Pay For College Or Make Them Work For It?

Whenever the question of paying for college comes up, it seems to spark a heated debate. Some parents want to pay for it all, others are firm believers that their children should have to put themselves through college, and there is a third group that thinks half and half is a good solution. When we make the decision to tackle this issue in our personal lives, one important question should be addressed:

As parents, do we have an obligation to pay for our child’s college education?


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Advocates of paying for college will claim that parents are obligated to make sure their child gets a great education. But are they? As far as the law goes, you are obligated to care for your child up to age 17 (in the U.S.). At age 18, your child becomes an adult and is legally responsible for themselves. But does having no legal responsibility mean there is also no moral obligation? I think it does.

You are obligated to care for your minor child, you are not obligated to care for your adult child. Of course, parents try to cross this line all the time and in my opinion, it is not relationally healthy. Adults should care for themselves, period. Keep in mind that not being obligated doesn’t mean you should or shouldn’t help, it simply means that the decision to help is up to you.

While I don’t think it’s healthy to help or support an adult child with the idea of otherwise being a bad parent in your head, it’s perfectly fine to help them from a personal decision standpoint. With that said, we need to figure out which option is best. And of course, each option has advantages and disadvantages.

Paying For College


  • Child is more likely to attend college.
  • Child can put a maximum amount of focus on schoolwork.
  • Child does not incur debt.


  • Child may not work hard for something that isn’t personally costing them.
  • Child doesn’t learn as much responsibility.
  • Child is more likely to get distracted and party with extra free time.

Making Child Pay for College


  • Child learns hard work and responsibility
  • Child has less down time.
  • Child may focus more on schoolwork.


  • Child may incur debt to pay for it.
  • Child may not be able to balance work and school effectively.
  • Child may decide not to attend altogether.

What About a Compromise?

It’s not obviously clear which option is better when you lay out advantages and disadvantages. What I do know is that the extremes are often never the best option. If we can choose a more moderate method, we’re likely to get the best of both worlds. Instead of arguing black and white, let’s throw in a little gray and try to bring this debate to a close once and for all.

If both the parent and child pay for college, the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages.


  • Child is likely to work hard when helping pay.
  • Child learns hard work and responsibility.
  • Child has less down time, yet has an adequate amount of time to focus on schoolwork.
  • Child is more likely to attend when a parent is helping pay.
  • Child is less likely to incur debt than when solely paying.


  • Child may decide not to attend if they have to pay for some of it.
  • Child may still poorly balance school and work.

If you still aren’t satisfied, let me give you another option that may interest you.

Pay For Performance

Perhaps you like the idea of half and half, but want to give your child the benefit of the doubt in the beginning (or maybe you don’t)? Here are two other ways to go about college funding:

Write Checks With Performance-based Strings Attached

Tell your child that you will pay for college as long as their grades stay within a certain range and they don’t get in trouble. If their grades slip or they get in trouble with the school, law, etc. you remove half of the funding and they can choose whether or not to get a job and continue with school.

Keep in mind, you can’t force your child to attend college. It’s not your decision. The only thing you can do is control the funding.

Pay For Progress

This option is more negative in my eyes because it communicates to your child that you don’t fully believe in them. However, if your child struggled to make it through school up to this point, it may be a fair option. Tell your child that they will be responsible for paying their own way through college for a limited period of time (perhaps one semester). If their grades are within a certain range after one semester, move to the half and half option and help them pay the rest of their way (as long as their grades stay up).

(This will probably fail if your child doesn’t have much interest in college in the first place).

Other Things to Keep In Mind…

As a parent who has the ability to help pay for college, you DO have a moral obligation to maintain healthy boundaries with your child. Here is a list of “do not” behaviors that are very common but are boundariless and relationally unhealthy:

Do not use money to control your child’s life.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely common practice. Typical instances include:

  • “I’ll only pay for your school if you go to become a [insert occupation that child has no interest in].”
  • “I’ll only pay for your school if you agree to help me do things whenever I ask you.”
  • “I’ll only pay for you to attend a Christian school.”
  • “You can’t [insert extracurricular activity]. If I’m paying for you to go, you’re going to do as I say and I don’t want you getting distracted with other things.”

Do not use money to shame your child.

