Updated on 02.04.07

Why You Should NOT Pay For Your Child’s Education

Trent Hamm

This topic was requested by a reader who wanted to see reasons why a parent might choose not to pay for their child’s post-secondary education. This article intentionally provides only one side of a complex issue; please, do your own thinking and research before deciding whether to pay for your child’s education or not.

You’re being a good parent, right? You’ve started your child’s 529 savings plan already and you’re planning to invest in it continuously until your child heads off to school. You’re prepared for the inevitable cost of your child’s education, and you’re going to do what’s best for your child. Right?

Not necessarily. The fact of the matter is that paying for your child’s education carries with it some lessons that you might not want your child to learn, plus it may actually increase their financial burden over the long run. Let’s take a serious look at the flaws in this new cultural assumption.

College is not a requirement, no matter what university marketing departments want you to think. Many people simply assume that a college degree is the only way to succeed in American life, and thus you must go to college if you wish to get ahead. That statement simply isn’t true. Many entrepreneurs never attend or never finish college, and there is always a high demand for tradespeople such as plumbers and electricians (who can both earn a lot of money – especially considering they can get started very young and are never saddled with financial burdens). If you have a child that has never shown him or herself to be a strong student, instructing that person to go to college immediately after high school may in fact be a severe detriment to their future.

Paying for your own education teaches responsibility. Handling the process of finding your own financial aid resources is an experience that will bring out responsibility and maturity in those who contain it. Individuals who can guide themselves through this process quite quickly learn how important it is to be responsible for your own actions and your own academics.

Paying for your own education gives it value that getting it for free won’t instill. If you pay for it yourself, you are confronted with real bills with real dollar amounts that affect your bottom line. Connecting a person’s education directly to that person’s bottom line makes it very clear very quickly how valuable education is – and how wasting time while at university is a major waste, indeed.

If parents pay for education, it increases their own financial hardships. Even if you plan carefully to pay for your child’s education, that’s still money you could invest in your 401(k) or in a better home instead. Instead, that cash is going out the door to fund an education that may not be as valuable as you’ve been led to believe – and may not even be worthwhile if your child isn’t a dedicated student.

Given these factors, it is quite clear that not automatically paying for your child’s education is a path with some clear merit. Is it the correct path for you? That’s up to you to decide.

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  1. S/100/30 says:

    Many entrepreneurs never attend or never finish college, and there is always a high demand for tradespeople such as plumbers and electricians (who can both earn a lot of money – especially considering they can get started very young and are never saddled with financial burdens).

    I often think that I would have been very happy becoming an electrician, especially working on complicated commercial construction. It can be a fascinating field.

  2. Sarah says:

    I agree that college is not a prerequisite to success and should not be pushed on children who don’t have the aptitude or inclination. However, I think you underestimate the difficulty of paying for college as a teenager while getting the benefits you need to get for college to have been worthwhile. If your child is hoping to have a high-paying job in professions like law or medicine, she really needs to attend a top-ranked school and do extremely well while there–law and medical school admissions are insanely competitive these days. That means she needs to be able to devote herself fully to her schoolwork in termtime and to pursuing the appropriate professional opportunities in the vacations (and the most prestigious and useful internships are typically unpaid and often located in expensive cities). It’s one thing to require that your child provide her own term-time spending money through her own efforts (which my parents did); it’s quite another to mandate that the child either come up with additional thousands of dollars on her own, take on heavy debt to start her career (which limits her choices), or go to a less competitive institution. The fact is, by going to college (with serious intention), your child is sacrificing several years of earnings up-front as an investment in future earnings (and happiness!) potential. That’s actually a considerable display of discipline and one I’d think a parent would want to encourage and support, always assuming that it is within his or her means.

  3. gmv says:

    This hits a big nerve with me. I think it’s irresponsible parenting to start off with the assumption that you shouldn’t try to help a child with education.

