Should Parents Pay for College?

should parents pay for college?

A few months ago I wrote about whether I should pay for my childrens’ college.

In that post, I lamented how expensive it would be just to send them to private high school, leaving me nothing to save for their college. For me to pay for high school and college, I’d essentially have to forego saving for retirement, unless I significantly increase my income. I rather use LegalZoom to find the right way to draw up my will and the kids could pay off their loans after I pass on.

There is always an option to pay for some college classes online, but that’s useless unless kids pursue a full degree program. Many different options, still at a price.

So I’d like to examine some arguments on both sides of the issue: The pros and cons of paying for a child’s college.

If you are a high schooler looking for some points to argue to your parents, read on. If you are a parent, you’d probably better read too.


  • It will allow them to focus on learning without the nagging worry of student loan debt
  • Would prevent them from having to work a lot of hours at a job, focusing them on studying
  • Gives them a head start on retirement
  • Allows them to start their life debt-free (so long as you stayed away from credit card debt)
  • Gives the opportunity to take a lower-paying job or internship upon graduation
  • Would make the decision to go to graduate school easier
  • If your grandparents paid for your parents’ college, your parents’ should probably pay for yours
  • If your parents are wealthy and don’t mind, they should pay


  • If parents had to pay their own way, they may want their kids to do the same
  • College is getting prohibitively expensive, and it could prevent parents from saving for retirement
  • If parents can’t save for retirement, the burden will be on the kids to take care of them
  • Not doing so forces every generation to be dependent on themselves
  • Kids will take college and work more seriously if they have to pay for it
  • If parents don’t think their kid is ready



As you can see, it would appear that there are more reasons parents’ should pay for college, so it’s decided. Not so fast!

Are the reasons NOT to pay better than the reasons to pay? That depends on your own personal situation. That’s why you won’t often hear me trumpeting a formula or money principle that is one-size-fits-all.

If your parents are broke, they can’t afford to pay for your college. While that is a shame, and you may feel let down, your parents made a series of choices with their lives and this is the reality you have to deal with. Maybe they chose boats and motorcycles and gadgets over saving for your school.

While we could spend time moaning and groaning and telling everyone who will listen how unfair this is, wouldn’t you rather use it as an opportunity to show that you aren’t going to make the same mistakes as your parents?

I don’t want to suggest, either, that just because your parents are rich that they should pay for your college. I listed it above as a possible reason to justify it. This does not mean that it must happen. If a rich parent wants their children to make it on their own without any help, it is their money and their life – and their decision.

Personal finance is all about personal responsibility. For parents who are happy to pay for their kids’ schooling, it can feel like a reward for years of hard work and financial diligence. The important thing is that you are able to do what you want, and if you can’t, to at least find a way to deal with reality and move forward.

There are plenty of good reasons for both paying and not paying for your children’s college. Whatever you decide, know that there is no right answer or wrong answer, just a series of questions and decisions in your past that you have already answered, and already made.


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32 thoughts on “Should Parents Pay for College?

  1. This is a tough one for me. My parents and grandparents helped me pay, and I’m definitely glad for that. I guess I would say parents should plan to pay for some of college. I think it’s a huge financial burden to expect parents to shell out the money for several kids to go to college, and it seems almost impossible to expect that of them while saving and paying for other things, too.
    Jeffrey recently posted..The “Spruce Up Your Life” Blogiversary $100 Cash (+ more) GiveawayMy Profile

    • Hey Jeffrey. It’s hard to keep a handle on it, with the cost of tuition skyrocketing. Unless my income keeps up, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’ve always felt I’m at a disadvantage to those who graduate without debt, and I’d hate to do it to my kids, but I’m not sure what choice I’ll have. Hopefully my income will explode.

  2. My parents paid for the bulk of my college tuition, for which I am very grateful. Because of my background, I would want to pay and would feel responsible for paying for my child’s education. That is a sobering thought, because tuition is increasing so much faster than inflation. When I was in school back in the mid-2000s, 1 year at a private school was $40K without scholarships. Now, just 5 years later, my cousin is at a similar school, and her 1 year cost is $50K. That’s a 25% increase in five years!
    Well Heeled Blog recently posted..Income, Goals, and What Is “Enough”My Profile

    • You hit on a good point – it’s almost impossible to keep up with secondary education inflation. That means something is going to have to give, meaning kids are just gonna stop going, or have to settle for “for profit” schools that will proliferate. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  3. My parents said they would pay for our first year, after that it was up to us. That said they also encouraged to start working as soon as legally old enough and start saving for a car and college. They also put $1,000 towards a car and offered a loan if we needed.

