Updated on 02.01.07

Financial Independence Week: Paying For Your Own Education

Trent Hamm

College-age readers (and younger), this post is directly aimed at you. Paying for college isn’t easy, whether it’s you doing it or your parents covering it for you. Unless you were very lucky in the scholarship department, someone is facing a financial hardship from this: your parents, you, your future self, or maybe even someone else. No matter who is paying for your education, there are still some principles that you should follow in order to keep your financial life and your relationship with your parents in good shape.

First, drop any resentment you have. If your parents elected not to pay for your education, that’s their choice. Do you consider yourself to be an adult? Then act like one. If you don’t consider yourself to be an adult, drop out of college, move back into your parents’ basement, and play video games for a few more years. That’ll show ’em how mature you are.

Now that I’ve got your attention (and if you’re still here, you’re more mature than most college students), a big part of being an adult is dealing with adversity, and resentment is one of the most sure-fire ways to fail when dealing with adversity. You made the choice to go to college and this degree will benefit you and only you, so it stands to reason that you are the person who should bear the brunt of the cost. If your parents are paying for a portion (or even all) of the expense of college, that is a gift. Consider yourself very lucky, not entitled.

Second, if you’re getting nothing out of college, get out of college. If you’re just barely passing your courses and spend all of your time, well, wasting time, college may not be the place for you. Take a one year hiatus and do something completely different, something that sounds authentically exciting to you. Live like a homeless person in Europe for a year. Wash dishes in the best restaurant in town and observe what’s going on in their kitchen. Play your guitar on the street corner for change. Sign up for a volunteer corps. Do that one thing that sounds exciting to you and do it now so you aren’t wasting money sitting in your dorm room wondering what the hell you’re going to do with your life.

Third, even if your parents are covering all of it, don’t turn down opportunities for aid and scholarships. Spend some time in the financial aid office and see if there are any additional packages that can benefit your situation. Even if the cost you’re reducing is not your own, your parents will have more money with which to both spend and save for their own retirement (think of it this way: if they have more in retirement, there’s less chance you’ll have to pay for their care when the time comes). No matter what, seeking out financial aid and scholarships helps your financial picture in the long run.

Last but perhaps most importantly, take advantage of the college experience and use it to reduce costs, whether you’re footing the bill or not. I wrote about this topic in detail in the past, so I’ll just summarize by saying that college affords you a lot of ways to live cheaply and have amazing experiences on the state’s dime. Don’t spend your time dropping $200 on a new pair of pants at the mall when your campus is loaded with tons of free opportunities – and some amazing ones that can even put cash in your pocket.

No matter what, though, never spend your time in college harboring a resentment against your parents for what they did and didn’t spend on you. You are taking the reins of your own life now, and by framing your life in the context of what your parents are doing just continues the cycle of childhood. If you do nothing else because of this article, grow up and realize that as an adult you are the one responsible for the decisions. Your parents are just there to offer a helping hand if they can, nothing more, nothing less.

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  1. gen3ric says:

    Great post, I wish I had read it about 5 years ago. I think for me the biggest realization was that I am responsible for my own life and if I didn’t like what I was doing, I should do something about it. And I did. It took me about a year and a half longer to graduate, but it worked out.

  2. HC says:

    Trent, I’m not sure how this series overlaps with your own life, but I’m finding the tone, particularly in this post, somewhat offputting. Rather than offering concrete strategies for finding other funding sources (Americorps, RA positions, etc.), it comes off as so much “suck it up and take the debt.” I don’t see that helping anyone.

    Neither does leaving parents off the hook. Yes, the ultimate responsibility to attend college rests with the child. But any parent who chooses to raise a child today should know that a college degree is now a MINIMUM requirement for many, if not most, decent jobs.

    Maybe some parents won’t or can’t accept the responsibility to fund at least SOME of that education and thereby give their children the means to support themselves for a lifetime (despite that being the goal of parenting as far as I understand it). But if that’s the case, then they should either reconsider having children in the first place, or at least explain the situation while the children are still in middle school and have the chance to look into various educational avenues, be they sports scholarships, military service, or technical training schools.

    It sounds like that didn’t happen for you, and that’s unfortunate. But it shouldn’t be a reason to bash the kids who dare to assume that their parents might want to equip them with some means of getting ahead in adulthood.

  3. Man, this is definitely a negative piece. It sounds like you’ve got a) some resentment yourself or b) a child who resents you.

    I’m working my way through college myself at the moment, and know full well that it’s hurting my grades. When I get the chance, I’m going to fight as hard as I can to assist my child(ren) in every way possible with getting that shiny piece of paper. Like HC said, it is a piece of equipment that your child will use to get ahead in the future. It’s a minimum today and certainly no longer a luxury for academics.

