Parents Paying For College – Is This A Good Idea?

Do you think parents should help pay for their children’s college education? Do you think parents should be required to pay for their children’s college education? These are tough questions to ask and to answer, but they are very important when thinking about the ever increasing cost of higher education. These kinds of questions are…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: May 31, 2023

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Parents Paying For College - Is This A Good Idea? #shouldparentspayforcollege #parentspayforcollege #collegedebtDo you think parents should help pay for their children’s college education? Do you think parents should be required to pay for their children’s college education?

These are tough questions to ask and to answer, but they are very important when thinking about the ever increasing cost of higher education.

These kinds of questions are quite personal to me and relevant to my blog. A major motivation for starting Making Sense of Cents was my $40,000 student loan debt (you can read about how I paid off my student loans in just 7 months).

My student loan debt was higher than the average $30,000 per student, and surprisingly, it is often parents paying for college by taking out loans to cover kid’s education.

I’ve read countless stories of parents who have $200,000 in student loan debt for their children, and it’s these parents paying for college who have found that these debts are causing them to struggle financially, unable to reach their retirement goals, etc. These parents end up drowning in debt because they just honestly want to help their children get through college. What they don’t realize, though, is that there are other ways to help your kids graduate from college.

What’s even more surprising, is that many parents think this is the normal situation, and that every student has their parents paying for college. Even so, it’s a very tough decision for a parent to make.

Many of the emails I receive are related to whether or not a parent should risk or possibly ruin their retirement by helping their child pay for college.

Some of the numerous stories that parents have emailed me include:

  • One family had a child in medical school, and the parents were paying for all of their college expenses plus food, car, rent, etc. The debt that they are incurring has left them unsure about their own future as this debt has made their retirement plans uncertain.
  • One set of parents paying for college told me that they had over $100,000 in student loans taken out in their name so that they could send their child to school. Not only were they off track for retirement because of those loans, they also had considerable debts of their own outside of their child’s student loans.
  • One mother told me that her and her husband were in constant fights over the amount of student loan debt they took out for their child. They weren’t on track for retirement and struggle with their daily bills, all because they thought that they HAD to pay for their child’s education.
  • Another family had a child in law school, and the child said that if their parents don’t continue paying for their expenses, that they would hate their parents. This child was even more mad when the parents printed out every single blog post of mine and gave it to them (I did not tell the parents to do that, it was entirely their idea). The child said I was ruining their life (yup, that actually happened). And now, these parents are not on track for retirement.

I hate hearing about parents who are already in debt, not on track for retirement, and are now going even further into debt for their children’s education. Most children aren’t aware of their parent’s financial situation, and feel that tuition is something that the parents should pay for.

That said, I must admit that I am not a parent myself, and I understand that it is probably a difficult thing for parents to face.

However, I put myself through college entirely on my own. I paid for all of my housing expenses, food, college, transportation, and more. It is not impossible for a child to cover their tuition.

I don’t hold grudges against my parents for the fact that I had to pay for everything. Sadly, this is a reason for why some parents pay for their children’s education– they are worried that their children will be angry if they don’t pay. I am actually very grateful for the valuable lesson this has taught me about financial responsibility, and honestly, I would be more upset if I found out that my parents had gone into debt and were struggling financially to get me through college.

Please don’t be one of the many parents paying for college simply because you think you have to. If you can truly afford it, then do whatever you want with your money.

However, before you take out any loans, please stop and think about your own financial well-being before you take any further actions! Are you on track for retirement? Is this loan going to get you into crippling debt?  

Related content:

Quick note: If you are looking for information on college funding, I recommend attending the webinar 6 Steps To Quickly Secure Scholarships For College. Jocelyn Paonita Pearson, Founder of The Scholarship System, secured over $125,000 in scholarships and funding by following this system!

 

Parents, think before you cosign or use college loans.

The default rate on student loan debt averages around 10-15%. In recent years, 90% of student loans are co-signed by others (mostly parents).

So, what does this mean? This means that if you co-sign a student loan for your child and they default, you will be stuck with the bill. I wish more parents paying for college understood that before they signed on for that loan.

While you may think that you have a great relationship with your child, everything can change once money is in the mix. In my experience, not many things cause as much tension in family relationships as money does. I have heard of several people who had a falling out with their parents and actually purposely stopped paying their student loans because they knew that their parents would cave in and start paying for them.

Yes, this is a disgusting behavior, I know, but it does happen to some parents paying for college.

