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Paying for college June 25, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, older son.
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Nicole and Maggie’s post about teaching kids money management led me onto a slightly divergent path.  I’m trying to figure out what to do about college.

Growing up, we had no money. I was basically told that if I didn’t want to grow up to be in a situation like my parents’ , I should get a college education.  (Although I’m sure the education will help in the long run, it has not yet paid off.  I’m in a decent financial situation because I happened to marry someone who was gainfully employed and didn’t mind that his wife was an educational junky/freeloader.)  That being said, I was expected to pay for my own education as my parents really had nothing they could contribute.  I took out student loans and am paying them back as we speak.

But what do I do about my kids?  I don’t like the idea of saddling them with debt for an education.  On the other hand, I think they ought to assume at least a chunk of the expense as their own responsibility.  If they are going to benefit, shouldn’t they invest in it, as well?

By the time the older son starts school, I am hoping to have a job somewhere…maybe even a university-type place.  That then begs the question of whether older son ought to be required to go to such a school if I get a discount.  But what if it’s not a really good school?  I have also been reading about the trade off between a nationally recognized alma mater and actually being able to afford one’s tuition.

I have to admit that this looks like a majorly difficult optimization problem…and it’s difficult because of the variable and unknowns.

I do have some thoughts on this…but I’m curious what other people think.  How do you plan to handle college expenses?  What is a fair trade off between what you want and what the kid wants?  Are there certain places that are worth it no matter what?

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1. karifur - June 25, 2012

I think there’s no real point in paying a premium for a college degree until you know for sure what you want to do. Why not spend your first year or two taking general courses at a community college, and when you have a plan, transfer into the school that has the combination of affordability and expertise in your chosen degree.
I also like the British idea of the gap year. I wish I had known about it before I went to college the first time. Actually I probably would have insisted on going to college anyway because I was just that stubborn.
Then again, what do I know? I spent 6 years maxing out on student loans in order to earn a degree I’m not even using.

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2. nicoleandmaggie - June 26, 2012

We’re discussing this exact topic on July 9th, unless we move it up. 🙂

But I do think this idea of What is College For? is very much a class-based thing… upper classes have the luxury of viewing college as a “coming of age” experience rather than job training, and they are more likely to eschew community college courses. And my sister and I both majored in something that turned out to be practical for me, and really was practical for my sister, but there was no pressure from home to do that. I, in fact, almost ended up majoring in math and linguistics as my second major, it was only chance that had me choose economics instead. (Though the decision to get a graduate degree in econ rather than math came down to unemployment rates, time to completion, and income– graduate school I did think of as job training, but not undergrad.)

That said, your son is in a special case that we might find ourselves in if we stay here… unless he wants to go to boarding school for high school, I will be perfectly happy with him taking a year of two of classes at the local uni or community college before he heads off to college, but as a student-at-large rather than as a full-time student. If he decides to go to an elite private school some of those courses will transfer and some won’t, and I’m fine with that.

It is likely that your son will also get nice amounts of financial aid if you’re not both bringing in big salaries. We’re hoping not to qualify for any, though who knows what life will be like down the road– we have at least 10 years to figure this out (maybe even 13), I think.

I did NOT go to the regional state school my mom works (though I did take a nice handful of student at large classes there during summers) at even though they would have given me a stipend to go. I went to a well-endowed elite SLAC. The top graduate school in the country would not have even looked at my application had I gone to the local regional state school, even with straight As and nigh perfect GREs. They might have looked if I’d gone to the state flagship, but the state flagship would have cost more than the elite SLAC. When you’re gifted and have the test scores, you have a lot of free and heavily discounted options from private schools.

I don’t know what your family income is, but if it’s low enough, there are several ivies that offer 100% free tuition if he gets in. There are a lot of amazing SLACs and other private schools that give enormous financial aid packages to kids who are smart but whose parents don’t make a ton of money. I’d encourage your son to get a Fiske guide and start thinking about the type of place he’d like to go now.

Make sure he does the PSAT and SAT in time to get national merit as well– there’s generally big money for national merit scholars.

And even given all of that, college/university isn’t everything. #2’s partner, who is also super smart and a great guy, dropped out after 2 years (from the state flagship) and became a computer programmer and is doing great. There’s not really been any point in him finishing the degree. It may be more difficult these days to start out without the degree than it was when he did that, but probably not impossible.

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3. Miss MSE (@MissMSE) - June 26, 2012

My parents ended up with a very strange situation, because of how they had dealt with their divorce. Instead of paying child support to each other (it changed regularly who owed support), they funneled that money into a savings account for each of us. We knew roughly how much there was in the account, and that anything beyond that we would have to get from loans/pay ourselves.

Knowing I wanted to go to grad school right away, I picked a less expensive undergraduate institution, and ended up with very little debt. My sister chose to take on more loans in exchange for a program she liked more. However, she promptly went to work and paid off a fairly large chunk of those loans already.

The best thing (in my opinion) that my parents did was to offer us 10% in cash of whatever we earned in scholarships. It encouraged us to apply for more scholarships, and ultimately reduced both our overall expenses and need to work while in school.

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4. Should parents pay for their childrens’ college?: A deliberately controversial post « Grumpy rumblings of the half-tenured - July 9, 2012

[…] Update:  Cherish the Scientist asks about her situation. […]

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5. feMOMhist - July 9, 2012

add us to the list of could get free tuition at colleges we’d never have considered for ourselves. It is a toss up right? Kids could graduate debt free, do junior year abroad etc without us really ever feeling it. We are however already saving for their college tuition because I’m just not sure that we are willing to limit their future by having them attend our crappy options (by limit I mean in terms of graduate study of course). Like G.G. above the plan is to have them start taking classes while in high school to pile up those “extra credits” although I still think they should stay in college for four years if they want. I planned to graduate in three and then at the last minute stayed for 4. I was fortunate that my parents were cool with that. They had their own set of battles with my mom putting herself through school alone and my dad being fully supported. Their compromise was to give me money for books and rent plus $100 (scholarship paid my entire tuition), so effectively I had to work some if I wanted to have any life at all. The only thing I regret is that things like internships and traveling were not really an option given the lifestyle I chose and my decision not to move home during summers, although I did manage to figure out way to get internship like experiences (worked for lawyers which convinced me not go that route!) and I traveled a ton on my own dime in graduate school.

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6. Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) - July 9, 2012

One way to put some of the responsibility on your kid (if you can pay for the rest/cover it with Fin Aid) is to have them earn any and all $ for things other than tuition/room/board. That’s what my parents did – I didn’t have any “free” spending money from them, so I got random jobs on campus for 10 hours a week or whatnot and that was fine. (And I’d save a chunk of what I earned in the summer as well for this.) Also, my summer money paid for summer rent, gas and car insurance (all year) once I had a car.

I realize not everyone will have the finances to do this, but if you have the money but want him to have some “skin in the game” so to speak, I thought this worked pretty well.

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