    I was forced by circumstance to have to pay my own way through college. For me it was never an issue of wanting to go to college — I had wanted to go desperately since childhood. Like Sarah notes, the immediate consequence was that I left college with some heavy debt, which hounds me to this day and set me up for further financial problems. It also caused lots of family tension — especially since the root cause was a parent who put absolutely no value on going to college. (It caused wounds so deep that 20 years later there is still bitterness.) In hindsight, because at times I was working three jobs and going to school full time, I shortchanged the attention I paid to school.

    I could have made different choices then, but I was young and determined to make it happen. I can’t change the choices of the past, I have to live with them. In hindsight, at 18 a person — no matter how much they or society think they are an adult — still needs parental guidance and support. Even financial guidance and support.

    Even if you go into a trade, you will probably need some level of vocational education before you get started anyway.

  4. Eleanor says:

    Trades are a dying art – they are lucrative and non-outsourceable professions. I’ve spoken with plumbers and general contractors, and they can make amazing amounts of money – one plumber made $14K in one weekend. As good, skilled help is hard to find, they can set their own prices. Some of them choose to attend college part-time, in a field such as business or management, to help them better manage their affairs – and you can be darned sure they aren’t plunging themselves into debt to do so.

    Due to colleges creating majors for people who are not up to the intellectual rigors of advanced education, it has become what high school used to be. No college should have to provide remedial writing or math. If you or your child is a middling student, encourage them to pursue other options. It does not mean they are stupid, but that they have other abilities. Some people have a knack for fixing cars, sewing clothes (another lost art), or landscaping. Why force them to be a square peg in a round hole *and* bury themselves in debt?

  5. topher says:

    I went to college on scholarships and never experienced the cost of my education. I hated it and never took advantage of the opportunity. They were wasted years of my life. After spending two years in the real world and facing how hard it is to live on salaries for which I qualified, I began medical school. Now I am intimately aware of the $170,000 gamble I am taking on my own work ethic and it has made all of the difference.

  6. gmv says:

    I don’t really see this post being about whether college is good, bad, necessary, etc. for kids — I see it being about the relationship between kids, their parents and the cost of the college education.

    I’m all for minimizing the cost of the college education. I was on scholarship myself (together with working I barely made it, and I had no car either). However I still maintain that parents should help their children, and not only that but that they should go into it with the attitude that they WILL help their children. I see it part of the responsibility of parenthood to do whatever they need to do to help their child get their start in life. Parents should be responsible enough with their own financial life to be able to help their children get started. Period.

    If that means paying at least part of college (basic college, not grad school) that’s what it means. If that means helping the child get set up as a plumber, that’s what it means.

  7. MossySF says:

    I’d say fund a baseline — public university for X years on a frugal lifestyle. Beyond that, if a kid is wants to head to a private university for $50K a year to get a social worker degree, there’s nothing any parent can do that will change anything. The kid will have to learn from the school of hard knocks whether that was the right choice or not.

  8. Angela says:

    Parents who aren’t paying for college need a certain laissez-faire attitude to college itself. (And I definitely not saying that thats wrong).

    You need to be prepared for your kids not to go to college, to rack up a hundred thousand dollars in debt, or drop out because they can’t afford the bills.

    All of these things may be their own fault and teach them things about the value of money, but I bet they’re really hard to watch, especially if you could do something about it and you really value a college education. Its probably worse to bail them out at this stage.

    I think that if I have children I would not go down the route of ‘you’re on your own now kids’ as it contradicts my belief that a college education is good for its own sake, not because it may get you a better job.

  9. Andrew says:

    Many of the people I went to college with were paying their own way. This meant a lot of hours in low-paying jobs that severely effected their ability to study. Others are in gmv’s situation with large school debts that can take years to pay off (with much interest leaving the family and going to a bank.)

    My parents had a different (and I think better) way of providing both the opportunity and motivation to study. They paid for my college based on grade requirements. If my GPA dropped below 3.0, the money stopped and I’d have to go home.

  10. Wil says:

    Speaking as a guy who had parents who helped with college, dropped out, and is now going back to finish on his own dime, cutting me off was the best thing my parents could do for me. Everybody is talking about huge amounts of debt that takes years to pay off, but if something is really that important to you, you have the obligation to make it happen. Personally, I think this is a great leveller between kids who come from families that have and kids who come from families that have not. How do they manage to get through college?