    And to advocate dropping out of college… man. Unless you /want/ to be a McDonald’s worker or have some amazing talent that nobody else has, you’re going to screw yourself over /so badly/ that you won’t even know what happened. ESPECIALLY for people who are still living under their parents’ insurance. Let me tell you, once you move past that cap and have to find yourself insurance – you’ll realize the picnic that you were having when you thought, “Man! Being homeless in France sounds like more fun than building my future!”.

    Now… there are obviously the Joe Sixpacks who are using college as an excuse to drink and have loads of sex all the time. These are the McDonald’s workers. I salute you. Leave college. Make Joe Unipack his McHeartBurster. Please. We don’t need you constantly berating the professor or bitching about the people trying to get things clarified.

  4. In general, I agree with the commenters above, but I want to defend the idea of leaving college if it’s not for you. Look. There are lots of things for which college isn’t a requirement. Some of them are even lucrative. There are lots of other things for which college really shouldn’t be a requirement, and that’s neither here nor there. But if you’re not getting the full value of your college education, don’t waste your or your parents’ money, and don’t waste your time. Join the Peace Corps or Americorps, or take a stupid job and read a ton of books, or, yes, work your way across France or something. That way, you can figure out what it is that you want to do, and when you go do it, you’ll do it wholeheartedly–and thus, hopefully, well.

    And frankly, I’ve got to disagree about the Joe Sixpacks, too. Like it or not, many of those hard-partying frat boys are the stockbrokers of tomorrow.

  5. Canadian says:

    I don’t think parents owe it to their children to pay for their post-secondary education. Too many people already go to university. See the following article: http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009535

    And there is a shortage of skilled tradespeople. There is no shame in working with your hands instead of at a computer in a cubicle.

    My father was a teacher and had a university degree. My best friend’s father was a plumber and had no degree. Guess who made more money, who had a nicer house and a more affluent lifestyle? It sure wasn’t my family.

    If you really, really want to get a university education, then find a way to get it. Otherwise, don’t worry about that. Do something you love.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    My point is that students should not expect that their parents will pay for their education. When you go to college, you’re theoretically an adult, and that means that you should be able to stand on your own two feet. Accepting aid from your parents is fine, but expecting aid from your parents indicates some deep problems.

  7. Accepting aid from your parents is fine, but expecting aid from your parents indicates some deep problems.

    Well…I think this really depends on the role that college plays in your social system. If your parents don’t really care whether you go to college or not, if they think of it as a choice that you can make as an adult, then, sure, okay, maybe it’s reasonable for them to decline to finance it. But that’s not the case for many people, including me: for many people, college is not optional. When I was little (I mean little, like 4), my father started asking me whether I wanted to go to Harvard or to Yale. And when I would bring home an unsatisfactory grade in high school, he would remind me that I’d never get into Yale with a transcript full of B-minuses. If I’d been willing to go through them, my parents would have paid for prep courses; they wanted me to take an SAT-II over again when my score was 20 points off perfect. Lots of kids grow up this way. And can you imagine, after all that, if my parents looked at me and said, “So, you really want to go to college–how are you planning on paying for that?”

    Frankly, I don’t think I have deep problems because I expected that they’d pay for college. That’s what I was set up to think.

    I think a big part of this debate is about background, and about how we define adulthood. If you’d told my parents that I was 18, I was an adult, I got to make my own decisions? They’d have laughed heartily. Even the cultural expectation that children strike out on their own after college (or even high school) is an extremely new and pretty uniquely American one. When we disagree on this issue, I don’t think we’re really disagreeing about money. I think we’re disagreeing about culture, which makes everything a little more loaded.

    So apologies if I’ve been snappish.

  8. MossySF says:

    I’ve heard the saying a million times — education is an investment. But yet, few people will analyze college like they would mutual funds or real estate. (Not that many people do a good job with the later either…) So this is the primary problem with fully paying your kids’ college costs. College becomes just an extension of living on the parents’ dime and they get a later start on learning about opportunity costs, ROI, financial planning. This lack of ROI analysis is what’s leading so many people to go completely in debt to attend college — debt that takes decades to pay off leaving them worse off than if they never attended college.

    I’m purposely funding a 529 for my son that I know will not be enough to cover all school and living expenses. It’ll be up to him to make up the difference by: (1) working hard in school for scholarships, (2) taking AP tests for college credit, (3) taking cheaper classes at community college, (4) working parttime at least (and if it takes 7 years instead of 4, big deal), (5) live frugally. I have zero interest in funding some drunken fratboy lifestyle for 4 years.