College, of course, can be very expensive, which means that many people take out student loans in order to simply “afford it.” Before you cosign on student loan debt and pay for your child’s college education, I hope you understand the consequences that can come from it.

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Your children will probably see better grades without your money.

According to Forbes, children who have parents paying for college tuition tend to get worse grades. Many parents and students feel that taking the financial burden away from the student will free up their time to focus on their studies. This is because they think that having a job while in school will affect how well they do in college.

The reality is that students who pay for their own education tend to be more serious about it because they are paying for it with their own money. Students with parents paying for college, however, often take that for granted and become less motivated to succeed academically.

Of course, this isn’t 100% always true, but it is something to think about!

 

Parents, you can help your children in other ways.

If you cannot afford to pay for your child’s tuition while staying on track for retirement, or if you decide that you just do not want to pay for their college expenses, there are many other ways that you can help and support your kids while they are in school.

Some things you can do include:

  • Emotionally support them. Even if you are not one of the many parents paying for college, you should support your children emotionally. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with what they do, rather help them by listening to their troubles, giving advice, and helping them come up with a solid financial and college plan.
  • Help your child understand personal finance. Helping your child understand how to organize their personal finances by teaching simple skills, such as creating a budget, will help them greatly, not just in college but throughout their adult lives. I recommend reading How To Create a Budget to learn more.
  • Assist your child in learning how to make money. There are tons of ways to make extra money, and helping your children find ways to do so can help them pay for college and their living expenses.
  • Show your children affordable alternatives. Choosing the right college and the right course of study can be overwhelming for a young person fresh out of high school. For example, your child may only think they should go to an expensive private university, but it’s important for you to inform them of more affordable alternatives, such as going to community college or a state university. These other options aren’t less valuable, and they might actually be better suited for your child’s needs.
  • Help your child apply for school and scholarships. Applying for college can feel like a confusing thing for kids, but helping them find schools and helping with the application process can make it easier. There are also numerous scholarships that your child may qualify for. Some may require them to write essays, whereas others are based on high school grades. You may have to do some work to make sure that you find what scholarships they are eligible for, but most take very little effort and are given away by the college itself, which makes it a no brainer to apply for them!
  • Help your child in other ways. For some reason, there is this myth out there that parents paying for college have to pay for absolutely everything else too. Instead of paying for their tuition, textbooks, food, dorm, car, and everything else, set limits. You might help by giving them emotional support, letting them stay in your home while they are in college, helping them find ways to save money for college, helping them cut their college expenses, and more.
  • Set your child up with a personal finance tracker. Financial trackers and apps are great tools for young people to use to see how they are doing with their finances. Platforms like Personal Capital allow you to aggregate and track all of your financial accounts in one place. While your child might not use their retirement tracker yet, you can sign up too and see where you’re at for retirement. You can read more at my Personal Capital Review.

 

Parents paying for college – Is this a good idea?

To get back to the question of parents paying for college that began this article, I believe that parents should only fund their child’s college education if the parent is on track for retirement.

This is because there are multiple ways to pay for college (paying for it with cash, student loans, grants, scholarships, etc.), but there is only one way to fund your retirement.  Read more about staying on track for retirement at You CAN Reach Retirement! Avoid These Top 5 Mistakes.

Remember, you cannot take out a loan for your retirement!

Due to this, you should not wreck your retirement plans to help your children through college. You should analyze your financial situation and see if you are track for retirement to see if helping your children through college is possible.

If it’s not possible, be honest with yourself and your child. Ultimately, what motivates parents paying for college most of all is love for their children. There are many ways to support and show your children how much you love them, and it isn’t just paying for college.

Do you think parents should be required to pay for college? Do you think parents should wreck their retirement to help their children?


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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. I do not see any problem with it for as long as we can afford it. I know my kids more than anyone else. My parents paid entirely for my college education and I grew up to be a responsible human being and the same goes with my wife. But this is me. I understand that there are opposing viewpoints to this question and I also understand that there are also benefits to students paying for their own education. There is no wrong or right decision here. It’s the parent’s call. My 2 cents.

    1. I agree – there’s no right or wrong decision if the parent can afford it.

  2. I have two young kids and our plan is to help them with college, but not pay for everything. Aside from paying, I think one of the big ways parents can help their kids is to help them make a good college decision. I had many friends in college who probably shouldn’t have been there and were basically wasting money going to college because that’s just what you’re supposed to do after high school. I’d prefer our kids go to a community college for two years to minimize the cost while figuring out what they want to study. I’d also like to help our kids look into other options aside from college if it seems like a trade school or something else would be good for them.

