Just for parents: communicate about the costs of college

By Unigo

Whether you are the parent of a high school student or the parent of a student already enrolled in college, one of the most important conversations you can have about higher education is how you're going to pay for it.

When families stay silent on this topic, kids miss an important opportunity to learn some extremely valuable financial lessons. Having a frank and open dialog about finances will set your child’s expectations of what colleges are realistic options and reinforce the value and significance of the college experience.

Not sure how to talk to your teen or young adult about planning for college costs, the realities of your household income, the importance of the FAFSA, and why it’s imperative to search for scholarships and understand other financial aid and financing decisions? It’s a lot to take in, and we wouldn't blame you for feeling a bit overwhelmed. Try using these tips to open the lines of communication and forge through this sometimes prickly, often confusing, and possibly alienating topic with your child.

Talk about the goal (and value) of college

It’s important that kids and parents talk about the big picture plan. Sometimes, students miss the concept that a college education yields knowledge, self-awareness, and skills … and it can also lead to a future with more career options and earning potential. It’s important that they know what they are aiming for and that you expect them to put in the effort and hard work to make good on the financial investment of college. It’s never too early to introduce the concept of getting a "return on investment," or, what we call your Return on Education™ (ROE). Talk about what type of degree is desired, how many years it may take to get it, and what the intended results and rewards might be when the goal is achieved. Remember to talk to your child about realistic college options, too. Is the dream school that costs $50,000 a year worth the ROE? Do other schools make more sense financially while yielding the same results as more expensive schools?

Talk (knowingly) about the costs of college

Work together to learn what financial options might work best for your family when it comes to choosing a college path — and when deciding whether a community college, public university, or private college is affordable. Use the research tools available on college websites like Unigo or College Scorecard, and keep in mind that the average cost for students living on-campus at public, in-state universities is about $19,000 per year. Will your child have an option to live in a dorm, or should he/she be focused on nearby schools so living at home is a workable option to save money? Do the math to determine which options are right for your family's finances and your child's future.

Talk (honestly) about family finances

Some kids have no idea what the household income is, what the monthly mortgage or rent costs are, how much utilities cost, and how much is spent on food, clothing, and basic supplies for the family. Now is a great time to start teaching your son or daughter about real-world living expenses — and the factors that go into budgeting for them. Talk about the amount of additional money you need to have each month to pay for college bills. Is there room in the monthly budget for this? Are there any assets or cash accounts you can use? Is there a 529 plan, and how will that work? Has money been put into a prepaid tuition account? Are any other family members contributing? Will your child need to pay some of his/her college bills, and if so, how much? Set an earnings/savings goal for summer employment or even school-year employment … and just keep talking about it.

Talk (realistically) about scholarships

Finding free money for college in the form of scholarships and other financial aid is something a lot of families plan on, without understanding the steps to take to find and apply for appropriate scholarship opportunities. Introduce the idea of actively seeking free gift aid using reputable, time-saving scholarship search tools — and be honest about the process. Students should plan to apply to a handful of scholarships each month throughout high school and all their college years to keep a constant flow of scholarship applications in the pipeline. Start early, search often, and keep applying. It will take effort and time, but the potential payout can be well worth it!

Talk about the trade-offs if a student loan (AKA debt!) is the only option

Many families refuse to consider finance options to pay for college, and others simply sign up for every student loan they can get. Regardless of your stance on student loan debt, it’s best not to shy away from at least talking about it. Help your child learn about how credit and loans work, and discuss both the benefits and the dangers of using student loans as a way to finance a college education. Student loan debt can be a scary issue. Many families are struggling with poor decisions and facing overwhelming loan balances following graduation. The key here is to educate yourself and your child, and talk about what it means to take on debt to cover the gap between the cost to attend and available funds. You’ll probably need to revisit numbers one through four above as you discuss student loans and making the best possible choices when it comes to paying for college.

The key factor in talking to your child about paying for college is to do just that — talk! Opening up the lines of communication will help you and your child make better decisions during the college planning process, as well as decrease the stress levels of everyone involved.

Have a question? Ask us! We’re here to help. Leave us a question below in the comment section.