To Pay or Not to Pay: Are Parents Morally Responsible for Funding Their Children’s College Education?

I recently read the opinion of a father of eight who said that he would not be paying for any of his children to attend college. He made the case that a college degree isn’t worth what it once was; it doesn’t guarantee success; and teaching kids to be independent is more important than giving them a handout.

First of all, I have trouble trusting the judgment of anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to have eight kids. Putting that thought aside for a moment, I couldn’t help but notice that hundreds of people have heaped praise on this fertile patriarch for his boldness, his tough love, and his ability to think outside the box. While I admit that his message has a nice common-sense ring to it that resonates somewhere inside of me, I can’t help but take pause. Being the incurable cynic that I am, I had one thought as I was reading the article: How convenient that a father of eight believes that he is morally absolved from paying for his children’s college educations. I mean, by adopting this tough stance on behalf of his children, he just happens to save himself hundreds of thousands of dollars. That seems rather convenient. What some are calling a conscientious father implementing tough love I can’t help but see as a potentially-careless man who doesn’t feel like footing the bill for eight nights of unbridled passion.

Regardless of my opinion of the man, his opinion has ignited a debate on the important topic of college tuition and parental responsibility. What role, if any, should parents have in paying for their children to attend college? Although I don’t have eight children, I would like to weigh in on this. As a father of three, this issue will no doubt present itself in the not-so-distant future.

After researching both sides and exploring the arguments for and against, I have come down squarely on the side that we as parents have a responsibility to pay (or at least help pay) for our children to attend college. Here I’ll present the arguments I could find against the idea of paying.

1) No one paid for my college, and I still went.

This is one of the poorer arguments I’ve read, but I’ve seen it several times so I’ll address it. Usually the people who say this are people who went to college several decades ago and paid 50 cents a credit. They were able to pay tuition with the money they made by working part-time at the roller rink. Obviously, tuition costs have skyrocketed since the Eisenhower Administration. Paying a tuition bill with a part-time job (even at a state school) is magical thinking.

Even if it’s a fact that your parents didn’t help you pay for college, don’t you want better for your children? So much of this anti-paying-for-college movement seems to be the result of angry people who didn’t get their college paid for. It’s sort of this, “It sucked for me, so it should suck for you,” mentality.

2) Kids need to learn the value of a dollar.

This is another extremely common response. Obviously point #2 creates a false choice, as if parents have to choose between helping their kids pay for college or teaching them the value of a dollar. The obvious point is that parents can do both. In fact, I would argue that, in some cases, kids who don’t get help with college have less awareness of money. Ask people how they accrued $100,000 in school loan debt. It’s often the result of taking out loan after loan. After a while, the loans don’t feel real. It’s simply the transferring of money from your lender to your college. Tens of thousands of dollars move around with the stroke of a pen, and the student never sees it. And once a college kid is $60,000 in debt, what’s another $10,000? What exactly are kids learning from this? Is saddling your child with tens of thousands of dollars of debt (or more) somehow teaching him/her a lesson? Surely we as parents can come up with a better way to teach our children the value of a dollar.

3) Kids these days are spoiled and have a sense of entitlement.

Again, we encounter angry people who want to pay their suffering forward. These words sound like they came from someone who didn’t get their college paid for, and now they’re angry at the millenials who are getting what they perceive to be a free ride. Should we use exorbitant debt as a way to teach spoiled brats a lesson? My hope is that our decisions about raising children should not be made out of anger, jealousy, or spite.

4) Americans should be saving for their retirement, not for their children’s college.

Again, we’re faced with a false choice. No one says we have to help our children at the detriment of our own retirement. Family planning and retirement takes preparation. It means making sacrifices, putting money aside, and sometimes it means not having eight children. If you’re in a low-paying career, and/or you are a single-income family, this takes more preparation. For example, it sometimes mean sending your kids to community college for two years while they live at home and help pay bills with a part-time job of their own.

While I applaud anyone who has the wherewithal to plan their retirement, some thought should be given to your child, who could very well be the victim of predatory school loan practices. Counting the money in your investment account and patting yourself on the back while your child is being hustled by predatory lenders doesn’t sit well with me.

In addition, these same parents often claim their college-aged children as dependents on their taxes, providing a tax incentive for themselves and potentially denying their children of federal monies they would be eligible for if they weren’t claimed as dependents.

5) College is no guarantee of a job anymore.

This puke-inducing mantra seems to be taking a stronger hold on America with each passing day. First off, a college degree has never guaranteed anyone a job. But that’s beside the point. We know that people without college degrees are more likely to be unemployed and more likely to be hit by an economic recession. They also make significantly less money than their degree-holding compatriots. And college graduates get better jobs. The most common jobs for people without college degrees are retail clerks, truck drivers, waitresses, and secretaries. People with just a four-year degree are more likely to be teachers, software developers, accountants, and managers. So although a college degree doesn’t guarantee you a job, it puts you in a much better position in terms of finding employment, keeping employment, and making a livable wage.

6) My 13 brothers and sisters didn’t get help with college, and we all figured it out. My kids will figure it out too.