  3. It really depends on the family and the types of relationships parents have with their kids. I could see I working well if the parents were extremely wealthy and the kids grew up respecting their parents and the opportunity they were give by the parents moey.
    If the kids felt a sense of entitlement and college put the parents in a tough financial position, absolutely not.
    I could also see a scenerio where the kids would take out a loan from the parents to save on harsh interest rates. If the kids were morally responsible and had respect for their parents, they could pay off the loans to their parents and be way ahead.
    The maturity of the kids and their relationships with parents play a big roll.

    1. Yes, it all depends on the family, for sure.

  4. I completely agree with the guidance you outline here. My wife and I have put away money specifically for our kids’ college and we’ve put that money on a slow drip to them rather than hand it over as a wad of cash. (One’s in college now and the other is a senior in high school.) Also, they don’t know how much we’ve saved. We’ve painted the illusion that there’s very little there so they have to be thrifty in their decision making. Bottom line, when that money runs out, they’ll be paying for the rest of their education on their own.

  5. If there is a struggle with finances I would advise parents to first make sure that they target the available money to save/invest for their retirement, prioritizing it over paying for a child’s college costs.

    The rationale is that you need to have money to look out for yourself in retirement where you will most likely no longer be able to earn income. If you are underfunded for retirement you will become a much larger burden on your kids financially if government assistance programs don’t cover basic needs (especially if at that point there may not offer the same benefits they do currently).

    Your children can always find ways to attend college (scholarships, loans). Even though it is not ideal to take out loans, they have earning potential and time on their side to survive it, something that an early retiree will not have available.

    If can manage both that is great and would be a wonderful gift to your children, but in this case you should not sacrifice your own financial future for theirs

  6. S.G.

    First: The conversation about who is paying how much is one your children should understand well before they start sending out college applications. This includes lifestyle as well as tuition. College age children should NOT be indulged in lifestyle inflation that you have participated in as your income has increased. It is a huge adjustment, but they need to understand that your resources are yours and they need to generate their own. And this is one of the points they need to understand WELL before they suddenly hit 18 and graduate high school.

    Second: It isn’t just about who is paying, but how much it costs. State schools cost a lot more than they did when I was in school, but it is a deal compared to most private colleges. For most people who attend private colleges it’s more vanity than necessity.

    Third: Everyone should have skin in the game. College students are adults and should be expected to contribute a minimum of their own care and feeding. Everyone should work through college, if only to appreciate WHY it is worth working for a degree: because he/she don’t want to be washing dishes/cleaning bedpans/swinging a hammer for the rest of his/her life.

    Fourth: I know this is controversial, but only the very rich should be supporting college students with vanity majors. For those of us in the middle and lower income classes college is about training to get a job better than one you would get without training. That doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of money, but it does mean having an idea of what kind of job the degree will lead to and how much such a degree pays. I expect my kids to socialize and meet people, but the purpose of college isn’t to party or to find yourself.

    1. I really like the third point you brought up. I’ve met so many people who didn’t get their first job until they were in their 20s, and I just think that’s nuts!

  7. planedoc

    Don’t neglect the possibility that your child may drop out/flunk out/quit college. I paid for my youngest child’s college in full. He started professional school…but after 3 years either quit/flunked out. (not talking about it to me.) now there are huge loans…and no high income to pay them off.

    1. Are the college loans in your name or theirs?

  8. T.A.

    Hi Michelle, unless one is paying for college without any aid, schools requires students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to qualify for certain grant/loan monies. Schools then also use that form to determine the “expected family contribution”–basically, they tell you what they think your family can pay. If parents decide they are not going to contribute money to their children’s college costs because they can’t afford it, then what happens? Are the students left to try to somehow cover that gap? How can kids have their parents’ incomes taken out of these calculations? Thank you!

    1. The kids could try to get scholarships too 🙂

  9. Anna Martin

    This post couldn’t come at a more opportune time. My daughter just got her acceptance to school for Sep 2019 (taking a GAP year right now to travel). We have enough in her RESP to pay for the course and we decided to pay for her Dorm and give her a small monthly allowance for food.
    I feel comfortable doing this knowing how hard it was for me to attain further education without any support. That being said – my husband and I have absolutely nothing for retirement (and he’s medically retired NOW!).
    How does one get over any feelings of guilt if they leave their kids to struggle, knowing they can make life better (easier)? How far does one go to ease a child’s life if you suffered an extremely hard life?
    We will stay our course for now and mull over the strengths and weaknesses of our current plan with this information in mind.
    Thanks so much Michelle!

