I Can Pay For My Kid's College Tuition, But That Doesn't Mean I Will

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
Roman Babakin / iStock

Recently, I had a discussion with a few friends who will be sending their seniors off to college in the fall. We talked about empty nest syndrome, the anxieties related to picking a major, and the overwhelming task of paying for it all. Because I’m still several years away from sending our oldest to college, I have found these conversations eye-opening.

One of the friends told me that her teenager was headed to college as an undecided major, and if I’m being honest, that made me incredulous. When I think back to when I was 18 and thinking ahead to my future, I can’t imagine saying to my parents, “You know what? I’m not sure… I’ll think about it in my cushy dorm room away from home.” Granted I had always wanted to be a nurse so the decision was a bit easier, but I knew that my parents had two more kids to put through college. I worked hard to get my degree done on time because I knew it wasn’t just about me.

While I can’t even begin to fathom how much Valium I will need when we drop our son off at the dorm for the first time, I have come to terms with how much money it’s going to take to get him that degree. And we will have our daughter bringing up the rear a few years later. Basically, we could buy a Tesla car every year for eight years or buy two college degrees. I’d rather have the Teslas, but since I’m what they call a responsible adult, I’ll do what’s right and choose my kids’ education.

My husband and I started college savings funds almost from the moment my kids gulped their first breaths of fresh air. We made a decision very early on that we would foot the bill for their higher education. Both of our families helped us pay our way through college, and we agreed that, if we could, we would help our children too. In addition to scrimping and saving every month, we have also invested any monetary gifts our children have been given since they were born. Thankfully, due to our financial decisions, their college funds are growing nicely.

And though we’ve chosen to bear the financial cost of a college degree for our kids, it’s not without a strict stipulation: They have to know what they plan on doing with their lives before I fork over the cash. I am not footing the bill for my kid to find himself over four years of frat parties and weekend ski trips. My husband and I have worked too hard to put money away over the last 13 years to have an indecisive teenager blow it all trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.

When I rant about this to my friends, they laugh and remind me that I sound like the over-invested father in the movie Some Kind of Wonderful. In the film, the father has his son’s business college plans meticulously planned, much to his artsy son’s dismay. He rides his son about going to college because he didn’t have the chance and is seen throughout the movie pushing a degree on his kid. The movie ends with the kid spending his college fund on diamond earrings and a date with the most popular girl in school. The kid gets the girl and the dad is left to wonder where he went wrong.

But I’m not like that dad. I’m not forcing a particular career on my kids, and I’m not going to live vicariously through them as they decide what they want to do with their lives. All I’m saying is that while, yes, I may have the means to pay for my kid’s education, I’m not going to let him squander that opportunity. I will gladly help him get where he needs to go, but he’d better have a very clear picture of what direction he’s headed.

So many kids today are allowed to “find themselves” and are not held to higher standards. Many parents have become less demanding in their parenting, and as such, we are raising an entitled generation of kids. My kids are not entitled to my money any more than I’m entitled to choose a career path for them. It’s up to both sides to work together so that the end result is a purposeful education that is useful in the real world.

As college gets closer and closer for us, we will help our kids “find themselves” well before they start spending our hard-earned money at college. We will have continuing discussions about where they see themselves, what part of the country they want to live in, and what will make them feel joy in their lives overall. I will take them to college campuses and force them to listen to the stories of my college glory days.

I will try not to cry too hard when I help him unpack his boxes in the tiny dorm room with the huge price tag.

And, I promise, I’ll be crying because I’ll miss him and not because I can’t buy that Tesla. Mostly.

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