    I think I will probably do something similar for my kids.
    Kylie Ofiu recently posted..Sell 1,000 things – How I am doingMy Profile

    • I think it is usually the best approach to do with your kids what was done for you. Considering that it took almost ten years after graduation to dig out of the debt, I’m exhausted and not too excited to have student loans to pay off again in 10-15 years.

  4. Very interesting topic.
    I’ve thought about this up and down.

    My oldest is now 15 and my youngest is 4 with a middle child who is 13. That’s a lot of tuition.

    I plan to pay for part of my chldrens tuition.

    Knowing my children, they would probably take it for granted and not work as hard if i paid for it all. Both my older boys work better when there is no, complacency. They need a push. However, if i knew that they wold appreciate it and use it to their full advantage, i might pay for part and give the rest to them as a gift when they graduated from college. Or even pay for it all if i thought it would benefit them.
    Annie Andre recently posted..How I Put My Adventurous Goals on Autopilot + Free Goal Setting WorksheetMy Profile

    • Hey Annie, nice to see you! (Anyone else reading this, check out her site and message – they are great).

      I like the idea of using graduation as an incentive and reward. I may have to consider that. I was planning on giving them a lump sum when they start, but I see it could be held until graduation instead.

      Hope to see you around!

  5. I feel mixed about this. I didn’t pay for my education, but I am hoping to help my future children with it.

    I don’t think parents should pay 100% of the cost — some kids that get a free ride don’t have a sense of urgency or ambition to succeed. On the other hand, you don’t want the cost of university to be such a barrier it keeps people out.

    I don’t have children yet, so it’s a long time before I’ll think about sending them to post-secondary, but I’m hoping there can be some kind of agreement like if they pay 50% of their tuition, I’ll pay the other half or 25% and I’ll pay 75% or whatever. They’re definitely not going to get a free ride, but I’m not going to let them sink themselves into unmanagable debt either (though not necessarily no debt.. if they have a loan or two, I think that’s also an important life-lesson in borrowing for the right reasons).

    But university is significantly cheaper here (Canada), and I won’t have to pay for any private school beforehand (the public school system is one of the best of the world in my province).

    I will not pay for any graduate/professional programs like Medicine or Law, because their earning potential will be so great after finishing they’ll be able to handle the debt load. I’ll buy their textbooks or something for that.
    Bridget recently posted..‘Tis The Season: Kijiji in JanuaryMy Profile

    • Hey Bridget – thanks for your comment. Looks like you’ve given this some thought.

      I like where you are going with the ownership concept, that they should have some debt to learn from (yes, not all debt is evil!). It’s important that they learn some life lessons from this.

    • My thinking, too, 101Centavos. I want to give something, but I need to prepare myself for the great likelihood that I can’t pay for everything.

  6. First of all, I agree with a lot of financial experts who say parents shouldn’t pay for their kids college at the ‘expense’ of their own retirement.

    Having said that, we were able to save some over the years for our kids. Our two boys are currently in university and college here in Canada. We let them know when they were starting high school that we would pay for half their post-secondary education and encouraged them to save from their part time jobs. Then we ‘revised’ the plan for each when they started. For our youngest, he is in a college program and lives with us. We paid his costs for school and he is responsible for all his personal spending including clothes, gas for one of our vehicles he uses, etc. Our oldest we pay for his tuition and he is paying for his living expenses – he is away at school. We even had them pay for their books as there are options to buy used, digital, or sell after. Basically, we realized that it’s best to make them responsible for expenses they have control over. We also told them they could keep any scholarship money they got to encourage them to apply for as many as they could. They are both managing it well – so we feel like we taught them well!

  7. Interesting post! For fear of my kids not going to college because they don’t have a means to pay for it, I will try to pay for it when I do have kids.

    I didn’t have any help with my tuition, and while I totally value education and think it enriches not only ones career, but also their lives, I just can’t fathom putting my kids through this if I was financially fit enough to help them. Shit ain’t easy!

