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Articles / Paying for College / Paying for College: Where Do Parents Come In?

Paying for College: Where Do Parents Come In?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 3, 2014

I recall the sacrifices my parents made for me so that I could to go to college. Times were tough for my father back in the mid-Sixties. Our family was the classical nuclear, Leave It to Beaver-type. My mother was a full-time homemaker and my Dad was the 100% breadwinner. Like many men from my working-class community, he came out of WWII and went to work directly for the railroad, which was pretty much the reason my hometown grew over the decades. He worked his way up through the ranks and had a number of technical and professional accomplishments to his credit. He went from machinist, to master mechanic, to supervisor of work crews.

Speaking of sacrifices, his rise through the ranks earned him a significant promotion opportunity when I was a sophomore in high school. However, the catch was that our family would have had to relocate and move to another part of the state. Although I was never directly aware of why my Dad turned down this promotion, looking back, I now realize it was because my parents chose not to pull me out of high school and disrupt my education. This was a big sacrifice for my parents because it meant that my Dad turned down a nice increase in pay but he also had to (what the railroaders called) “bump back” to maintain local railroad employment. In other words, he had to take a lesser responsible, lower-paying job in order to stay in our town.

That had to hurt. My Dad and grandfather had just competed building a new home for my mother and me and money was tight. With a mortgage and his now lower-paying job, the squeeze was on. I was only vaguely aware of the pressures my parents experienced, once the realities of their decision to stay put sank in. I’m sure that things got much more difficult than I ever knew because my folks didn’t want to burden me with the stresses they had on their plate. This is what parents do many times. They shield their children from the downsides of adult and family life. Granted, some parents let it all hang out and the children share the brunt of difficulties. That’s unfortunate, but I was spared.

When it came time for me to go to college, things were still touch-and-go in my family. My Dad had invented a new kind of fire alarm system, received a patent pending, left the railroad, and formed a business with one of his brothers. It was a risky but promising decision that had its ups and downs for a year or so, but it never quite gained the traction my Dad needed to be successful. So, he found a supervisory job with a local manufacturing operation and that stabilized our family’s financial situation, but just barely. By this time, I was a high school senior and, as I’ve mentioned before in other articles, I was recruited to play tennis for a small Division III liberal arts college. Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships but they do give financial aid. Our family qualified but my folks still had to deal with their EFC (Expected Family Contribution). This was a big challenge, but they wanted me to be able to go to college, since only one other member of both sides of my parents’ families — a cousin — had gone to college before.

So, my Dad located an education loan company that enabled me to go to college and allowed my parents to make monthly payments to cover their EFC. It was a true sacrifice for them. Then, my Dad died suddenly at the age of 49 and I inherited the balance of this loan, since my mother didn’t work, along with the balances of my Federal loans. Even back then, in the early Seventies, it was a real challenge to cover those payments. I can’t imagine what it must be like today for students and parents struggling under the weight of many tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.


What started me thinking about parental sacrifices for college costs, along with inspiring those memories of my own situation, is a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum. It’s entitled How much responsibility do parents have for helping pay for college? The poster who started the thread says, “Curious how families are dealing with this question. I feel guilty I cannot do more to help but I can’t afford everything that my student wants.”

I’m sure that there are many other parents out there today who, when they see the staggering costs of college, feel the same way. Let’s take a look at some of the responses from parents on this thread. While you’re reading them, take inventory of your own position on this crucial issue.

– I think the answer stems from a blend of cultural perceptions of higher education, ingrained principles/beliefs, and the financial means of a family. Some families refuse to assist in paying for college even if it within their capabilities whereas other families put away money starting from the day the child is born to ensure that financing college won’t be a tremendous burden – other (and more often than not, most) families find that many colleges are far too expensive for their budget. I don’t think there is any set answer or standard that needs to be met. I think its best to give parents the benefit of the doubt and assume that there is some justification or reason as to what they’re doing (or not doing) when it comes to financing their child’s education – very rarely is it purely out of spite or anything along those lines.

– The colleges and the government assume that the parents have the primary responsibility for paying, unless the parents are low income/wealth, or the student is 24 years old, married, or a military veteran.

– We made the commitment to pay for our kids’ college. We figured out what we could afford, and we were upfront with our kids. Both kids had to say no to choice #1 due to financial considerations. I don’t feel bad about that … they both went to fine schools, and they don’t have debt looming over their heads. It wasn’t always easy to make the payments, but we did it.

A related article on NPR’s site, entitled Free College For All: Dream, Promise Or Fantasy?, enhances our look at college costs by exploring this aspect:

In reality there’s no free college, just as there’s no free lunch. The real policy discussion is about how to best distribute the burden of paying for it — between individual families and the public at large — and, secondly, how to hold down the cost of providing it. All while leveraging the power of “free” responsibly.

So, you can see that, in the words of write Robert Heinlein’s acronym TANSTAAFL – There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. But let’s get back to some of those College Confidential comments.

– I think parents have a moral obligation to put their children it the best position to succeed. Part of that includes college. You don’t have to go to a school that is $60,000. A student can go to a public state school for $8,000 per year and have a very successful life. I think that it is a moral injustice to deprive your child of this. Today, college isn’t an option, it is a basic necessity and a prerequisite to success.

– … daughters had to put themselves through school. We could not afford even the cost of the public colleges (our vacations are tent camping and our economy cars are old). The oldest took out loans for the full cost of her education and we are now helping a little bit with that (the fed loans will soon be forgiven thanks to teaching in a poverty area).

Our younger daughter earned some generous private scholarships and merit awards at her private school, along with loans that we did not have to cosign. We aren’t helping her because her income is double our combined income.

– We know a couple who’ve had their house paid off for years and both have very lucrative jobs, yet will not pay a dime for either of their kid’s college education. The father just purchased a brand new Caddilac and top end Harley, and the mother purchased a brand new Pathfinder…both paying with cash. So I would say that’s very selfish at the very least.

– I don’t think a parent has a responsibility to pay at all, but most of us want to provide certain things for our children, including an education. What that education includes and costs varies, even within a family. I want to treat my children the same, but one works hard and one is extremely lazy (academically and in other ways).

If I’m paying, I’m going to retain control of the decisions of how I spend my money. Will I require a certain ROI on MY investment? Yes. I’m not going to just pay whatever my child wants, even if she really, really wants it. Scholarships require a certain gpa to continue receiving them, and so do I. I’m not paying for a child without direction, a few C’s, a lot of dropped courses.

– I love my children more than everything and I want to give them every advantage in life that I reasonably can. But some things (taking a second mortgage on the house, or depleting retirement savings, to make up the price difference between a public school and a private school) might be unreasonable.

– This is a pointless discussion because it ultimately runs up against the question of what you think college is for. Your answer to that question will depend upon your economic situation, your personal experience, your family educational history, etc. I don’t see college primarily as job training, and I am willing to spend a lot on a so-called “useless” major for my own child because people in my family have been university-educated for five generations and that’s just what we do. I don’t look at college as a financial investment but rather as a rite of passage and an exercise in self-cultivation (cue the eye-rolling from the vocational-training crowd).


That’s just a sampling of this stimulating discussion of parental responsibility to pay for (or at least contribute to) their children’s college education. It’s a complex area.

What do you think? Let’s us know below.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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