Archive for Monday, April 22, 2002

Parents share ideas on paying for college

April 22, 2002


Every week I encourage readers to comment on my commentary.

Well, you all sure had a lot to say about my recent column on students graduating from college with a high level of student-loan debt. And a lot of you took offense at my asking whether students took on debt because their parents couldn't afford to pay or because their parents hadn't managed their money well enough.

The responses came from all across the country, from parents who said they were of moderate means to those with substantial incomes.

Here's what one had to say:

"Is it in the Bill of Rights that parents must provide a college education? Whatever happened to working your way through college? And to have the nerve to ask parents if they have mismanaged their finances. How about asking the students to give up their Abercrombie & Fitch clothing, spring break trips to Mexico and so forth. You are way off base on this one. Part of the American dream is earning it."

Many other parents shared such sentiments: "I'm troubled because somewhere in the last two generations, sending a child to college has become as much a parent's responsibility as breast-feeding and diaper changing."

One reader took exception to my using statistics to shake a finger at wealthy parents whose children ended up borrowing to pay for their educations. A new report by the Higher Education Project of the State Public Interest Research Groups found a rapid increase in the percentage of student borrowers from families earning $100,000 or more.

"Quite frankly, our family makes enough and saves enough to pay for our kids' college education," one parent wrote. "However, where in the Book of Life does it say that parents are expected to pay for their kid's college education? Why do they need to get their education in four years? Why can't they work and go to school at the same time? A college education is a gift, a privilege."

There were many parents who agreed with me. Fran from Boulder, Colo., summed up the feelings of many of those parents. She wrote: "Most of our friends thought we were nuts to send our children to private schools and to put ourselves on the line financially as we have. I can't tell you how many times I heard, 'No one helped me, so why should I help?' All I know is the opportunities our children had as a result of their college education made our sacrifices well worth it."

I appreciate all the feedback. And when it comes to personal finance issues, I understand things can get very personal indeed. It would be arrogant of me to suggest that someone is a bad parent if they don't pay for their child to go to college.

What I frequently try to convey is that you owe it to yourself and your family to make a conscious decision about how you spend your money. If you decide that you don't want to fund your child's college education, that's your prerogative.

Many parents extolled the virtues of student loans. The cost is low, they say. Some of it is tax deductible, they point out. It's "good debt," they argue.

All true. But the fact is it's still debt. You still have to pay to use other people's money.

Ultimately, I think this parent feels as I do. He wrote: "We use the money we've saved to help give our kids freedom of choice. The money we've saved becomes the floor, rather than the ceiling. Could we have saved more?

By definition everyone can save more. But I resent financial salesmen who scare me with tales about how college costs are spiraling out of control so I had better ransom my soul to afford it. In the end, we did what most people other than the very affluent do we saved what we could."

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