    One thing I would do, so that they wouldn’t get a free ride, is make them pay for at least half their college up front, and then reimburse them if they graduate.
    Daisy recently posted..5 Ways to Save Some Money This YearMy Profile

  8. The fact that my parents were unable to save for college for me or for my siblings has been motivation for me to save for my kids. I have two sons and have been saving in 529 plans since the day they were each born. We have a 3rd child on the way, and plan to start a 3rd 529 as soon as he or she is born. I think that will be one of the greatest gifts I will be able to give my children, a debt-free college education and head start on life.
    Matt recently posted..Don’t Sell Yourself Short on Investment Return ExpectationsMy Profile

    • Hey Matt, good to see you. That’s great that you are able to use it as a motivator to save like that. One day your kids are going to repay you (with good grades hopefully).

  9. My stepfather paid for my first year of college. without his help during that year I would not be able to do it myself. However, starting year two I pulled myself through the school and grad school myself. I think this experience on surviving on your own teaches you A LOT.

  10. This is always a tough one. I paid my own way through school. My parents just didn’t have any money. It wasn’t because they were bad with money or bought “stuff”, we were just poor. My dad, in fact, was pretty good with money and never had a credit card.

    I was the first (and only) of the 9 kids to go to college right out of high school. I have two older sisters who went back later. I mostly got scholarships, and rounded it out with $11,000 in loans. Doesn’t sound like much, but that’s late-80’s/early-90’s dollars (I went to a pricey private school). I can thank the taxpayers and US Navy ROTC for putting me through school.

    I have friends who also paid their own way and aren’t saving for their kids college. We are. Why? My son will not be in the same situation that I was. We have money. He will not get need-based financial aid. Neither will my friends’ kids. I think they are setting them up to fail in a way – they won’t get aid at all.

    I am quite shocked at how expensive college has gotten. In retrospect, I would recommend kids really know what they want to do first, and do a couple of years at a community college or state school. My husband also went ROTC and his parents said “we can afford a state school. If you want Ivy League, join ROTC.” So that’s what he did.
    Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple recently posted..Pork Chile Verde Tacos and Refreshing SaladMy Profile

    • Marcia – thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment. My parents couldn’t pay either, for the same reasons. They wanted to raise me with a stay at home mom, so we never had a two income house.

      I am shocked and dismayed at how expensive college is getting. Something needs to change.

      Thanks for reading
      John recently posted..Job Loss Protection: An Emergency PlanMy Profile

  11. Parents should help a young adult go to college but it is the individual attendings’ reponsibility. I think if you want a “cadiallac” education then the student should be willing to contribute hard dollars along with the parent and work regardless of the wealth of the parent. Parents have tight income and retirement accts have taken huge hits. I see lots of “kids” in college partying the weekends away with out jobs and shopping their hearts out while the parents drain their retirement. Its sad that parents dont teach thekids that its a team repsonse. There are lots of options for keeping the costs down including the use of online programs and community college for all or part of the college education. Most 18 years olds would benefit in a reality check by working for a living instead of the entitlement to the college experience. I would recommend that most parents pay what they can afford- and yes parents are entitled to a vacation and dinner out while the kids are in college. I see some many kids these days in college and they are not the starving student living on Ramen- they demand smart phones, cars which lame parent hand out- if you have never taought your kids to earn anything then you have no one to balms. I actually dont think its unreasonable for a kid to end college with debt equivalent to the proce s of a new care- isnt the education worth more than a car. Teach your kids to earn their keep, put away the red carpet!

  12. I just found your blog today through a Google search. I am sorry for a super late comment. But here goes:

    I think that parents can and should help their children with college funding. I think that the best way to get there is to start with small goals, meet those, and then try to reach for higher ones.

    I felt very overwhelmed when I first looked at the full sticker price that a 4-year university should cost when my children are at an age to attend. So to keep me positively motivated that college savings is NOT all for naught, I made the following goals list:

    1) 2 years tuition at a local community college. (The student may have to live at home but at least a college education is available to them for an associate degree or for half of a Bachelors.)

    2) 2 years tuition at community college and 2 years tuition at local state university

    3) 4 years of tuition at local state university

    4) 4 years of tuition, as well as room and board at local state university

    5) private or out-of-state tuition costs (and R&B)

    Obviously, it works best if you can start saving as early and as much as possible. Reach whichever goal you can. When it comes time for your child to start junior high or high school, sit them down and talk about college. Let them know which type of education you can cover. Then explain that if they would like to attend an institution that is more expensive, they will need to find a way to cover the difference on their own (i.e. scholarships). As a side note, children will not blind to their family’s economic standing if the family is living within its means. And most likely, they will be heartened that the parents are willing to help them with the costs of college.

    I am hoping that we can reach #4 by the time our kids graduate high school. #5 isn’t really possible for us. But I’m sure that it can be for some families.

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