When you make the decision to help pay for your child’s education, that does not give you the right to control your child, make decisions for your child, or shame them when they don’t meet your expectations. Typical instances include:

  • “I can’t believe you decided that school wasn’t for you after I paid [insert amount]. Don’t you know how hard I worked for that money?”
  • “What do you mean you aren’t going to come visit me this weekend? After all I’ve done for you, I’d think you’d show me a little more appreciation than that!”

Also, the healthy love of a child is unconditional. If your child drops out of school, gets bad grades, or doesn’t meet your expectations, it should never change your love for them.

Do not loan money to your child.

Loaning money to your child changes your relationship with them; they automatically become your slave. Don’t put this pressure on your child. If you want to help them then truly help them; give them the money with no emotional or financial strings attached.

If you loan money to your child, it can cause them to avoid you and if you keep asking for repayment, it can build resentment in you. If your child doesn’t end up paying you back, or doesn’t make it through school, you could end up losing contact with your child altogether if they are too ashamed or embarrassed to face you.

It’s not worth it.

What Do You Think?

Although I feel the half and half option is best, the decision remains personal depending on how you feel, how you were raised, and how dedicated your child is. Let me hear what you have done or what you are planning to do in the future regarding college funding.

About the Author

By , on Feb 22, 2008
Pinyo is the owner of Moolanomy Personal Finance. He is a licensed Realtor specializing in residential homes in the Northern Virginia area. Over the past 20 years, Pinyo has enjoyed a diverse career as an investor, entrepreneur, business executive, educator, and financial literacy author.

Leave Your Comment (48 Comments)

  1. Anna says:

    I am 52. I paid for my college as an education was not important when I grew up [especially if you were female] working was. I am proud of that and my parents for the learning experience. I am divorced with two boys 19 & 22. Their father has passed on [took his own life :-(]. I promised them I would pay for two years at a community college and after that they are on their own. It’s been a stretch but the 19 year old has been able to get scholarships and that has helped a lot. So, I would say parent[s] do what we can with what we have. We love our children, unconditionally. If I had the money, won the lottery, the first thing I would pay for is two boys college education!

  2. Doug says:

    Family wealth is not mentioned, but probably plays a role. Well-off families often fund higher education, even if it can delay taking on personal responsibility. We’re in the middle – we can afford to help and have saved some up, but paying for the best school is quite a stretch. And we feel child should have ‘skin in the game’. For me 2/3 parents and 1/3 child feels about right at the moment. Do scholarships earned count toward child’s contribution? (Maybe not when sticker price is overblown but yes or partly when found from outside sources?) I agree we’re not obliged to help adult 18+ year old. But we can, so we likely will. We won’t dictate major or school, but will expect continued effort and performance for continued help. I agree parents should not loan money to children! Good point.

  3. FAM says:

    What do you do when you have a child who has finished high school but college is a challenge. They to attend college but their grades are up to it. Should I suggest a lighter load of courses to boost the gpa or what?

  4. Sunny 62 says:

    We told both of our children, choose what ever field of study that interests you, but make it one that you are likely to obtain a job in after graduation….We will pay everything as long as you get A,B’s and not many C’s…otherwise if you are failing, that means you don’t want to be there and don’t want the higher education and we will not pay for you to constantly party!…Make wise choices, work hard, but take time to enjoy yourself also and you can graduate with a degree and good memories and a plan for a future!

  5. whbt says:

    I echo MIGHTY’s comments. I don’t understand why parents feel obligated to invest financially in their adult children’s careers. Just because your adult son/daughter has chosen to pursue a white-collar career path, why are they more worthy of your financial investment in their decision? What if he/she was preparing to be a carpenter (which doesn’t require a degree)? Would you buy him/her all the necessary tools, work clothes, work truck, etc. to make him/her more competitive in the job marketplace? And why does the financial investment in the career of your adult son/daughter end at college graduation? What about their expensive suits, their expensive professional certification courses, their networking events that take place over happy hour? Should the concerned parent also pay for these competitive advantages?

    As someone who paid his own way through private college, it’s really not that bad. I got an average job and it took only a few years to pay off my debt (I also worked during school). Yeah, you don’t get to buy the new car as quickly as your more spoiled co-workers, but that’s OK, because you get to be more badass for buying your own future. If you actually care about your future, you’re not going to just let yourself drop out because it’s hard to pay for. Self-supporters who drop out because they don’t want to take on the debt are signaling to themselves and others that they don’t see college as the investment it is.

