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We talk to our children about so many topics to help keep them healthy and safe, but we often shy away from conversations about financial wellbeing.

As a parent of a high school student, however, there’s no time like the present to have a candid conversation about college costs and the resources you have available to contribute toward them.

Your student may still be early in the exploration phase, may be getting closer to developing a short list of preferences, or may have already decided upon their school of choice. Wherever they are in the consideration process, you owe it to yourself and to them to make time to take a close look at the potential net costs of the institutions they are exploring and to take an equally close look at your family’s available resources to determine how much of a gap there may be in covering the cost of a desired school and degree.

Why consider this type of conversation and why now?

A family college finance conversation will:

  1. Open the door to essential considerations: Having an accurate sense of what funds are currently available, including any funds that others may have set aside for your child’s educational goals, is an important component in determining whether schools of interest will be affordable for your family after forms of free aid like grants and scholarships are factored in.
  2. Get everyone on the same page: Knowing where your family stands from a financial standpoint presents an opportunity to share this information not only with your child but with those closely involved in the college search or decision-making process (such as guidance counselors, coaches, or other adults). Discussing your financial situation helps get interested parties on the same page. If certain schools are likely to be completely out of financial reach, even with the best possible financial aid packages, it’s better that your student and those offering advice recognize this.
  3. Encourage a fresh look: Addressing the reality of what’s available can inspire the expansion of your child’s search to schools and strategies not previously considered. For instance, it may expand the universe of schools to include credible options which may be lesser known but more generous from a merit aid perspective for students matching your child’s profile, those with “no loan” policies, and/or those in-state to avoid out-of-state tuition. This exercise may also open minds to the possibility of starting out at a less expensive school or living at home for the first year or two to lower expenses. Lastly, examining the current value of funds earmarked for higher education may inspire you and your child to take a hard look at monthly expenditures to determine what can be reduced or eliminated between now and college to increase the savings your family has.
  4. Manage expectations and emotions: Few experiences can be more emotionally upsetting than when much-desired college acceptances arrive, parents share the unfortunate news that a school the child worked so very hard to get into is simply out of the family’s financial reach even with the financial aid package that has been awarded. To manage expectations, it’s much better to have explored financial matters as far as possible in advance to help your child avoid getting their heart set on a particular school which may wind up being unaffordable unless the aid offered sufficiently covers any significant funding gap.
  5. Set a realistic stage for the future: When acceptances are received, financial aid awards are examined, the current value of available savings are assessed, and any gap in funding is identified, you’ll want to consider as a family whether choosing a school that both meets your child’s needs and whose net cost is substantially less will lead to a brighter and lighter future versus choosing a more desired school that will require a substantial amount of educational debt.

Far too many students and parents skip the conversation about financial reality and move forward with a dream school regardless of how much needs to be borrowed. If you wind up considering this route, you’ll want to have an honest conversation about the total amount that will need to be borrowed, precisely who will be responsible for repayment, the approximate size, and duration of monthly payments, and what impact such debt may likely have on the quality of life after college. As a teenager, it may be difficult to imagine the impact of carrying significant debt for 10 or more years after receiving a degree. Lastly, if parent loans are required to cover the cost of the desired institution, you’ll want to consider the impact such loans will have on the quality of your life as you near or enter your retirement years.

Conclusion: While paying for college may be difficult to broach, sweeping it under the rug until a later date can be much more difficult in the long run.


Patricia A. Roberts is a motivational speaker, writer, and veteran of the college savings industry. She has led college savings initiatives at premier financial services organizations like Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein, and has authored Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans. In her current role as COO at Gift of College, she promotes 529 plans as a financial wellness benefit in the workplace.