The Big Talk: Money and College

Parents:  Have you talked with your teenagers about how much you are willing and able to pay for college?  I know talking about money makes many families really uncomfortable. Still, I will strongly suggest that if your student is in high school and you haven’t yet had that particular conversation, now is the time.

Let me offer four reasons why this is a conversation that needs to happen:

1. Avoid Senior Year Fiasco
Some students reach April of their senior year, and they are crushed. Their parents told them that if they worked hard in school and did well, they’d “find a way to make it work” at the college of their dreams. Maybe the parents feel it is a safe bet because getting in there was a long shot anyway. Maybe they were overly optimistic about scholarships and didn’t understand that many highly selective schools don’t provide merit scholarships. Maybe they didn’t understand how incredibly expensive college has become.  Or, maybe the student applied to the wrong list of colleges and ended up with only unaffordable options.

Whatever the reason, it ends up with the same situation: The student can’t go to the college they’d pinned their hopes on and feels like they have to “settle” for a school they may have been really happy about if they hadn’t fallen in love with the financially unrealistic dream school. The teen is disappointed. The parents end up feeling guilty and resentful. Avoiding the conversation doesn’t make it go away; it just postpones it and makes everyone feel worse.

2. Honest Conversations Model Honest Habits
People who can talk honestly about what is happening can deal honestly with finances. Not wanting to face reality is the road to a mountain of credit card and student loan debt. Being honest with your children about what you can afford is a great way to model living within your means. Now is the time to teach communication skills to help them in adulthood.

3. Promotes Appreciation
I’ve often observed that the young people who understand less tend to appreciate less. College is a huge financial undertaking for most families and it is okay for your kids to know that you are making a serious commitment by contributing to their education. While they shouldn’t feel guilty, they should recognize that this comes with the expectation that they take their education seriously, that they go to class, that they get help tutoring if they need extra help, and that they put the necessary effort into studying.  Also, understanding the true cost of college can help promote the idea that your student should expect to live a college student lifestyle rather than the lifestyle of an adult with a well established career.

4. Allows Students to Plan
When teens understand that part of their education must be financed through scholarships and working, they can make plans. A motivated high school student who commits to very seriously studying for the ACT or SAT, getting good grades, and applying for scholarships can often shave thousands of dollars off the price of college. It may help your student to think of this as a potentially very lucrative job – it may end up paying $200 an hour or more if they are lucky. The thing about a high-paying job is that it needs to be taken seriously. The students who successfully bring in the big bucks aren’t multitasking SAT prep while wasting hours on TikTok.  With honest conversations early in high school, your student can step up to the plate and do their part.

Are you convinced this is a conversation you need to have?  If so, the next question is, do you know how much you should expect to pay for college? To get started answering that question, I suggest starting with

Net Price Calculators

This tool will help you get started with an estimate of what college will cost and what options you will have to pay for it. If you are comfortable with having your student see some of your financial information, working the calculators together will be helpful. It is particularly important for students beginning high school to understand the significant difference that what they do during the high school years can make in earning scholarships.

Dream and Plan
Even with calculators and best estimates, it can be hard to be 100% sure what your student’s financial aid and scholarship packages will look like.  This is why students with financial need need to plan carefully and consider a range of college options with affordability in mind. It is okay to tell your kids that you have finite resources and can fund x dollars per year.  Your kids can still work hard for scholarships and apply for that expensive “dream” school. While they hope it comes through, they can also take time to entertain the financial realities and choose an affordable option.


  • Thank you for encouraging discussing college costs with our teens. It started a very interesting dialogue with our son and has influenced his interest in some schools.

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