Friday, October 16, 2009

Save up now to pay for your kids’ college

By Robyn Davis Sekula

I frequently listen to Dave Ramsey. I like his straightforward advice, but I don’t always agree with him. One of the things I don’t see eye-to-eye with Dave on is paying for kids’ college education.

Dave once said on air that he was talking to someone who was a wealthy celebrity, who decided for his kids’ own good, he would not pay for their college – he’d make them work their way through. Dave applauded him. But I listened to that and shook my head in disbelief.

That’s just plain wrong. If you can pay for a child's education, WHY wouldn’t you? I understand the idea of working and earning money, but paying for college, on your own, is really daunting, and getting more so every year. There are kids who drop out every year because they simply can’t afford it, and it only gets harder as the years go past.

But let’s get one thing straight right now: if you can’t afford it, don’t do it. And don’t feel obligated to pay for a pricey private college education you can’t afford. If your child wants to attend a private school, and you don’t have the money to pay for it, they will have to take on debt or get scholarships. Perhaps offer to contribute what you would have paid for a public education and let them make up the difference. You shouldn’t sacrifice your own financial security to help out an adult child.

My parents paid for my college education. I wanted to attend a pricey private university two states away. We visited, and then my parents leveled with me and told me it would be very difficult for our family to afford, and asked me to consider in-state public universities. I chose James Madison University in my native Virginia, which, as it turns out, was a great fit for me and my parents (GO DUKES!). I am very grateful for their financial support – and years later, I realized that their ability to pay for my college education allowed me to start out my adult life without debt, which changed the very nature of where I could live and what I could do. I wanted to pursue journalism, and with any form of student loan whatsoever, I would not have been able to afford that career path. I met friends in journalism who worked collection jobs while they paid off their debt so they could then become a reporter. I’m so glad I never had to detour.

If you’re wealthy and willing to pay for any college they want to attend, great. Do it, and know that you’re giving your kids a wonderful gift.

If you cannot afford an expensive university without going into tremendous debt, then tell your children that. Be up-front about what you can afford, and what you cannot. I do agree with Dave Ramsey that most of the time, a solid state university can provide an education that’s near or equal to the education at a pricey private university. It’s what you do with the education that matters.

Do set some ground rules for your children, though. Tell them they are expected to maintain a certain grade point average. Tell them you expect them to finish in a certain number of years – four if that’s appropriate for their field – and that you won’t pay beyond that. In other words, you aren’t writing a blank check. If you want to pay for graduate school, and you can afford to do so, you can make that offer, but I would advise you to wait until they are well into college before agreeing to anything.

We’ve started saving for our three daughters’ education. I hope to be able to pay for them to attend a solid state university. I know that I’ll have to ramp up the savings to get them there. Yes, it’s daunting – but it’s a gift that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

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