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?
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 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.
Three Ways to Handle College Expenses
1. Helping Your Child by 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.
2. Making Your 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.
3. A Compromise (Half-and-Half)
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 they are contributing toward their college expenses.
- 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 they are paying on their own.
- 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.
Another Way…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:
1. Write Checks With Performance-Based Conditions
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.
2. 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 unhealthy:
1. 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 [some 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 [specific religion] school.”
- “You can’t participate in [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.”
2. 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.
3. 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. 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.
Pinyo Bhulipongsanon is the owner of Moolanomy Personal Finance and a Realtor® licensed in Virginia and Maryland. Over the past 20 years, Pinyo has enjoyed a diverse career as an investor, entrepreneur, business executive, educator, financial literacy author, and Realtor®.