Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Kids Should Pay Their Own Way Through College

Two of my kids have navigated their way through the undergraduate years and are paying back their student loans. Two more kids are currently in college and are using student loans to pay their own way. Two more kids are graduating from high school this May and will soon be faced with the decision of which college gets their money.

Notice I said "their" money. Not "my" money. It's their thing. They get the education, they accrue the debt. I'm the coach/cheerleader/guidance counselor on the sidelines warning them of financial minefields and giving them charted paths with which to navigate the seas of college funding and scholarships, with a whole lot of work study thrown in the mix.

I wasn't always so sure my kids could handle this kind of financial stress. In fact, when my oldest was getting ready to start her undergraduate years and we got her financial aid "award" letter which "awarded" us a $10,000 Parent Plus loan, I was pretty darn intimidated.

Yet she survived and even thrived. She didn't have a cell phone her first semester, but purchased one with her own hard-earned cash second semester. She didn't have a car until Grandma gave her one...which ultimately broke down and had to be towed away to the scrap yard the week of her graduation. In fact, she still doesn't have a car, but she gets around just fine on public transportation which she uses to get to her doctorate level classes in plasma physics. Yep, lack of a car has not slowed down this gal one iota in her pursuit of her education.

There are plenty of people out there who will emphatically tell you it’s impossible for a kid to pay their own way through college these days. I know. That’s what I’ve been told over and over again. Even as my own kids were doing it.

I’m here to tell you that’s balderdash. It is possible for a kid to pay their own way through college today. It’s not easy though. There’s no magic formula or secret scholarship. There is hard work involved. But I believe the sense of accomplishment and the maturity which develops over the course of a student’s undergraduate years will be more satisfying than having mom and dad foot the bill for four or more years only to graduate with a psychology degree and no idea of what to do next.

Some parents feel it is their duty to pay for their kids to go to college. If you have the means and if your kid isn't going to take you for a ride and party for four years, then I say, "Good for you!"

I want to tell all the other parents out there it’s okay to NOT pay for your kid to go to college. You’re NOT a bad parent because you aren’t footing the bill for a $100,000 or more education. You’re NOT being selfish by protecting your own retirement account and credit rating. You’ve probably gotten where you are by your own hard work and it’s time to let Junior grow up and experience some of that American work ethic and pioneer spirit that has made our country strong.

I know many parents who aren’t comfortable with that. They tell me how they graduated with lots of student debt and how hard it was to start a family, buy a house, keep a car running and pay their utility bills. They want more for their kids. They want their kids to have it all right away--without having to sweat or worry over mounting debt.

That’s a noble thing, wanting to take care of your kids. It’s not bad to want to help them avoid debt. But it might be keeping them from growing up.

We live in a technologically advanced world where everything we could possibly want is literally at our fingertips. We have more variety, more choices, more luxury goods than any other civilization at any other time in history. Life is good. Life is easy. Easy credit and the natural human desire to “keep up with the Joneses” have made bankruptcy and losing one’s home all too commonplace.

I propose that your kid will be better prepared in life to avoid financial disaster if he learns how to make it through college on his own (albeit borrowed) dime.

Good ol' natural consequences

There is an adage in parenting philosophies that says natural consequences are the best punishments to apply to children when they break rules. For example, if Sonny doesn’t get his homework done, he doesn’t get to play his computer game. As Sonny matures, these consequences become more severe, because his actions take on greater importance. If Sonny cheats on a chemistry final exam he could fail the course and lose his spot on the football team.

Now, apply this adage to paying for college: If Sonny doesn’t pass his classes, he doesn’t get any credit toward graduation, but he still has to pay for the class. If Sonny doesn’t pay off his student loans his credit rating suffers and he might lose his job. If, however, mom and dad have paid for Sonny’s college education and Sonny has no stake in it, he can continue to fail classes without worry. And if he doesn’t have any student loans to pay back, he can use his paycheck to buy himself more stuff, while mom and dad continue to pay the bills.

Coming soon: Suspended Adolescence--the Twixters

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