When I got accepted to a selective private college, my parents were so proud. Nobody on my mom’s side of the family had gone to college. My dad had a degree, but he had worked his butt off to pay for it and didn’t want me to have to miss out on extracurricular opportunities by working full time through school.
My dad was a social worker and my mom was a stay-at-home mom during most of my childhood. My mother eventually went to nursing school and became an RN, and by the time I got to college, my parents were in that sweet spot of making too much money for me to get a lot of financial aid, but also not having anything saved for college.
I got a partial scholarship and I did work some during college, but I mostly borrowed money in the form of public and private student loans.
A lot of money.
Twenty years later, I’m still paying off those student loans.
We’re also paying off my husband’s loans from when he went back to finish his degree.
Now our oldest child is sixteen, and we’re concerned about how we’re going to help her afford higher education. We haven’t been in a financial position to save for our kids’ college funds, largely—and ironically—because we’re still working on paying off our own college educations.
We don’t want our kids to make the same mistake I did, borrowing almost all of my tuition, room, and board. We also don’t want to go broke. We feel stuck. And we’re not alone.
The cost of college has basically doubled for both private and public universities since I graduated, and there appears to be no end in sight for rising college costs. Thanks to income growing at a much slower rate than tuition, parents are finding higher education harder to afford, even those who don’t have the added burden of their own monthly student loan payments.
One of the benefits of my own hindsight is that I can see ways to mitigate the financial pitfalls of higher education with my own kids. Here are a few ways we’re looking at tackling the issue:
1. College Courses in High School
Our state (Washington) has a program called Running Start, which allows high school juniors and seniors to take community college courses for dual high school and college credit. If they take a full course load, they can graduate from high school with a 2-year degree already under their belt. All we pay for this program is books and fees. Even if all of the credits don’t transfer to a 4-year university, most will, and we will still have saved thousands of dollars.
2. Community Colleges and State Universities
I have completely let go of any romantic notions about expensive colleges. I attended a small, private collage, and while I loved my small class sizes and personalized experience, I don’t for a second believe that my child couldn’t get a quality education at a larger, public institution. An education is as good as the effort you put into it, and while each school offers different benefits and drawbacks, none is inherently better or worse than another.
And community college for a year or two makes a lot of financial sense as well, even for those who don’t have the free option in high school. If you attend community college and transfer to a 4-year school, you still get the same diploma as someone who spent all four years there, but for a fraction of the cost.
3. Specialized Scholarships
Our kids have never gotten into sports, but our daughter has played the violin for ten years. We are hoping that her skills and talents and hard work in that instrument will pay off in the form of scholarships.
If a child has an affinity for and shows promise in a particular area, it can be a worthwhile investment to help them hone their skills over time. A friend once told us that one of the best ways for a female to get a scholarship is to play golf. If we’d been thinking ahead years ago, we may have encouraged our daughter play viola instead of violin, as it can be much harder to fill viola spots in an orchestra. Less popular and underserved activities can be surprisingly effective scholarship paths.
4. Studying Abroad
We often think of studying abroad as an expensive aspect of the American college experience. But just as international students come to study in the States, American students can attend university in other countries—sometimes for free (or practically free). Broadening our horizons a bit can open up opportunities we had no idea even existed.
5. Alternative Training — or No College at All
Many of us get stuck in the mindset that a 4-year degree is the be-all-end-all, but there are plenty of good, well-paying jobs that don’t require one. And if a teen doesn’t really know what they want to do, going to college is a ridiculously expensive way to figure it out. Considering the cost of a degree, it might be wise to explore careers that can be pursued with specialized training, on-the-job experience, apprenticeships, or even self-teaching.
As much as I’d love to be able to provide my child with every opportunity, the reality is that her educational choices will be limited by what we, and she, can afford.
Until higher education becomes affordable in America, and until we have our own educations paid off, we have to get creative. Thinking outside the 4-year box and taking time to explore various options with an open mind will hopefully save our kids a lifetime of financial strain.
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