Talking to College Kids About Money- Part 1

By Carol Church

When a child begins to attend college, whether this is far across the country or right in our hometown, parents typically experience a range of mixed and sometimes intense emotions, ranging from pride to sadness to anxiety. One big worry may be about cost…both in terms of how school affects their own wallet and how it may affect their child’s financial situation for years to come.

Big Costs, High Stress

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The average cost of a college degree in the US today, not including room, board, and other expenses, ranges from about $36,556 to about $124,924, with the average student leaving college with about $35,000 in student loan debt. Both of these amounts have been increasing rapidly and are likely to continue to go up, unless major changes occur.

College prices can appear incredibly shocking. However, it’s important to remember that most students do not pay the full “sticker price.” (In fact, experts often urge lower- and middle-income parents not to be scared off by high prices at desirable schools, since less wealthy families are very likely to pay far less than the “sticker.”) Even at a discounted price, though, costs and loans are serious business.

But as parents know, young adults often have a hard time truly understanding these costs or what it really means to graduate with a mountain of debt. At times, this may lead to feelings of frustration, such as when students don’t seem to take their educations seriously, overspend on daily expenses, or fail to take responsibility for paying some of their own way.

Yet this is not to say that students aren’t feeling the crunch. According to a large nationwide survey in 2015, 70% of college students report feeling stressed about finances while in school, with 30% saying money worries sometimes distract them from their education.

Tricky Decisions

Meanwhile, parents may feel overwhelmed, confused, and unsure themselves. Their own financial and educational histories may contribute to these emotions. Since going to college was less common a generation or two ago, many parents will not have their own degrees and have no experience of their own to draw on. Even those who did attend college likely paid far less for school and may have been able to fund it fairly easily through work and reasonable parent contributions.

Today, with costs so high, parents may feel guilt or confusion about how to handle the situation. Should they try to help their kids as much as possible, expect them to fund college on their own, or something in between? (For instance, joining the military will cut the cost of college dramatically! However, this is not a choice that is right for all students.) Should they require them to attend the least expensive school possible?

While there are no quick and easy solutions, experts do have some ideas for parents who want to help their college students emerge on “the other side” with a completed degree, limited debt, and a strong sense of money management. The lessons learned about money and finance while in college will stay with them for years to come. In part 2 of this series, we’ll go over some of these concrete ideas. Stay tuned.

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