  6. That’s helpful, the way you lay out the plusses and minuses of paying for your children’s college or having them pay–and clearly there are both to each side. But I think your idea of paying for performance is essential here. I did a post on Stupid Young-Adult Tricks based on behaviors I’ve seen in my practice, and a common one is the child who gets kicked out of or flunks out of school. In the companion piece, how to prevent the child from ever being a contestant again (at I address how to deal with a child who’s been asked to leave, and what your obligation is. I feel firmly that in a case like that, a parent should never give a free ride to their child again. [Am open to feedback on that idea from parents who’ve actually experienced the situation, but the ‘one-strike’ policy makes sense to me.] Thanks for bringing this analysis to the public attention.

  7. MIGHTY says:

    I truly, truly cannot even comprehend the reasoning that compels people to think they should pay for the education of other adults.

    And don’t get it twisted, we’re not talking about children here, we’re talking about adults who have zero accountability to you or anyone else. Despite this truth being completely obvious, even this very article continues referring to adults as “children”.

    If you want to give gifts to your children, if you want to teach them financial responsibility, do it WHEN THEY’RE CHILDREN. Adults have no obligation to you. Why are you giving them money for something they may not even really want to do? If they’re not willing to pay for it themselves, why are you? And if they do want it, why are you depriving them of their first real chance to develop adult pride and responsibility.

    College can be totally free. If your child is 14 and shows real signs of wanting college deeply, then teach them to get excellent grades. Gift them with the knowledge of what it takes to secure scholarships. Spend 4 years with them gathering as much info as possible on how to get your college funded by grants and other sources. THIS is caring for your children. Handcuffing your adult offspring by taking away their first chance to be truly adult is beyond my ability to comprehend. I have no clue why this is such a thing in our culture. Baffled. Truly baffled.

  8. nugget says:

    I am a freshman in college. All of my siblings and I are fully responsible to pay for our college education, along with car insurance, car, gas, and soon to be phone bill. I have six kids in my family, and the four of us who are over 14 have been working since we were 14. Over the summer we all work full time jobs; I did about 70 to 80 hours a week, pretty much working every single day over the summer. I’ve worked at various places during the school year as the summer job is only seasonal. My parents had to take out loans and pay for their college, so they expect the same from us. I am not bitter or resentful toward my parents for this financial responsibility, although at times I admit I have gotten angry. However I am the most independent person of the people I know my age, and I am a lot more aware and knowledgable about things. I get really annoyed at all the spoiled people in college who have their parents pay for the whole thing and they fail or pull C’s and D’s because they don’t care. Because I knew I had to pay for college, I worked super hard through high school and studied and endlessly researched scholarships. I appreciate what this financial responsibility has taught me. I love working hard and knowing that I, as an adult, am responsible and fully in charge of my life feels good.

    Above, the author said that it is wrong for a parent to try to tell their student what to study, when to go home, or where to go to college, but if they are paying, I think that the parents can make their kids do whatever they want! When he or she is fully paying for their college, then they can make their own decisions.

  9. karen kayes says:

    My husband and I have four children. We believe in education and our gift to them is a four year college degree, housing, food, car, insurance and some living expenses. There have been times when they have not met our expectations of taking a full load, and maintaining a decent average. We have kept the course because in the long run we want them to be self sufficient.

  10. Dale says:

    My parents didnt pay for mine. My Uncle did his name was “Uncle Sam” I only had to work for him for 4 years. He sent me all over the world to fight and do his bidding! It wasnt easy but he lived up to his obligation and paid for my college…and along the way he taught be how to be a man, instilled discipline, character, and fostered a LOVE that I have for my country and countrymen! GOD Bless America!

  11. Kevin Mulligan says:

    @Kevin: I think the trade route is a great idea. I think someone going this route should still go to a community college or something like that, read up on business, how to run a small business and so on… how many times have you wished for a reliable plumber/HVAC/contractor? One that simply shows up on time, gets the job done, and so on? If I ever lost my job I would seriously consider going back to school for a trade education and then run the competition out of town with how well I run my business.