  9. Angela says:

    I’d say that dropping out for a year or two and then returning (or doing something else worthwhile) is an excellent idea if you’ve fallen out of love with the whole studying experience.

    Whether the expectation that parents should pay for college is reasonable or unreasonable depends a lot on the expectations that the parents have themselves.

    For example, I did very well academically at school. It was expected by everyone that I would go to university. My parents would have been disappointed if I’d chosen another path (but they would have gotten over it). In this country there is an expectation by the government that parents will contribute and almost all student support is government based, there are no major scholarships or other loan programmes. For purely academic degrees (like in English, Maths, Languages etc) there are few options for part-time study. If my parents had turned around and said they weren’t going to contribute I would have been absolutely heart-broken because I would been unable to study my chosen subject at my chosen university. I may well have been unable to go to university at all.

  10. Jesi says:

    I was able to get my college funded through my employer. My first year of college I found a job that I loved and quickly advanced through. It took me 8 years to get my BA because I was working full time, but I paid for a few semesters and books during that entire time.
    As soon as I graduated, my company offered me a position in our corporate office and relocated me. My boss (the managing director) is now pushing me to go back and get an MBA.
    So my two cents is… find a job that will pay for school! And I definately agree with no expecting parents to pay for college… its so much more fufulling when you can find ways to fund your own education.

  11. Eleanor says:

    For many reasons (the least of which was needing to remove myself from a toxic childhood home), I knew that I was on my own for college. I was accepted at two Ivy League schools, but due to finances attended a second-tier college that gave me an almost full ride. Do I wish I had plunged myself into $200K of debt and lived in those hallowed, Ivy-covered halls? Sometimes, yes. However, I am now happy that I did it on my own and truly appreciate how strong I was to make that tough decision at 17. I cannot tell you how many kids at the second-tier college knew that Mummy and Daddy were footing the bill, and behaved as if they were attending Romper Room, not college. I have been telling youngsters to plan on attending a good (home) state school for undergrad, saving all of their money towards that goal, then aiming for the Ivy or similar for graduate school if they are so inclined.

    I think your parents owe you a safe, moderately comfortable upbringing until the age of 18 or high school graduation, whichever happens first. Anything beyond that is a gift – unexpected, but appreciated. Working your way through college is a viable and character-building option.

  12. Christine says:

    I’m a 20 year old college junior, and am currently about $15,000 in debt. I will say this: if you can, pay a portion of your child’s education. Not all of it, but at least some of it.

    It’s technically true that the parent is no longer required to foot the bill for their child once they turn 18, but as a student who is paying for college completely by myself, I can tell you how stressful and distracting it is to be thousands of dollars in debt…before I can even order a drink at a bar. If you help pay, they will have to work less at outside jobs, and (if they’re smart) will dedicate more time to their studies.

    It is true that paying for college yourself does build character – I work 30 hours a week while taking a full courseload, and pay all my own bills. But it does often build resentment as well, especially since colleges are overrun with trust-fund brats who have the luxury of pissing away their 4 years while Daddy pays for it. “You’re building character!” is little consolation when you can’t buy a home until age 33 because you owe so much in high-interest loans, meanwhile your debt-free peers are living in $300,000 homes in the suburbs.

    Basically, don’t give your child a free ride, because until they get that bill in the mail with their name on it, they will never fully appreciate their college education. But do not throw them to the wolves either, because there are young people being blown up in Iraq today because someone told them it would pay for their college.

  13. tree frog says:

    I’m a senior in college and a big fan of your website. My parents helped me minimally with my education, but couldn’t/wouldn’t help my in any real way. I had to watch for three years while others in my major were out partying and earning A’s while I worked part time and practically killed myself trying to compete. This year I took a full scholarship given to me by the state in exchange for two years of work after graduating. Since I’ve started interning with them and realized what I’ve committed myself to, i’ve been crying myself to sleep at night. Would I be in this position if my parents had helped me more? Def. not. On the other hand, i’ve also watched as friends whose parents handed them an education on a silver platter threw it away like it was yesterday’s news. They dont have any of the character or integrity that my parents gave to me. I guess if there’s a point here (besideds a lot of venting) its that its not a black/white decision. Know your children. -and we should all be asking ourselves why this country awards an education to those who can pay for it, not those who appriciate its value.

  14. Lizzie B says:

    While this article contains some good advice, it gives no tips for applying that advice. For instance, the author exhorts college students to seek out scholarships, but doesn’t reccomend any useful resources such as fastweb. College freshmen and sophomores are not financially savvy, so they need a little more direction this area.

