The bad news is you are not going to pay for your children's college. The good news is you are not going to pay for your children's college.
For many parents, from the time their children are born, they dream (or dread) about saving up to send their children to college. There is no doubt that having your child complete college can make a huge difference in her quality of life. A college graduate has many career opportunities not available to those who don't get a degree. Getting that degree is an increasingly expensive proposition. Many college graduates find themselves with $30,000 or more in student debt. Should a parent help pay for a child's education so they don't start their careers deep in debt?
The answer for most people is no. Here is why.
Too many adults are not saving enough for retirement in their IRAs or 401ks. Many financial experts recommend that you save 10-15 percent of your yearly income for retirement. If you are not meeting this goal, you are not in a good position to use your income to pay for a child's college expenses.
Let's use an example of helping three kids over a 12-year period to the tune of $5,000 a year. That is a total of $60,000 that is not funding your retirement. If you did this from age 43 to 54 and retired at age 67, depending on your rate of return, you could miss out on $200,000, $300,000, maybe even $400,000 or more. That would be a hard life lesson and a loss of a nice retirement nest egg.
As long as you are not raiding your retirement payments, there are other ways you can help your children get through college.
While still in high school, college-bound students may be able to take college-level classes for free and test out for college credit. Every hour of college credit that they get in high school is one less hour they have to pay for at college.
There may be tax credits or deductions available to you if you pay for qualified college education expenses. If this fits your situation, you can pay for the expenses, and then get some or all of the money back with your tax return.
Unless your child has a nice scholarship, consider recommending that your child attend the local community college. The tuition is usually less, the classes smaller and the faculty is focused on teaching, not writing or research. It can be a good transition from high school to a major university and the credits should transfer. It is the school you finish from that gives you the degree, not the one from where you start.
Encourage your child to attend school near to home so he or she can live at home, especially for the first year or two. It may not be as exciting as living on campus or in an apartment with roommates, but it could save you thousands of dollars not spent on rent.
Think twice about sending your children to high-tuition universities. The value of a degree from one of those schools is rarely worth the extra cost compared to the same degree from an established state university.
Advise your children to avoid or reduce reliance on student loans. They can work full time during the summer and part time during the school year. Yes, this leaves less time for recreational activities. Welcome to real life. A student paying his or her own way through school is going to be more serious about studying. Also, a graduate with a great work history, on top of a degree, is going to be much more appealing to potential employers than one who did not work while attending college.
These may not seem to be the normal expectations for college, but normal is broke. Personally, four of my children have attended college so far and I did not raid my retirement funding to help them out, nor do any of them have student loans. Even if I would have had more money I am not sure if I would have paid for more of their college costs. I think children value their college education more and are better students when they do all they can to pay for it themselves.
Got your retirement planning covered? Here are some articles on how to save money for your children's college needs: Set up your child's college fund when she's a newborn, or How will I ever pay for my children's college education?