  12. Kevin says:

    This is a really tough question. My wife and I have two new babies, and although I have an MBA (funded by me, and my work, not my parents at all), I know for sure we won’t be able to pay much at all for our children’s college. I am going to tell them at an early age about the need for scholarships and hope that works out. We have 18 years to put away a little money, and we will help out a bit, but i don’t believe in parents having to take out “parent loans” to help their kids pay for college. I am going to tell my children that their best bet is to get a good job at 18 that has tuition reimbursement and let corporate america pay for their education…..the money is out there people, tell your children to get in the door of a good company and take advantage of their tuition reimbursent programs….they can start in the mail room at 18, it does not matter. We won’t be able to pay for our kid’s college it’s either community college for them, or scholarships, or working at a company that has tuition reimbursement.

    also, there is nothing wrong with the TRADE route either. I know of many blue collar guys that make over 100K…electrician, contractor, plumber, HVAC, carpenter, landscaper, etc. etc…don’t sell these type of career paths short either people !! Not everyone has to go to college……

  13. igaveitup says:

    I’ve had my education interrupted twice because of money problems. My parents refuse to help me and forcing me to work again this year.

    Parents, HELP YOUR CHILDREN. My life has been destroyed by my parents’ refusal and inability to help me get my education. I work full-time, I have no money, and I live with an abusive parent whom I am essentially supporting.

    HELP YOUR KIDS GO TO SCHOOL. BEING A PARENT DOES NOT END AT AGE 18. Give them the life experiences they need to have, and let them learn what they need to know. If you don’t help them, you’re 10000% more likely to have a dropout on your hands because it’s nearly impossible to fund college on your own at 18. No part-time job will pay enough for an 18-year-old with no college degree to expect them to support themselves feasibly.

    Give them their education.

  14. Anna says:

    I am a single parent who’s ex is not involved with the two wonderful childen god blessed us with. He does not support them financially at all; hasn’t even visited/taken them in years. I pay everything even though he is court ordered to pay support. Anyway, this is my biggest stress in life. I want to help my two boys go to college. It is a moral obligation to help as much as you possibly can without giving a free ride of course. We live paycheck to paycheck (I do not let my boys know this; however, they do know money is tight.) My 16 year old has a part-time job and my 13 year old will have one when he is old enough to help buy their shoes, etc. I do not know if my boys will qualify for pell grants and scholarships. I can only hope. If “we” don’t, I feel sick, to tell them I don’t know about college and their future. And how could I ever pay back loans.

    • Pinyo says:

      @Anna – College is not out of reach if they really want it. I have a friend who worked while he went to college. Yes, it took him longer, but because he really wanted it, it got a lot out of the experience. Also, if money is an issue, going to a community college is still better than no college at all. If you want it and you try hard enough, you can make it happen.

    • Anna says:

      I was [still am] in the same boat. Divorced & my two boys father is dead. My boys are 19 & 22. The 22 year old has been on his own and living 6 hours away. It’s a struggle for him. It’s a struggle for me. He works full time and goes to a community college. My 19 year old is still at home & attending the local community college. He works also. He has been able to get a sports scholarship. I help both as much as a single parent can. It does pain me too, to think they may not get a 4 year education. But, we will keep our heads up and keep plugging away. My promise to them is to see them both thru community college. From there, it will be up to them. I cannot afford a university. I pray God will look over them and help them along the way he sees fit. Keep your head up.

  15. Sheri says:

    I’m sorry but I don’t see anywhere that a parent has to pay for their child’s college. There are thousands upon thousands that have paid for all or most of their own education and they are normal, productive, and hardworking people. Competing with the rich to get bigger houses, toys, etc has never been something I have taught my children. I grew up knowing that if I wanted to go to college I would have to pay for it. I didn’t go simply because it was not my desire at that time. My parents taught me to work hard for what I wanted and not expect others to help me. They were/are my dreams and my choices. My parents still wanted to have a life they could afford to enjoy after working hard during our childhoods to provide for us.

