When I went to college, Texas A&M out of state tuition was $40/credit hour for out of state tuition ($4 for in-state)- and that was a major factor in me deciding to take the long journey from Newton, Massachusetts to College Station, Texas. Even with that incredibly inexpensive tuition (even for those days), I still had student loans, and I remember vividly sitting at my dining room table in my apartment in Manhattan at the age of 32 writing my last check to pay off those loans.

Today even the least expensive schools are costly, causing more parents and their high school-aged children to seriously re-evaluate how to fund a college education. As a parent, here is how I have thought about this issue:

  1. Before the question of how to fund college, why not spend a little time thinking about why your child should go to college. It has become a foregone conclusion in America that every kid should get a college education — but I would argue that there are plenty of interesting and skilled jobs, in the trades for instance, that require technical expertise (everything today is computerized, so it is definitely not mindless work) and have salaries much higher than many jobs requiring a college degree. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs (some of whom went to college and some who didn’t) I would also argue that starting a lot of businesses require a lot of characteristics- diligence, organizational skills, perseverance — but not necessarily a college degree, depending on the nature of the business. Being trained in a specific skill may be a better cost/benefit trade-off than a 4-year degree offers. Spending time in thinking through whether the degree you would consider will result in a job that will allow you to pay off the student loans is probably a worthy exercise to complete before taking out the loan. And don’t forget, there are the Richard Bransons of the world who didn’t go to college and have done just fine.

  2. So, you and your child have decided that going to college is really in the cards- and now you are thinking about how to fund what for most people is a 6-figure obligation. What about:

a. Join the military. When I was teaching at the University of Nebraska I was always so impressed with the students who had served for a couple of years- they were much more mature, and they knew what they wanted to study (and why). Using the GI bill, they were able to fund college and make it affordable.

b. Consider programs that involve work/study, or generally look into going to school part-time and working. There are Federal Work Study programs for people who meet the income eligibility requirements, but there are also limitations in the programs- such as those outlined here. Although it is hard to juggle work and school, there are valuable lessons to be learned and experience to be gained — which could make this a worthwhile option. I worked about 15 hours per week when I was in college- it wasn’t a lot, but it definitely helped pay the bills and more than anything I learned a lot about time management.

c. Apply for grants and scholarships — it takes time, but it could pay off substantially. Some schools, like Brown University (my other alma mater), are working to make grants the norm, replacing loans for its students altogether.

d. Live at home and go to community college for the first two years. Then save the big-ticket tuition for the last two years- employers only look at the school you graduated from so where you start is irrelevant.

  1. Encourage your child to pick their major and the University wisely. Helping your child to find their passion is important- but as far as future employment goes, it is vital that they find something that they love to do that someone will pay for- at least to be able to pay off their loans and support themselves. A little tough love can go a long way here, and helping your child to understand the harsh realities of what life is like when you can’t pay the bills is doing them a huge favor. Taking a look at how different Universities stack up in terms of value is a good start, as well as projections about future employment demand.

  2. Check out online options. From Coursera to brick and mortar universities offering classes online, there are now endless options, many of which are free or dramatically reduced in price. Technology will significantly impact how we define education, and what that implies about the cost structure of college.

As parents, it is natural to want what is best for our children. But remembering that having children who grow to be healthy, well-adjusted and kind adults, who contribute positively to society is really the end goal for most of us. And none of that requires a certain degree or a particular profession. There are many different ways to live a life- and what it means to have a fulfilling life is as unique to your child as their fingerprint.🔷

(Cover: Flickr / COD Newsroom)



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CEO of Pefin, the world's first AI Financial Advisor. Prior to this she had an extensive career on Wall Street.

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