  10. Kris

    Parents should pay as much as they can for their kids college without hindering their retirement accounts. Once you max out all your retirement accounts, figure out how much you have left over to contribute to a 529 account for your kid. If the amount in their 529 account by the time they get to college is not enough to cover all of their expenses, us parents should encourage their kids to cover the rest of it. It could be through scholarships they sign up for during their high school years and/or simply have a job their college years.
    I’m already contributing to my 2 year old’s 529 account and with how high tuition can be by the time he gets to college, our 529 may not cover it. If he does want to attend college, we plan to encourage him to go to a local community college first to take all of his GE classes and right after he can go to a traditional college/university. This would help keep tuition rates down going this route.

    1. Sounds like you have a good plan 🙂

  11. Karen

    We have lived a very frugal life style, if we had lived beyond our means, we would never have considered helping our daughter with an undergraduate degree. Both my husband and I paid for our undergraduate degrees, but that was when the cost was reasonable—not the exorbitant prices they are today.

    We were completely upfront with our daughter about what we could contribute to her college education. This led her to choose a state school. Her summer jobs have given her “fun” money as well covering her supplies, text books, sorority dues—basically she pays for the extras. She even shopped around for off campus housing to lower our costs (room and board is where the real upcosts are found) The conversation continues as we approach the next chapter—-life after undergraduate school. We are grateful that she will start her adulthood debt free, but the future is up to her.

    1. Sounds like you are on a good path 🙂

  12. Yooooooo there are some really terrible, selfish people out there, huh? Some of this just made me shake my head in disbelief (and who is this law school child who’s throwing tantrums? Sounds like just the person I want protecting justice and law in this country … )

    This is such a loaded post, and there are so many facets that apply to each INDIVIDUAL situation. I got through school with a combination of scholarships and help from my parents, and worked a lot, which gave me a leg up after graduation. But they were in a position to comfortably do that since they’d been counting on it my whole life. Maybe it’s naive to say that I hope I can comfortably provide college tuition for my own kids. But also, I fully plan on forcing them to be into lacrosse or something so I bank on a full ride 😉

    What I can’t stand are the people I see who skip class, fail due to absences, go wild with partying and fail, etc. Because that’s SOMEBODY’s money going to waste. Yours, the state taxpayers’, your parents … I don’t care if your parents are billionaires; it’s a waste of money and space in a class that someone out there really, really wants to be in. Grow up.
    Wow turns out I feel super strongly about this 😅rant over, see ya!

    1. Haha, thank you for sharing! I’m loving everyone’s opinions on this subject.

  13. My husband and I have talked about this. We’re prioritizing saving for retirement over saving for college. There are different ways to help your child find money to pay for college, but not as many ways to make up for the lack of savings for retirement.

  14. Ms. Materiality

    The comments on this one have been as interesting as the post. The approach my parents took was a good one. They made clear to me early on (starting high school) that they had saved enough for state school tuition/room/board for me. If I wanted to go to a private school (and for a variety of reasons, I really did), I had to have a sensible financial solution to make that happen. That could be scholarships, ROTC, or working. Here’s what it couldn’t be — student loans. The expectation was clear — I would not start life after college with a mountain of debt and they would not take on debt which could jeopardize their retirement.

    What a gift that sensible approach to college financing was and to be communicated early was critical. It was important to me to do well in high school to be in the best position for the scholarship process. I beat the bushes for every scholarship I could possibly apply for, large and small. In the end, I was awarded a full tuition academic scholarship at an excellent small private college. My parents’ savings then covered room and board. I had jobs throughout high school and college to pay for everything else. What happened when I graduated? I got a great job in public accounting, no debt, and started saving for retirement immediately.

    What would have happened if I didn’t get the academic scholarship? I would have been just fine, I know, completing my studies at one of our state universities. Most importantly, I still would have graduated without debt (and their retirement would be intact). Fair, reasonable, clearly communicated — seems like a great strategy.

  15. Alex

    My parents did more than enough for me, they supported me and paid for my classes while I was in community college. Plus, community college saved us so much money it’s crazy to think my parents and I could be close to $100k in debt had I gone to a four-year university.

