Most financial experts have nurturing advice for parents who are seeing their children into college. The main point: Help them out all you can.
Buy all the stuff they need and/or want for dorm rooms. (Even though some of those items are neither necessary nor important.)
Buy extra, just in case.
Stock their mini-refrigerators with pizzas, give them some restaurant gift cards, and line a shelf with soups and other food. (Sure, they’ve got a meal plan. But they may not want to use it.)
Give them a credit card, in case of emergencies. (Be vague about just what an “emergency” entails.)
Most of all, pay their tuition. (After all, you don’t want your kids to have to struggle with repaying college loans, like you did — or still do.) Pay for their car, cellphone and gas, and a plane ticket or two. (You want to see and talk to them, don’t you?)
As parents of two now-mid-twenties daughters, both who went to college (one is still working at it), I can confidently say:
Don’t do it.
Both our girls were in an advanced program in high school which earned them college credit and let them skip over some of the basic classes. Both worked in part-time jobs; a percentage of that money was supposed to be going into their bank accounts for college tuition. Both qualified for scholarships and financial aid (thankfully). And both assured us that they were ready, willing and able to take college seriously. They were enrolled at an upscale state university, dorm rooms stocked and ready to go. Don’t work this first year, we told them. Study hard and get used to college life, instead.
By the end of their first year, both girls had failed nearly all their classes.
What happened? It wasn’t for lack of our encouragement. I’d grown up in very modest circumstances, and had to work throughout my college years, or I couldn’t have gone. (Husband’s stint in the military paid for his tuition. He worked, as well.) In spite of years of low income, we’d been putting away cash each month for their education, ever since they were babies. The money had grown enough to cover their first year of school, with a little left over. Eventually they’d have to work, too — but for now, they could enjoy what neither of us were able to.
I am sorry to say that our much-loved daughters wasted most of that slowly-earned money. They also blew through what little they’d saved in high school (it was less than what they’d led us to believe), and made their future eligibility for financial aid a tenuous thing.
Daughter #1 went to community college. (And frittered away a year or two there, before she started to take things seriously.) She has a year to go, after flirting with several majors, to finish her B.A. Daughter #2 dropped out and went to work; eventually, she earned certification in her field via an online school. (She now wants to go back to college and finish what she started back then.)
Both are doing well now, but it took a long time (at least in our eyes) for them to start considering life as adults. Neither daughter was afraid to work; after all, they’d been doing it for years in high school. Neither was stupid. Looking back on it now, I think we just made it too easy for them. They knew they didn’t have to work that first year — we’d told them so. The money was there, and so were new friends and experiences. They had ‘coasted’ somewhat that last year in high school — they could do it successfully in college, as well. (Or so they reasoned.) Why not relax?
Bad Decisions and Regrets
What they didn’t realize was how those early decisions would affect them in the future. A low G.P.A. for a semester or two takes years to pull up to respectability. Bad decisions mean regrets and consequences for years to come. (And it doesn’t matter if they attribute it to bad luck, instead.) It wasn’t that we hadn’t tried to warn them. Persuade. Give advice. Sometimes even try to bully them into reality. We had.
We were never quite sure until much later, what their final grades were that year. You see, after students reach 18, colleges are no longer required to give their parents any information. (Except, that is, for how much money they owe.) Our girls, to their credit, were embarrassed and didn’t want to tell us. Their vague answers, though, were alarming enough that we realized something was seriously wrong.
Also to their credit, when they realized the money was gone, they both went back to work. And once she was paying the bills herself, Daughter #1 began earning the same grades in college that she once had in high school. It took some time for both their lives to stabilize — but once it did, they were better for it.
An Alternative Approach
If we had it to do over again, I would have saved that painfully-earned college money for our daughters’ second year of college — after they’d proven to us that they were willing to work, by their grades and actions. Or even their third year. They could have used the money, and their time, much more wisely…or set aside college until they were willing to take it seriously.
Learn from our mistake. It’s fine to encourage them, call them, even pay for some groceries now and then. But don’t fund your children’s education until you’re sure that they’re taking it as seriously as you do. It’s your money (and theirs), as much as it is their time and effort.
Life is short. Don’t waste it.