How to Talk to Your Kids About Not Paying for College

Paying for your child’s college isn’t always a given.

This time of year, the college application process is wrapping up for one group of students and is just getting started for another. If you’re the parent of a teen who is about to start college, you’ve probably felt stressed alongside your child, celebrating the acceptances, as well as mourning the disappointments and dashed hopes of rejection letters.

But have you taken the time to have a serious conversation about how you and your child will pay for that college education?

With in-state public college tuition costing $25,000 on average annually and expenses at private schools doubling that, a college education is one of the biggest investments — outside of buying a home — that many people will make.

Since these costs come just as kids are becoming adults, paying for college can be loaded with emotions and expectations. Parents may want to help pay for their children’s school, but be financially unable to do so. Kids may expect their parents to help pay tuition, but may not fully understand the financial burden that entails.

Because of this, it’s critical that families talk openly and honestly about each member’s financial responsibilities during the college years.

“As your family is planning for college, it’s important to sit down together to talk about what your child’s college choices may cost and how your family will pay for them,” says Amy Godwin, vice president and senior branch manager of Fidelity Investments’ Bethesda, Md., investor center.

“Make sure your child understands how much you plan to contribute and what they will be expected to take on from their own savings or in terms of student loans. Also make sure to discuss additional funding options, like applying for scholarships and grants or school work-study programs,” she explains.

Have a conversation that covers all of the expenses — from the big ones, like tuition, to the smaller ones, like groceries and “fun money.” Some families may pay for educational expenses but expect a child to work for spending money, while others might contribute to groceries but not be able to pay tuition bills.

Since finances will play a role in where a student applies to school and which scholarships they apply for, having the conversation about financial expectations early is essential.

Judy Walters, a New Jersey mother of two, saved throughout her daughters’ childhoods for their college education. However, as she helped her oldest daughter through the college application process, the family didn’t discuss finances.

“Then as spring set in and a decision needed to be made we realized, ‘Oh, we need to figure out exactly how much we can cover,’” Walters recalls.

By the time her younger daughter applied for schools, Walters and her husband knew that finances were one of the first conversations the family needed to have about the process.

“By the time we got to our second daughter, we knew what we were doing, so we gave her a limit before the application process even started,” Walters says. “She knew going in if colleges didn’t offer her enough money that she couldn’t accept their offers.”

Crystal Olivarria, a career coach, recommends discussing college finances as early as middle school. Search for scholarships as a family and make the pursuit fun, she suggests.

“Talking about scholarships is a great way to help a child think [ahead] about the cost of college and how to pay for it,” she says. “Children do not have to wait until their senior year of high school before they start applying. A few scholarships can be awarded as early as junior high school.”

Festus Amoye of Houston, Texas, joined the military and earned scholarships in order to put himself through college. Now he works with Laddering Your Success to help first-generation college students and their parents prepare for college.

Amoye says parents should help their kids explore all options, from community colleges to the military, and help children reframe their college goals within their financial constraints.

“Let them know that you’re OK with alternative decisions that they may make by not getting to go to their choice college,” he says.

Gemma Hartley, from Reno, Nev., had to reevaluate her college plans at 16 when her parents told her they were unable to contribute to college expenses. Instead of attending college in London like she had dreamed about, Hartley went to a local university.

“I was upset that I didn’t have the same luxuries as my peers entering college,” she says. “The dorms and meal plans weren’t options for me because I had to pay my own way.” But she was happy that she knew what to expect. “I was really grateful [my parents] started the conversation early so I could prepare for life on my own.”

Although they weren’t paying tuition, Hartley’s parents were clear that they would help her in other ways, whether by encouraging her to apply for scholarships, assisting her in filling out financial aid applications, or buying groceries when they visited. That, Hartley says, made her feel supported even when she was financially independent.

“Looking back, I feel like paying my way through college and having to work full-time to support myself instilled a great work ethic in me, and for that, I’m really grateful.”

Some teens may resent the fact that their parents aren’t able to pay for college, but it’s important for parents to remember that their own future financial needs must be prioritized.

“How much of your child’s college costs you take on is a personal choice, but it’s important to take care of your own future as well,” Godwin says. “Remember: You can’t take out a loan for retirement.”