Can any parent imagine hearing their 16 year old teenager say:
“Mom and Dad, I want to be an architect; I researched schools and ABC University has the best program at the lowest cost, it is not too far away so travel won’t cost much, and they are willing to give me a part time job on campus to give me spending money?”
Now, I am sure this conversation may have taken place at some point in history in some household. I highly doubt that it is the normal conversation about planning for college.
Does this describe the more likely college conversation you had with your teenager?
Parent – “So Junior, what do you think you would like to do with your life?”
Junior- “I dunno?
Parent – Do you want to go to college?
Junior – “yeah, I guess”
Parent – Where do you think you would like to go to college?”
Junior – “XYZ college”
Parent – “why there?”
Junior – “the rest of the gang wants to go there”
Now that the Baby Boomers are and have been sending their young Darlings of Gen-X and Gen-Y to college or university, it is amazing that we are shocked to hear the latter conversation. Why? The Baby Boomers pampered the hell out of their kids. As a Baby Boomer myself, I am not here to criticize how we brought up the kids or why they do not have much direction. The Gen X and Gen Y participants will get their just dessert when their kids become teenagers who are even more apathetic about their future plans. What I am here to discuss is the financial ramifications of these conversations.
Leaving the College Selection Decision up to Junior
What I did not put into the conversation above was the parent’s answer to Junior’s last comment of “the rest of the gang is going there”. I run through this conversation in the Adult Education classes I teach and ask the class members to finish the conversation. I really should not do this since their answers always put me in a bad mood.
Common Baby Boomer parent response to Junior:
– “Have you applied to the school yet?”
– “Are your grades good enough to get in?”
-“That should be a nice school”
Not one class participant asks about tuition or programs of study or academic standards, etc. Why? Because the Baby Boomers appear to be under the impression that junior should go to whatever school he or she wants. It is their right to pick the school, and our responsibility to pay for that selection.
A Financial Planner’s View of the College Selection
You can understand why I, as a Financial Planner, get in a bad mood after hearing the above responses come out of the mouths of grown people who have trouble making ends meet every month. College or University tuition, and related cost, is many times the largest expense parents will experience in their lifetimes. To repeat, College Tuition will be the largest expense parents well face during their lives. This expense will be larger than the cost of buying a house. We will be paying for college tuition costs for many years after our Darlings graduate. It can eat into our 401k assets, smother us in long term loans, and delay our own retirement dates.
The biggest issue I have is not that Junior is going to college or that we are paying for it. These days the kids have to go to college to have any decent shot at getting a good career job. My issue is that we leave the largest financial decision of our lives to a 17 year old who wants to go to college just to get out of the house and have a good time. From a financial viewpoint, the parents must be involved early when Junior is 15 or so to ensure that he or she understands this is a big decision, that the parents will send Junior to an “affordable” college (if such a place exists) and that the parents have the final decision of where Junior will go to college.
Controlling College Costs
The normal article on Financial Planning for College deals with scholarships, grants, financial aid and FAFSA or Federal student loans. These are important in how to pay for college. There is one age old idea that I want to address here which involves loweing the tuition expense. If your Darling is not very mature, has no current long term pursuits in mind, and is just following his friends’ suggestions about college selection, consider sending Junior to the local Community College for 2 years. Accounting 101 class or Basic English class is pretty much the same whether taken at the Community College or Harvard. The cost will be 80% less at the Community College. The deal with Junior will be that if he keeps his grades up, he can choose the College or University to attend in his 3rd and 4th year, AND you will get him his own car. This last item will many times be enough for him to agree to this proposal.
The advantages of having Junior stay home for the first two years of college are:
From the parents’ viewpoint:
• Junior will be 2 years more mature when he makes his final college selection
• Junior may have a better idea in his sophomore year of what he wants to learn in college
• The parents will save roughly 30%-40% of the cost of sending Junior to college
• The parents can monitor Junior’s progress
• Junior will still get his “college experience” during his last two years, which appears to be a major concern of mothers I poll in the Adult Education classes
From Junior’s standpoint
• He gets a car of his own
• Junior has the freedom to come and go as long as his grades are satisfactory
• Odds are Junior will not flunk out of Community College and be forced to go out and get a menial job
Can the Baby Boomer parent consider such a suggestion?
The feedback I get from Baby Boomer parents after making this suggestion vary considerably. Some say “Not a bad idea”. Majority say “No way – my Junior deserves the best”. We would rather concentrate on how to get a scholarship or loan than cut the expense. I will not argue the latter response from parents who cannot really afford to pay for an expensive college. To these parents, I can only say that allowing a 17 year old to determine your long term financial future is not sound Financial Planning.