  11. Hey, Trent–thanks for writing out your thought processes for me (I mean, not just for me, but you know). It’s much appreciated. Anyway, I wanted to run one more thing by you: something that I had entirely forgotten and of which I was reminded by a post on the same topic Stingy Students. When the kid whose college education you’re declining to finance applies for financial aid from the college of his choice, the college doesn’t care that you think witholding help teaches independence–they evaluate your kid’s financial aid application on the merits of what his family can afford to contribute. If you can afford to contribute substantially but choose not to, your student is on the hook for the amount that you could have afforded to contribute–obviously more than he can afford to contribute. I think most schools evaluate the applicant’s parents’ financial situation until the applicant is either 25 or married, whichever comes first. I know a girl whose parents backed out of financing her education at our school who subsequently married her (gay) best friend in order to force the school to stop taking her parents’ finances into account when calculating her financial aid package.

    Is this issue a factor for you, or would you advocate either choosing a cheaper school or waiting to be 25 or married?

  12. Responsible Parent says:

    Parents MUST help kids with education. It’s the child’s choice to go to college but the parent must provide the means to goif they wish. So SAVE now.

    A generation ago, it might have been feasible to pay your way through college. Government gave subsidies and low interest loans. It’s no longer feasible.

    You must be the saving parent.

  13. Borland says:

    Why is someone having childern if they are not going to help them in life?
    What is the point?
    Of course parents should help their childern when they go to college. But that is not just in the financial sense. You must also help in telling them what careers to go into, etc.
    What is the point of family if no one is going to help each other.

  14. JoAnn says:

    Parents have the right to decide if they wish to pay for their children’s college or not. We decided to do it for our oldest…First semester went by and he decided not to attend classes…all money was lost, etc. Second semester came and guess what…he decided to do the same thing. We told him that was it..two times was enough. He is now working full-time, attending college and paying for it 100%. We are watching him mature and appreciate his education. We are planning on helping a bit…but we want him to finish a complete year on his own. I realize all kids are not the same…but my opinion is that all kids will appreciate the education if they are held responsible in getting it.

  15. Eric says:

    For those thinking of not helping, remember that the Federal government does not take your lack of payments into account when deciding how much aid the student gets.

    And despite common myth, there is no easy fix to increase you children’s eligibility for aid.

  16. stella says:

    I had to borrow money and work my way through school. It took ten years to pay off a HUGE amounts of loans (undergrad and law school), but it was a priority and I did it. I have told my children they have to find their own way to pay for college and I want them to go through the exercise of figuring out how much it costs and where the money comes from. Knowing that my income will affect their ability to qualify for financial aid, if they need assistance, they can come to me with a plan and I will help to the best of my ability. But they need to be pro-active and understand the value of the money being spent.

  17. Meg says:

    My parents supported my undergrad degree without spending a dime – by urging me to do well in my younger years, volunteer, participate in extracurriculars, and read as much as possible. I ended up with a full-tuition scholarship (as did three of my siblings) and funded my living expenses.

    Because they equipped me with the tools to fund my eduction, instead of directly paying for it, I’m more responsible, intelligent, and hardworking than most of my peers – and one month out of college, have the job to prove it.

    Parental support for college comes in forms other than cash.

  18. Lorie says:

    My parents were too poor to save up for college for me or my siblings. They told me when I was 18, “You’re on your own- don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

    Harsh? Yeah, but I joined the military and learned a trade- electronics, in my case. I also got the equivalent of a two-year vo-ed degree.

    I have gotten incredible mileage out of my trade, parlaying it into a nice job fixing computers. It might not pay CEO wages, but I’m not poor, either. I wish the US was like Europe, where their citizens get to go to college for free. It seems to be more of a money-sucking racket in the US, leaving graduates scrambling for any job they can get, because they’re crushed under a mortgage-sized debt.

    No, thanks. Sadly, self-learning is undervalued, but it’s what got me into learning computers. Cheap is great, free is even better.

