Why we’re not talking to our kids about college

Why we’re not talking to our kids about college

For several years now, I have observed too many parents have an ongoing dialogue with their high school student about college — about everything except for the price tag. They take their kids for campus visits. They dutifully go to the college counseling appointments. They encourage their kids to pursue extra-curricular activities so they will be well-rounded. But they wait until the spring of their student’s senior year in high school to discuss how mom and dad are going to pay for it . . . or not. By that time, it may be too late to make any meaningful headway.

Paying for college is a discussion that neither you nor your children can afford to delay. Back in 1993, less than half of new four-year college graduates had any student loans at all. Today however, the average undergraduate student borrower faces more than $30,000 in loans — that’s over $300 per month in payments for 10 years. It’s a startlingly large amount. And yet, a startlingly large number of parents continue to delay the conversation about how to avoid this debt trap for their family.

Why the conversation matters

Parents need to talk to their teenagers about how they’ll pay for college because student loan debt can dramatically impact the launch of a young adult’s financial life. If burdened by these loans, your child begins their adult life behind the eight ball. The added stress of debt impacts nearly every decision, from large to small.

US News reports that more than 62% of graduates say their student debt posed a hardship on their personal budget when combined with all other household spending. More than one-third said they found it difficult to buy daily necessities because of their student loans; more than half said their debt affected their ability to make larger purchases, like a car or a home. It’s easy to understand why: with debt that needs to be paid off, it can be challenging to save up a down payment.

Debt also influences what kinds of jobs to take: rather than starting off strong on a solid career path, a recent graduate may be tempted to accept the first job offer just for the cash flow. Debt can even impact who they will marry, as financial conversations arise over the course of dating. Furthermore, needing to pay off debt can delay investing. Paying back $300 a month leaves $300 less that can be set aside for the future each month. Withholding our discussions about paying for college until it’s too late in the game increases the risk that your child will have to take on debt, debt that will impact their life far into the future.

Why we tend to put it off

So, if paying for college is such an important conversation, why do we delay it? Sometimes, we as parents haven’t yet figured out how we plan to fund college. It’s easy to find yourself feeling paralyzed, and without a definite game plan, we avoid talking about how we’ll pay for college.

Other parents, in lieu of making the decision that is right for their own unique family, simply assume they’ll handle things the way their own parents did. If your parents covered your college tuition, you might assume you’ll pay for your child’s too. Or, on the other hand, if your parents didn’t contribute and you paid your own way, you might conclude that he or she should as well.

Furthermore, it can be challenging to suddenly start talking to your child about finances when you never have before. If money has always been a taboo topic in your home, bringing up college funding can feel unnatural, awkward or uncomfortable. Parents can put the conversation off because it’s easier to ignore it than to face the facts as a family.

Where to start

It is rare that both a husband and wife had the same college experience from a funding perspective. No two families are identical, and as advisors, we sometimes see some conflict between the two camps. So the best place to start the conversation about college funding is not with your child, but with your own husband or wife.

Our goal is to help each couple find that common ground and, rather than falling back on what their own parents did, come up with the approach that is right for their family. When Mom and Dad are on the same page, the conversation with your child will go much more smoothly. Beyond simply discussing money, it’s an opportunity to model good communication for your son or daughter.

Even if you’re still chasing around a toddler in diapers, it is not too early to start the conversation with your husband or wife about college funding. In fact, it’s a good and timely topic of discussion no matter how old your child is. The earlier you begin, the higher your chances for reaching consensus, and then saving or investing accordingly to make your plan a reality.

How to talk to your kids

Today, my own twin teenage daughters are in high school, and so this conversation is personal to me and my wife, Tammy. As early as their freshman year, my daughters were building their class schedules around the college major they might like to pursue. So, freshman year is a natural time to start talking about college funding with your child.

The conversation can have two parts. First, address what you are attempting to do for your child financially. Secondly, address what you expect your child to do in exchange. This cultivates a sense of responsibility. For example, what kind of grades do you hope your child will earn? What kinds of activities do you want your son or daughter to participate in? How do you expect your teen to prepare for college entrance exams, like the ACT and SAT?

Here’s a helpful exercise to get the conversation started with your child:

“Imagine it’s your senior year. The i’s have been dotted and the t’s have been crossed on the college application. What would success look like for you in four years?”  

1.) Each person would write down their own definition of success.
2.) Compare notes.
3.) Look for areas of agreement and common ground.
4.) Identify any possible mismatches in expectations.
5.) Share your thoughts and plans as parents for college funding.
6.) Allow the student to ask questions and better understand their role in the family’s funding plan.

Ultimately, parents, don’t let the college funding conversation deter you from making a plan. You don’t have to go it alone. We at Sound Stewardship are here to come alongside your family and help you as you move forward.

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