  16. Milo says:

    I think this is an easy decision. If parents do not make it possible for their child to attend college, by refusing to pay, or forcing their children to pay for it themselves (often delaying the degree) then their children will be at a disadvantage to those who did not face that hardship. Think about it… the rich get richer and the poor get poorer for this very reason. While Joe Schmoe is out there trying to pay for college, Richie Rich is actually attending classes and getting closer to their degree. They will then have first crack at high paying jobs, too. Why put your kid at a disadvantage? To prove a point? To hold back their potential? I had to wait until 24 so I was an independent, to get proper financial aid. I didn’t complete my Bachelors degree until I was 28. Five years were completely wasted, working low paying jobs and struggling, while others took a more natural path. Now, when I’m going for entry level positions, those people have had years to gain experience.

    The right choice is to 1) not have kids unless you can afford them and all their needs 2)make sure you set up a college fund and support your children so they don’t fall behind. Anything else is a waste of time.

  17. charlie says:

    My daughter got a full ride to the best state school and out of pocket for me would be $8k. She chose the out of state private school with a $41k tuition plus $12k living expenses. She did get a $20 scholarship and is a very good student. I’ve offered to pay the other half of the tuition and she agreed to pay the living expenses. Problem is, that she’s not busting it to raise the money. She wants me to cover the rest. I am willing to help her realize her dream but she should do her part.

    I don’t have a problem with her choice of schools but it comes with a big price and she will have to cover her share.

    Any comments.

    • Pinyo says:

      @charlie – I hope you mean $20k because $20 would be comical. Anyway, I think you should draw a line in the sand and stick to your original agreement. She’s grown up enough to take financial responsibility. If she doesn’t honor her half of the deal then she has to live with the consequence.

  18. Erika D. says:

    People talk about how parents paying for their child’s tuition fee would make the child lax in their schoolwork, opting instead to party and take everything for granted. In the end they would drop out. But I do not think that is the parents’ fault, or for the matter blame-able on the fact that the kids got in on a free ride. There must be something wrong with the kid itself! For that matter, the child may already be showing signs of becoming like this with regard to his or her performance back in high school. I do not seem to see people who were straight A’s in the high school suddenly turn crazy or stupid in college just because their parents are paying for the tuition.

    Anyhow, even if that is the case, paying for the kid’s tuition should not make him or her lack work ethics. In retrospect, they might even work harder because they are going to be grateful that their parents are helping them, despite the lack in legal obligations. if the parents feel a moral obligation to help the children out, should not the children feel a moral obligation too to do good in school and work hard afterwards, so that their parents could be proud? This is not about asking them to pay for what their parents gave too. This is way different. It’s about how because you’re family, you should at least help each other. the parents helping out with the tuition, and the children striving hard so that their parent’s money at least do not go to waste. Parents after all wish all the best for their kids, despite them turning legal adults, and the children should not disappoint if they could. After all, its for them.

    however, i find too that a rather proportionate of children do not sense this gratefulness at all. Well, it’s their loss. it’s their lives..

  19. Craig says:

    I was a A-B student all through school, then when it came time for college my parents were awesome enough to pay for mine…I partied and ended up dropping out of school. Joined the military, got the GI bill, went back to school on my own dime, and graduated from The U, at the top of my class. When you know that you are paying for your own education, you really do work much harder. Also, my wife was forced right out of HS to pay for her education because her parents would not pay…she did a lot of dishes at the college’s cafeteria to pay for her’s, but also the gratification that she did it on her own. Go Canes!

  20. Jayme says:

    I stumbled upon your blog and as a college age student i would like to share my input.

    I think that it should be the parents paying for the college experience, however as you advance through college more of that financial responsibility should be the child.

    I do not think it is fair for the child to have to pay it all straight into college because not only is it overwhelming, but the FASFA is a flawed system. For anyone under 24 years of age you are required to put your parents financial information on the form, this means that any financial aid you get is including your parents finances. This makes it nearly impossible for some students to even get loans.

    I can give myself as an example, I am not eligible for any grants due to my parents financial status and that severely limits how much I can take out in loans through the government. This would leave me being forced to take out extremely high interest loans through privatized institutions, and having to pay them off immediately. This means it would force me to drop down to part time in order to stay afloat financially, which if a student was eligible for any scholarships or grants those would then be voided.

    I do not think it is fair how the system is run, but I also do not think it is fair for parents to just throw there children deep end into a system that is designed to make them go into financial failure.

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