I try to avoid anecdotal evidence whenever I can, but the other side seems to thrive on it. The majority of people who argue against paying for their children’s education have one or two stories of someone who dropped out of college and then created a start-up company that made a billion dollars…as if that’s a good indicator of how most college dropouts perform. My guess is that not all 13 of the brothers and sisters mentioned above fared all that well. And even if they all did do well, who’s to say how much better they would have done had they been given an education?

And what is meant exactly by “figuring it out”? I guess scraping to get by and working a dead end job to keep the lights on is one definition of “figuring it out.” Don’t we want better for our kids than just “figuring it out?” Kids left in the foster care system usually figure it out too, but at what cost?

As parents, shouldn’t we be trying to remove obstacles to help our children succeed? That’s not the same thing as doing the work for them. I fully expect my college-age kids to go to class, take notes, do the reading, write the papers, take the tests, etc. All I’m doing is writing the check.
And just to be clear, this doesn’t include fun money. The check I will write for my kids will go straight to the Bursar’s Office. If my kids want beer money, it’s on them.

7) Personal pride and accomplishment comes from paying your own way.

Ack! Here we are with yet another false choice. This time we’re being told that we need to let kids pay for college, or they won’t have a sense of pride or accomplishment. While it’s important to instill a sense of pride and accomplishment in our children, you have to be a pretty sick individual to think that forcing your child into insurmountable debt is the way to do it. If any sense of pride comes from paying for college, your child won’t likely feel it until he/she is 52 years old and has paid the final installment of his/her 30-year payment plan.

Asking kids to “pay” for college is a euphemism for asking kids to take out loans. The average college tuition is more than $30.000 for a private school and almost $9,000 at a state university. This is just tuition mind you. If you include housing and meals, you add an additional $9,500-$11,000. If your child chooses the cheaper option (a state school), he/she will pay about $20,000 a year or $80,000 over four years. What 18-year old kid has this kind of money saved up? A part-time job will not cover this cost. Unless your child can attend class all day and work a full-time job all night (i.e. a child who requires less than 30 minutes of sleep a night), loans are going to be necessary. And a minimum wage job is not going to cover it. If your child works 40 hours a week at Wal-Mart, while going to school full-time, he/she will not come close to paying the needed $20,000 a year for a state college.

For the father of eight, it sounds like the best case scenario for his children is that they can go to school in the day, work all night, and then live with mom and dad until age 22 to save money on room and board. Wow. That’s quite a gift he’s bestowing upon them.

8) There’s too much of an emphasis on college. We should be encouraging more kids to attend trade schools and learn a skill.

There’s nothing wrong with a trade school. However, trade school shouldn’t be thought of as a college equivalent. Trade schools are great, if at the age of 17, you know exactly what you want to do for the next half century. If you’re not so sure, trade school poses a problem. Certificates from trade schools are very specific and can be limiting if you desire a new career path. For example, when you get a certificate in motorcycle mechanics, you better like working on motorcycles because the degree offers no flexibility in terms of job choice. However, if you get a college degree in anything (e.g. Liberal Studies), that fulfills the requirement for thousands of jobs across the country. If you want to do anything other than work on motorcycles for 45 years, a trade school may not be the best option.

And while some trades pay relatively well, there is usually a ceiling on pay for laborers and people without college degrees. Unless you end up owning your own HVAC business or chain of auto shops, you will be squarely middle class. There is nothing wrong with being middle class, don’t get me wrong, but as parents, do we want to limit our children’s financial future before they even get a chance to make it in the world?

My experience

I went to college for 10 long years, and when I graduated I had just over $120,000 in school loan debt. My parents helped with my undergraduate tuition, but I still finished my BA with $36,000 in loans. I funded my masters degree and PhD on my own (by funded I mean I took out more loans). When I graduated with my doctorate, I had a huge sense of pride and accomplishment, but none of that had to do with how I paid for school. In fact, it was the opposite. I felt embarrassed by my huge financial anchor, and there were nights I stared up at the ceiling wondering which would be gone first: my school loans or my 40s. The possibility of paying off my school loans while simultaneously paying for my children’s college tuition all of a sudden became a likely scenario.

Did I learn anything from this experience? Not really. The huge amounts of loans I took out felt like Monopoly money. They were simply numbers on bank statements. The loans were seen as a necessary evil for accomplishing my academic goals, but all thoughts of paying them off were placed on the back burner. When I finally did graduate, I was inundated with the bills and accompanied interest. My first job out of graduate school paid a decent wage, but I was still living paycheck to paycheck because nearly 40% of my take home pay was going towards school loans.

In the end, this issue isn’t about teaching kids the value of a dollar or instilling in them a sense of responsibility. This is about parents who want to absolve themselves of the guilt of not planning ahead, not being responsible with their money, and in turn, making their children pay the price…literally.

If a father (or mother) really wants to teach his children the value of a dollar, he can show them how time, preparation, and care went into planning each of their college funds. Children may only see the final product (a signed check made out to the university), but it’s important for them to know the sacrifice and care that went into making that check possible.

One point I want to make clear. I know that not every family is in a position to pay for their child’s college tuition. Sometimes the money simply isn’t there. But if that is the case, I at least would hope that these families are honest about their situation, as opposed to the father of eight, who has shrouded his poor family planning in a veil of compassion, trying to convince America that piling financial debt on teenagers is somehow virtuous.

– Nathan

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