially been out the total cost per year has more than doubled to $42K (it’s a private business school). I don’t see myself being able to foot that bill, and I don’t think a little bit of school debt of his own will hurt. I will, however, encourage some of the state schools we have here in NC because they are very good schools.

    My father’s business went south after my first two and a half years of school, so I took out loans and finished my education. It took me a year and a half more to completed my degree, but that’s because I went part time and worked so I could minimize how much I had to borrow.

    All that aside, it is definitely a personal decision for parents and what is right for me and my family is not necessarily right for you or yours.

    • Hi, PJ. Thanks for sharing what you experienced. Yes, it really is a personal decision — based on a lot of factors, including the ones you mentioned.

  6. All: I sure appreciate these insights. My real job is interfering with my blogging today(!), but individual acknowledgment is on my to-do list.

  7. I would like to think that by the time my daughters are college age, I would have taught them well enough and that they wouldn’t squander opportunities.

    That said, I fall in the camp of help with restrictions. No play (get the grades) no pay.

    • Scott, thanks for weighing in.

      Lots of people have said, “I’ll help my kids pay for college as long as they ______.” Often, the conditions in that blank are squishy, meaning the parent has to make subjective judgments as to whether the conditions are being met. In that kind of arrangement, there is potential for unhealthy manipulation — not only by the parent but also by the student. Say what you will about parental stinginess; at least it’s unconditional!

      • Very true. That’s the one trap I’ll have to avoid. I agree that If you set conditions that aren’t easily measurable, you’re screwed.

  8. I’m with you. I feel no obligation to pay for my children’s college education.

  9. Hey Dave,

    This is thought provoking. I agree with your stance 100% though. I never had heard of that website that rants about parents who don’t pay for the children’s education. My wife and I both worked 40hours + a week and went to school full-time in order to pay for college. We were married when we were 21 and 20, but even before that we worked together as a team just to get through. It gave us a greater appreciation for money and hard work and I think that’s a good thing. I keep hearing about these kids moving back in with their parents at the age of 25, 30 and even older. It’s hard to call them kids, but these are the same kids who are spoon fed college from a silver plate and they are used to being fed, living in a complex and not having huge financial burdens and it translates into their concept of a standard lifestyle after college. Good post and stance here Dave.

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