    I graduated with my bachelor’s degree last year. After only 2 and 1/2 years of using financial aid I accumulated $18k of student loans in my name and $21k of parent loans in my mom’s name.

    From day 1 I told her I would pay for all of it because I was the one that used that money. It’s my turn to do something for my parents, especially since I am now in a place to do so.

  16. Yes, this is why I say in this post that there are so many other ways to help that aren’t about giving money – instead teaching money is so important!

  17. Paying for college really is an individual family’s decision. I had friends who worked their way through and friends whose parents paid for everything. My own college experience was a combination of my parents helping me pay for an in-state state university. I worked summers and breaks and sometimes jobs through the student job board at my university. I also took a hefty load to make the most of my time and money.

    We began the college discussion with our son in middle school. By then he was already earning money through cutting a few lawns and learning to save for things he wanted. We didn’t expect college savings from him at that age. But we did talk about how it would take all three of us to get him through college when the time came.

    Our son went to an in-state state university (not my alma mater – his choice after all). He worked summers and breaks. We filled out the FAFSA forms. He took out only secured federal loans as the interest rates were lower and payback began after he finished college. He received a grant from his college to supplement his senior year. My husband and I took on 2nd seasonal jobs to help pay. And at the time the child deduction we received on our yearly taxes went towards his college. He has a loan equivalent to one year of school and has been paying that back after he consolidated the loans.

    As you can see, as a team, we found many little ways to pay for college without breaking anyone’s back or bank.

    Also be aware that private colleges offer good financial packages that in some cases are less than a year’s tuition at a state university. My sister’s family of four children in private colleges is testimony to that. It really pays to go to all precollege programs offered by your high school and colleges you plan to attend. Ask the college itself what they offer.

    I’ve read all of the above and saw many good suggestions. Hope these ideas add to the list!

  18. Wow…

    I put myself through College, and now I’ve gone back to Grad School (MBA)… I appreciated my degree immensely because I worked for it on my own. I went to school with other kids who had their parents paying for everything, and hen they wanted more, all they had to do was call home, and Mommy or Daddy would send them whatever they asked for…

    I worked as an RA in my dorm for 3 years to help reduce expenses. By my third year, I could spot the incoming Freshmen who were totally supported by their parents… They were the ones who started partying on Thursday night every week, slept in and skipped their 8:00AM classes, and many of them did not return for the spring semester. Not everyone was like this, but the ones who did this were almost exclusively totally supported by Mommy and Daddy.

    Those of us who had to work a job while going to college appreciated what we earned…

    -Todd @ T2D Adventures https://t2dadventures.com

  19. I most definitely agree with your post. I graduated from a Technical college and was paid through an organization plus remainder by my parents. They did not have to pay much though. I have told my kids already they will have to pay for their own, get their own scholarships/grants, etc. We just have too many bills and also trying to save for retirement to help them much. If there is another way we can help we will, but otherwise they will need to pay for their college. My son graduated high school already and is skipping the college route as of now. My daughter a junior and wants to be a Pediatrician and is already working on saving as much money she can plus she does have good grades that will hopefully get her some scholarships.

  20. I think that it is good for the children to pay at least some of the costs of college. It makes them take the whole experience more seriously and be more intentional with their selection of course and study programme.

  21. I personally think, first and foremost, that kids most work to pay for at least part of the tuition and get some skin on the game.
    Why not to send your kids to community college for basic curses paying $100-200 per credit instead of $800+ on a university. Are your kids going to college to get an education our to sponsor the football team?
    Taking a loan on your house to pay for your kids college is an absolute mistake, in my opinion.
    If you can dispose 20k for tuition, why not to use that money to invest it, see it grow and potentially help your kids down the road, after loans are not deferred any more? Benefit from debt depreciation due to annual inflation and allow you to be more financially stable.

  22. Ivy

    What good is it to fund a college that is just party time for a kid and probably won’t even get them a job? They can pay for that one. I’ll pay for the top rated university that will get them a job, if they qualify for it. If not, they’re on their own.

  23. Jenny

    Hi Michelle,
    I’ve been searching around on different blogs for information and advice about paying for college. This is a very helpful post, that gives me a lot to think about! I also found another helpful blog that (I think it’s an FI blog) also discusses college and how one could attend for free. I thought others might also benefit from the information I found.