  19. js says:

    My parents gave me money for college but no guidance. They screamed at me when it was taking me more than 4 years to graduate with a bachelors due to my indecisiveness about majors.

    Fed up with that, I dropped out of school and got even more screaming from my parents for doing so. I entered the working world and learned to make good money without any 4 year degree at all. And so I have every since and hopefully can until I retire.

  20. jamie says:

    All the comments got me thinking. What if I saved for the education but gave the money to them after they finish so that they could pay off the loans? Wouldn’t that be the best graduation gift? I have been wondering if or how will I pay for my future children’s college education. I am not sure they would go. College is not for everyone. I, too, want my kids to know the value of paying for one’s own education, and I also don’t want my kids to be in debt once they are out of school. What if they flake out and not finish. Why should I fund that lifestyle?

  21. Jenners says:

    We are helping our kids more than we were helped by our parents, and more than I think we can afford. But even with that, our oldest just graduated with a debt of $33,000. I wanted her to choose a less expensive public college, but she took the private college route. Fine, b/c she is the one who will be paying off the loans.

    What shocks me are the parents who continue paying their kid’s college loans after the kid has graduated and is making a lucrative salary on their own. I guess these are people who promised to put their children thru college and are holding to that promise even tho it will be a monkey on their (the parents’) backs for years to come. I would be embarressed to let my parents do that for me.

  22. Pam says:

    I paid for two semesters at the local state university for my daughter. She got F’s and incompletes. Now she is paying her own way and passing. Funny how cash out of her own pocket has brought some accountability!

    I’ll help out my next two kids – again at the state university with lower tuition rates (or vo-tech, if that is what they want). Failing grades? They’ll be on their own.

  23. Kortney says:

    My parents were working with a fixed amount of money to raise and educate three kids, of which I was the oldest. They decided and made it known early on that they would invest in the best middle & high schools we could get into, with the expectation that we would be able to compete for and win scholarships and fellowships to attend college.

    Knowing this, I worked my toukus off in high school to get top grades and be able to write my own ticket. As a result, I attended undergrad and grad school at expensive private universities for free, meaning I only had to work part-time for spending money, and was able to graduate with zero loans and complete career-choice flexibility.

    I feel that my parents gave me an incredible gift. They invested in me early (and the cost of that expensive private high school was far lower than what the college/grad tuition bills would have been) and managed to instill a work ethic and sense of personal responsibility that serves me to this day.

    I’ll tell my kids early and often: I’ll help prepare you and get you to college, but then you’re on your own. Get ready now.

  24. brent says:

    I think that the details vary from case to case but it’s important that when you send your kid out to hunt as an adult you fill their quiver full of arrows.

  25. Sue says:

    My son is going to be a senior in college this year at a private university, and I have to tell you, as a parent (one of two), I’m getting tired of the expense. Why? Didn’t you know? Money grows on trees, just ask my son! Sure he has loans, but has never paid half of the bill, including the loans. He has made sure he works enough to pay for his books, gas money, and cell phone, and that has been about it. We have decided to pay for one semester his senior year, and guess what? He will have to somehow choke up the money for his final semester. He has worked “some” but the summer has been long, and you know what? 20 hours a week of work just didn’t cut it. So, yes, help your kid out, but don’t just “give” it to them. Some things need to be earned through hard work.

  26. Zandra says:

    I’m just in my second year and I’m paying for my tuition. I think it’s good that I’m paying for it. My parents offered to pay for my living expenses — good thing I found a cheap place that’s great, and close to school. It won’t be such a burden.

    I think this way, we learn about responsibilities and how to handle money. We learn about what to prioritize over others — in this case, school over anything else.

  27. simplesimon says:

    My wife and I have finally come to the conclusion that we will be seeking a lawyer to setup trusts for our daughters that pay out at age 25. The trusts will not be assets of theirs until that time and they will not be treated as dependents at age 18. They will not be informed of their trusts.

    We want to maximize their ability to receive need-based scholarships and low-cost loans in order to pay their own way through whatever college or further education they wish to seek. This is designed give them a sense of skin in the game.

