A federal study says that it will cost close to $250,000 to raise a newborn to age 17. But, as any parent of a college student will readily tell you, that’s just the beginning. Today, one year in a moderately priced private college or university can easily cost $17,000-$20,000. While state schools will often be less expensive, many of the more elite private universities cost significantly more. Any way you attack it, college costs are a major challenge for most families.

Reality Check

One of the most popular sessions of the No Debt No Sweat! Christian Money Management Seminar is the one where I talk to parents about paying for college. There are a lot of misunderstandings in this area. Remember, colleges and universities are not always as altruistic as they claim. Think about it: Each semester colleges are faced with the same pressure -- sell as many semester hours as they can. And, frankly, many don’t care a whole lot how they do it. They don’t care whether the kid or the parent pays. They don’t really care how deeply you go into debt to do it. They want those semester hours sold! Now if I sound a little cynical here it’s because -- I am. I think a healthy dose of “Real World 101” should come into play as kids and parents look at paying for college.

Despite the doom and gloom, there is a silver lining here. College can be affordable for the typical family if they research wisely and start planning early. While the above numbers are accurate, it is also good to remember that more than 70% of 4-year colleges charge less than $10,000 for tuition. And, while there are plenty of high priced exceptions, the College Board reports that, on average, college is attainable for most families. The average cost for an education at a 4-year public college or university (including tuition and fees) is les than a fourth what many private schools charge.

Devising a Plan

So college is possible, it just takes some strategizing. That’s why I encourage parents to start early and make college planning a family affair. I believe there are several reasons why this approach makes sense. First, children need to understand the financial gymnastics that are going to be required to get them into college. They need to understand what loving parents do for their children. Not only does this re-enforce their awareness of your love for them, it also helps equip them to be better parents themselves. 

There are some neat, immediate benefits to bringing the kids into the college planning process. For one thing, it helps acquaint them with what things really cost in dollars and sacrifice. I believe there are two ways to accomplish this: First, young people need to be engaged in frank conversations about college costs. Second, they need to help pay some of those costs themselves. Our son, who recently graduated from college, told me with dismay how many of his friends aren’t studying and doing what they need to do to succeed at school. With no prompting from me, he went on to share that, since most of his friends hadn’t had to work to go to college, they simply didn’t appreciate it. 

I don’t happen to agree with a lot of the stuff we parents get told. I don’t believe that just because you hatch one of them, you have to supply your little bambino with a 4-year college education when they hit 18. While every parent agrees that it’s easy to spoil a child, not every parent recognizes when he or she is doing so. By paying for every cent of a college education, along with all the incidentals like off-campus apartments, all cloths and food, gas money, cell phones, and date money, we may be rewarding a slothful lifestyle.