“Whatever you do, don’t get married!”
That was heartfelt advice from a dear friend, but it had nothing to do with love or romance—it was strictly about being able to afford college for my kids.
As a divorced mom on a shoestring budget, I’ve been soliciting advice for years as I brace myself for my eldest’s flight to the lush fields of higher education. In the process, I’ve learned that affording college is a sport more complex than I ever imagined. The rules of financial aid range from arcane to unfair to flat-out heartbreaking—and many of us learn to game the system the best we can.
For me, gaming the system means not getting married and not selling my house for the next nine years while my kids are in college. But I’m no expert, so please don’t take any financial advice from me! (But do see the sidebar for some resources.) All I can offer is camaraderie in this crazy circus of complicated feelings, and maybe a few bits of advice about how to ride the emotional rollercoaster. I’m the kind of parent who’s always put my kids first, and when it comes to higher-education costs, there’s some serious stuff to grapple with, here.
So, let’s talk about the feelings, which I call The Five Stages of Paying for College.
Stage 1: Grief
For most of us, until we actually get the official documents, the cost of college is abstract. And then with one click of an email, the enormity of the cost becomes clear. I can’t tell you how many of my friends have said things like, “I didn’t realize it would cost this much …” Only the most masochistic and pragmatic of us do the math ahead of time.
That money just disappeared in seconds, poof!
Another cause for sadness is the realization that what you thought were savvy financial decisions turn out to be punitive when paying for college. For example, my friend Charlotte regrets that she and her husband had college savings accounts for their children, because once the kids were admitted those accounts were emptied by the first semester and counted against them in need-based financial aid awards. “We would have been so much better off investing that money in retirement funds,” Charlotte said. “That money just disappeared within seconds, poof, and we’re back to the drawing board for the remaining college years.”
My friend Erin also has regrets. “I thought we were doing everything we were supposed to do,” she said. “We scrimped so we could pay off the mortgage on the house we lived in for 20 years, and we kept our debts low,” she said, “and now all that is working against us.”
Stage 2: Resentment
Who among us is saintly enough to resist feeling a little resentful when our child does a semester abroad in Barcelona, while we live like Spartans in order to bankroll it?
“My kid is having the time of her life!” says my friend Lila, “and I’m living on such a tight budget that I feel like I’m one step away from eating dog food.”
What makes Lila feel better is constantly reminding herself that “all of this is temporary.” She tells herself what I tell myself, over and over again—one day, the kids will be off the payroll, and life will be easier.
But what about the resentment we might feel toward the whole shebang, what some people refer to as the college industrial complex? “College is a marketing scam,” says my friend Lacey, who is putting her fourth child (two stepchildren and two biological children) through college.
“Many colleges are working very hard to make themselves ‘prestigious,’ ‘elite,’ ‘status-y,’” says Lacey. “These are the colleges kids covet, and it doesn’t mean they are better than other colleges, but in the eyes of kids, and often of their parents, the brand-name colleges or the colleges that are harder to get into are the ones they fixate on.”
My kid is having the time of her life; I’m practically eating dog food.
I’ve watched my own kids drink that Kool-Aid. Try this for an experiment: Suggest a certain college to a teenager and see if the first thing they do is look up the acceptance rate. As an explanation for this behavior, my son says, “I want to go to college with smart kids,” as if a college’s acceptance rate speaks to the caliber of its students more than it speaks to the size of the school and the number of kids applying. The logic of an 18-year-old is not airtight.
When forking over so much dough, it’s hard not to think about what that degree does not guarantee. Recently, my plumber told me that he takes his family on vacation every year somewhere nice. This year it’s Italy. Meanwhile, with my fancy Ivy League bachelor’s and master’s, I can’t afford to go on vacation at all.
As my friend Pam said about her Ivy League degree, “Every broken-down car I see on the highway has a [my prestigious alma sticker] sticker on its bumper.”
Stage 3: Guilt
Sometimes we have no choice in the matter, and we simply can’t afford to send our kids to the college they want. Delivering that news, having that conversation—it’s what dread was invented for.
My second husband wound up paying for my biological kids’ education.
Layer on top of that the fact that those of us with blended families face a hornet’s nest of complications and sticky situations. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) asks for the income of the parents the child resides with and doesn’t seem to make adjustments for stepparents. As Lacey says, “The expectation of the federal government is that the parents you live with will pay for your college.” Her children’s biological father was supposed to pay for college, but he turned out to be something of a deadbeat. “I feel guilty,” she says. “My second husband has essentially wound up being the financially responsible parent to my biological children.”