    I also found the tone of this article to be very negative. While it’s true that children who resent their parents for not paying will waste mental energy, those who say, “Suck it up” are carrying equally resentful attitudes. I may be in the minority, but I believe that parents are obligated to help students pay for part of college. If you’re strapped for cash and you want the child to do her share, encourage her to make good grades that will lead to scholarships and have her enrolled in a work study program in college. Parents who do not help their kids go to college are producing slaves who will be forced to rely on them due to bleak career prospects. They will spend all their time living with their parents and doing work around the house while possibly earning minimum wage at McDonald’s. Some will argue that a high school diploma can still lead to a good career. While this might’ve been true 20-30 years ago, today this is an exception, not the rule.

  15. Brian says:

    Here’s a thought for some of those parents that either didn’t plan to pay for their kids college, were just too irresponsible, and or couldn’t. (not saying that because someone’s parents financially couldn’t afford to pay or help means that all parents were irrepsonsible)

    That college degree for the kid(s)…may be what allows him, her, or them to earn enough to take care of your old broken down tail in the future.

    Think of it like this…child has no help financially at all…not with first car, college, first apartment, first home, dental care during early teens, nothing.

    Now this child / children starts growing up and of course all the “real” adults around him/her/them constantly remind them that they are still “children”. Ironic huh…you’re an adult you pay for college. Then when you’re working your @$$ off to do so you hear these idiot “adults” say things like “wait until you’re in the real world..” HEY RETARD! I work right along side of you and even pay rent in the same complex you do plus have the same living expenses except I only sleep 3 hours a night because I’m up studying while you’re drinking beers!

    Time goes on and this person finishes college by working full-time to pay out of pocket, uses a lot of student loans, and even gets a few scholarships worth a couple grand over a seven year period it took to complete college.

    Now they are in a good bit of student loan debt, behind their peers in regards to income due to extra time to complete college, they are several years older and yet are “beginners”, they have to spend A LOT more to fix dental problems over the next few years because the parents didn’t take the initiative to do so during early teens, buying a home is delayed by several years, and so on.

    As time progresses mom and dad have gotten old and need help. Well, guess what…? Because you didn’t plan, communicate, pay, loan, help, or whatever you want to label it 20 or so years ago for my college expenses I can’t afford to foot the bill for your care now as I’m still paying for all those student loans, dental care, struggling to build a retirement for myself, set up funds for MY KIDS college, and meet the expenses of day to day life.

    That $10K, $20K, or even $70K “investment” that you failed to make in your child was also a failed investment in YOUR future care.

    This is a semi-hypothetical case only.

    I would apologize for the crappy grammar and all but I typed this on a blackberry so get over it.

  16. Schwamie says:

    I have a 529 account for both my son and daughter. While it will not fund an Ivy League school, it will cover the cost of a in state college/university. The deal will be that they will have a part time job that will not distract from their studies, but will be used to fully fund a Roth IRA. This will allow them to have a great head start for their retirement as well as have an education for the start of their adult lives.

  17. Sophia says:

    I don’t find this piece negative. I think it’s honest. There are many, many ways college can be very cheap- I treated high school like a full time job. My job was to make all A’s for four years, and then I would be able to get a scholarship that would give me my “paycheck”- four years of college education. I also worked upwards of 50 hours a week from the time I was 14 every summer, and I had to buy my own school clothes, supplies, shoes, etc- right down the the tassle on my hat for high school graduation.

    I decided that if I didn’t get a full scholarship to a 4 year, I would go to a community college- it’s the same classes, for such a cheaper cost, and instead of being taught by T.A.’s you’re learning from professors in small classes. There are tons of opportunities to get involved on campus, and there are hundreds of well respected colleges that offer generous “transfer” scholarships. I did end up receiving a 4 year scholarship,and I worked between 30 and 45 hours a week all 4 years.

    My second point- not knowing what I wanted to do, it would have been superfluous to insist on a specific school- I just went to the best school that offered me a scholarship. Now, if I had known forever that I wanted to be a journalist, I would have pushed hard for schools known for journalism, since I didn’t, it didn’t matter.

    Lastly, I totally agree with Trent that far too many kids get nothing out of college other than a free pass to live irresponsibly for four years because they’re in college- it’s like the blanket excuse. Oh, no, I don’t have a job- I’m in college. Oh, no, I don’t do ___________, I’m still in school”. At the very least if you are helping your children, or expect to help them, you should require summer employment from the age of 16 on with a substantial portion going towards college savings. You should also insist on a part time job to pay for spending money (that includes a cell phone and gas, those are not necessities).

    I think that parents fall into the “student loan debt it good debt” trap. They don’t push for frugality.

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