    After a few years of paying down their newly acquired debt, they’ll receive a small wind-fall that will allow them to make a financial decision based on what they’ve hopefully learned from the experience.

    Basically the best combination of the experience I had (pay your own way and the life lessons that come with it) and the experience my wife had (starting out life without financial burdens and the freedom that comes with it).

  28. Katie says:

    I agree with this article. I am 18 and in college right now, and although I wish I didn’t have to pay for college, I am not having a lot of trouble. I have known since the beginning of high school that I wouldn’t be receiving any help at all, so i held a job through high school and have a job now while I am in college, and it isn’t affecting my grades at all. It all deals with managing your time. If I wasn’t paying for my own education, I would definately be more inclined to skip class, but since the money is coming out of my own pocket, I want to make it worth every penny. I roll my eyes at kids who have their parents pay for college for them because I know that they aren’t getting the true education in life that I am

  29. John says:

    I absolutely disagree that not paying for your child’s tuition in college is irresponsible parenting. I think it is more irresponsible nowadays to keep spoiling children like most parents do, and I firmly believe paying for college only serves to perpetuate this ethos of entitlement. Personal sacrifice is the best teacher. As for me, I am more appreciative that my parents started early with a providing a quality education in my elementary and high school years. Their investment in my early development was the best gift they could give me, and this investment paid the huge return of a full ride in college.

  30. yo says:

    i’m sorry trent, your assessment is empirically invalid! Don’t post garbage unless you are being highly considerate of alternative perspectives or are just satirical about the situation.

  31. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    You do realize, “yo,” that the first paragraph clearly lays out that this is a devil’s advocate post.

  32. Caitlan says:

    I’m doing public school for $27k/yr. A full time minimum wage job would get me $17/k/yr. I’m totally ineligible for need grants b/c of my parents’ income.

  33. Macinac says:

    Back in 1981 I told my oldest son “Get into the best college you can, and I will worry about how to pay for it”. He got into MIT, had a scholarship for about 1/3; we got a ‘parent loan’ for another third; and I chipped in as needed. He worked summers but most of that was used to pay for costs incurred in the previous term. I made payments on the parent loan while he was in school, and he took it over when he graduated. I think it took another two years for him to pay that off. I have not had to give him any money since he graduated. I am proud that he is now an established and respected engineer; and I have no “if only” kind of guilt to deal with.

  34. Maggie says:

    We paid for both of our childrens’ educations and it was not easy. However, it gives us great pleasure to see both of them graduated and working in their chosen fields happily. Also, and the biggie here, is that they do not have the hardships of college bills to contend with. Far less children will go to college, if they are expected to pay their own way.

  35. kathy says:

    I personaly dont feel a parent should be forced to pay for college.My husbands daughter has money for expensive vacations and time to party but expects everyone else to pay for her education.If someone is old enough tolive with their boyfriend they are old enough to pay for their own education

  36. Sasha says:

    Whether or not a parent foots the entire bill or part of it for their childs prestigious undergraduate and graduate degrees, and internships in expensive cities is up to them. But a word of caution for those who are: make sure your child knows what it is costing you and appreciates it. I have friends from university who do not know how much their monthly bills are because their parents fully pay their rent and utilities. Now that they are done school they are struggling to keep up because they had no idea what it costed to live in the real world. Also, it’s not irresponsible parenting to not pay for your child’s education. My parents didn’t because they simply couldn’t afford to. There are other ways to contribute like ensuring they do well in high school so they qualify for scholarships, helping them save their own money and plan for the cost of which school they want to attend etc. And as mentioned in other postings…don’t pay for a child to go to school who is failing classes and getting incomplets. It’s nice to have a parent help out with the cost of school, but don’t worry if your child has to take an intership in a less expesive city because you can’t afford to pay all of their expenses, they’ll be just fine in the end and they will have learned that you can’t just expect someone else to pay the bill every time you want to pursue something positive.