Stage 4: Abject Terror
Erin, who felt disappointed that all their frugal living was working against them in the financial-aid game, thought she could get her youngest through college by taking on an extra workload. Her reasoning was that with an empty nest, she’d have more time and could bill more hours to pay for college. But that proved untenable and exhausting—not to mention that making more income has some repercussions tax-wise and in terms of financial aid. So she and her husband took out a personal loan upwards of $100,000 in order to get their daughter through her “dream college.” She hopes they’ll be able to pay it off in time for their target retirement date.
They took out a personal loan upwards of $100,000 to get their daughter through her ‘dream college.’ They’re hoping they can pay it off.
Depending on your personality type, it’s terrifying to take on so much debt, or any debt, especially at an age when you want to slow down and have retirement goals. Another of my acquaintances is in the thick of this conundrum. She did the same thing as Erin—she took out a loan to tide her over, knowing that there’s no way she could ever earn enough to pay it off. Now she’s paying off the loan at the minimum rate until she can sell her mother’s house and use the proceeds to get out of debt.
“Basically, I’m doing debt maintenance until my mother dies,” she says. “It’s an awful feeling.”
But there’s another kind of fear to reckon with here, and that’s the terror of your child taking out a loan that will crush her rather than having you be the debtor. Eighteen-year-olds are beyond terrible at gauging what constitutes a reasonable amount of money to owe, and of course the banks are more than happy to lend them too much. So we parents worry that they’ll get in way over their heads.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Now we get to the final stage of The Five Stages of Paying for College—acceptance.
When Erin talks about her daughter’s experience at her dream college, she literally starts to cry. “She’s at the perfect place for her,” she says. “She’s so happy there.” For Erin, acceptance of her own debt load and sacrifice is accompanied by the joy of seeing her child thrive.
Draw a line in the sand: ‘This is the most I can afford.’
For others, acceptance is less joyful and more practical. Those of us who can’t afford to send our children to their dream schools have to set the limit and draw a line in the sand: “This is the most I can afford,” we say, and the child has to arrive at acceptance as well. Many parents tell their kids, “You’ll go where the scholarship is,” or “State school or bust.” Those decisions may not thrill a child, but plenty of us dig in, accept the financial reality—and deal with the drama as our kids embrace it, too. If they decide otherwise, make it clear that if they accrue debt, it’s their debt, not yours. They’ll have to accept those terms before making a commitment.
Coping Strategies for the Five Stages of Paying for College
Now that we’ve recognized the swirl of emotions, let’s get to the bottom line. This is where I’ll remind you again that I’m not a financial professional—I’m just a parent of teenagers who is trying to make ends meet. But let me share what I’ve learned.
My son’s advisors urged us to ‘give him a number’ at the beginning of senior year.
- The feelings around this are huge, and getting them off your chest can help. If you have any friends who can relate, talk with them! If you don’t have friends who can relate, try searching online for stories that resonate. It won’t help you financially, but solidarity is worth something. Your child is not your financial and emotional counselor. Don’t get enmeshed in discussions with them.
- Make a list of things you can give up if you have to pinch pennies and things you can’t give up (mortgage payments, unexpected car repairs and doctor bills, for example)—and then it’s time for a calculator. Figure out what a realistic contribution is for you.
- Tell your kid what your realistic contribution is. I’m not going to lie: This can be very hard. But it’s better that they know what they’re working with, sooner rather than later. My son’s advisors urged us parents to “give them a number” at the beginning of senior year.
- Talk with your kids about debt. Paint a picture of what life could be like for them post-college if they don’t have debt. You may also want to mention that if you take on debt to finance their education, they could be supporting you when you’re old—and nobody wants that!
- Before you make any life changes such as marriage or downsizing or changing jobs, talk it through with a financial professional, especially if need-based aid is part of your child’s equation.
For all of us on the cusp of or in the midst of this major parenting and financial rite of passage, let’s study up and face the situation honestly and well-informed—and good luck to all!
Christine Grillo is a food systems and science writer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She also writes about flora, fauna, people, health and human rights, and her work has appeared in Audubon, The New York Times, Utne Reader, Civil Eats, Last Word on Nothing and local magazines such as Baltimore Style.