  37. Lexi says:

    I understand that you wrote this post to be very one-sided. And yet, I can’t help but think that I disagree with the majority of the post on here. Perhaps I was the anomaly but I knew what I wanted to study, what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated from High School.

    I graduated early at the age of 16, and went straight into college. Fortunately my parents were able to pay for everything for me (books, tuition, car, etc), which is a luxury that few people have nowadays. Because I did not have to work, I was able to graduate with a BA in Political Science, a BA in History and a minor in Law as well as anthropology (all subjects that I was deeply interested in).

    After graduation I had no debt and so decided to go to law school. I graduated with honors and got my JD at the age of 22–the same age that many of my friends were finishing up their degrees at local universities. In fact my husband had to pay most of his way through college and because of this his grades suffered and he was not able to take on internships that would have greatly benefited him. It took him twice as long to finish his degree and when he did he had a mountain of debt (which we have thankfully gotten rid of).

    Perhaps it was where I grew up, but it was just expected that a person would go to college and that parents would at least make an effort to help their children out. Some people aren’t in that financial situation, but that is different—I can understand why a parent would not be able to fund higher education under those circumstances. But if you have the ability to help out at least a little, isn’t that part of your parental obligation? I think most parents want to help their children get a great start in life and even if that great start doesn’t lead their children to a college degree, wouldn’t it be nice to have at least some money saved up to help them out?

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but if you cannot or will not pay for child’s college education I hope that you at least sit down with them and explain to them what your beliefs and circumstances are. I remember in high school my best friend wanted to go to school to be a teacher. Her parents had led her to believe that her education was all taken care of. But come the last semester of her senior year she got the shock of her life, when she started sending out college applications and her parents told her that she would be responsible for paying for her entire tuition. No matter your beliefs on the matter, I think we can pretty much all agree that this was unfair and because of this my friend had to take up a minimum wage job right out of high school and is now finally finishing up her degree at the age of 28. While she did scrimp and save for several years to be able to afford her degree, it just goes to show how difficult it is to try and pay for college while going to school (especially when jobs in your area almost never hire anyone without a degree).

    I just hope whatever you decide to do for your family, that you are honest and open about it with your children. Don’t spring it on them their last year of school and tell them that they have to pay for college all by themselves—the task is daunting enough for those of us already established in our lives, let alone a young adult!

  38. ella says:

    I’m paying for my own education and I’m proud of myself.

  39. Johanna says:

    If you’re going to throw your children into the deep end, it’s imperative that you teach them to swim first.

    When I was 13, I wanted to go to a moderately expensive summer camp. (I think the cost was about $1500 for three weeks.) My parents said I could go if I paid the bill myself. The thing is, I had no idea how to earn $1500 – which was probably more than the total amount of money that had passed through my hands up to that point – and my parents didn’t do much to help me learn. I saved my allowance, my birthday money, my Christmas money, I found a few babysitting jobs, but by the end of the year I only had about $400. My parents decided to pay the rest anyway.

    I think that most 18-year-olds are probably as ill-equipped to come up with tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition as I was to come up with that $1500. Merely demanding that your child assume responsibility for an expense far greater than she’s ever had to deal with before doesn’t automatically give her the skills she needs to earn the money or to manage it responsibly. You have to help her develop those separately.

  40. Frank says:

    I have 4 children, early 40’s, live very conservatively and our family makes $100k+ / year. My son and daughters combined tuition at a state school this year? About $36,000. If I pay for 4 years it is $144,000. That is more than my mortgage and I have 2 kids behind them. Granted, I told them there are cheaper ways, but at 18, they select schools by how the campus looks. I give my children this option: I will cosign your loans so you CAN attend without working. I pay for their cell phones and car insurance and books. You can live at home for free after graduation to pay off your loans as quickly as possible. That is about all the help I can give them. Assuming I paid for 4 kids, 4 years @ $18,000/year (cheap) I would spend $228,000, be in debt until I die and retire poor. They have 40 years of their lives left to pay off college. BTW, my son (a high school honor society member) almost flunked out but has grown up and learned his lesson. Imagine the money we would have LOST.

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