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Getting Teens to Think About Paying for College

Applying for college is a lot of work.

With schools to choose, essays to write, forms to fill out, applications to send in ... the list goes on. On top of it all, you and your teen are faced with an even bigger challenge: College financing.

That's because funding college today is akin to funding a first home. According to Forbes, a four-year degree started in 2016/17 ranges from about $121,000 at a public university to $285,000 at a private, elite university . And the rates continue to rise.

These numbers are so high, they're abstract and hard for teens to grasp. Up until the time comes to fund college, your teen’s most expensive purchase may have been a $600 mobile phone or tablet.

They haven't been footing the big bills, like mortgage, vehicle, or retirement plans. So they likely have no idea how funding college can impact their future financial stability—not to mention yours if you're helping them pay for college.

So it's a good idea to get your teen involved in funding their college educations. The sooner the better. Here's a guide:

Focus on the positive.

Despite the high cost of college, make it clear to your teen that it's still worthwhile to attend. The average college graduate will make nearly twice as much as a high school graduate in his or her lifetime, according to the U.S. Census Bureau . So their college education will more than pay for itself.

Share how much you—and their future employers—value education, and what their adult lives might be like without a college degree.

Begin with the end in mind.

Help your teens picture themselves graduating from college. On that big day, what type of degree would they like to have, and for what types of careers? Do these careers require bachelors, masters, or doctorate degrees?

Break down the annual cost of college so they can see how much money they'd save if they could choose their college major early and get a bachelor's degree within four years instead of five.

Show them the big picture.

Help them understand their total education investment based on their top college choices:
Show them how this number varies depending on college tuition costs, locations that affect housing, transportation, and living expenses; and other factors.

Let them know how much of their college you're willing and able to pay for, and under what conditions.

Help them think about how much money they'd feel comfortable borrowing to attend college based on the monthly payments they'll owe upon graduation.

Make it real.

Sit down with your teens and break down their post-college living expenses. Share your own budget if it helps, and be sure to include everything from your mortgage and vehicle payments to the amount you spend on utilities, groceries, clothing, and even haircuts each month. Forecast how much they'll likely earn and owe per month upon graduation based on the choices they make.

For example, they’ll owe much more upon graduation if they borrow money to fund their entire four-year degree, including room and board, than they would if they saved money and borrowed less by earning scholarships, working a part-time job to pay for school as they go, or taking advantage of other college cost-saving options. 

Create—and tackle—a college-funding to-do list.

Gather college-funding handouts, articles, and books. Read them with your teens and have them create a college-funding to-do list. It might include such things as:

  • Research college tuition prices
  • Ask for recommendations to trustworthy lenders
  • Find out if high school college credits transfer
  • Compare college prices and financial aid packages
  • Find and apply for scholarships
  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form
  • Meet with and get tips from high school and college guidance counselors

List these items in order of priority, keeping deadlines in mind, and make it a part of your family's daily routine to do what it takes so you can tick all the boxes.

They grow up so fast.

Investing the time it takes to get your teens involved in funding college shows them you care about their education and future success. As a result, your teens are more likely to take college funding—and college—more seriously. They might think twice about partying the night before final exams so they can get good grades; or splurging on concert tickets, trips, or other things they may not be able to afford yet.

The steps you take to help your teens prepare for and fund college are some of your most important as a parent. All of your past efforts—from feeding, diapering, and bathing your newborns and sending them off to kindergarten for the first time, to teaching them how to drive or seeing them all dressed up for prom—have culminated to this moment. Your teens are entering adulthood, and taking ownership in their college funding is the right—and grown-up—thing for them to do.


Created and compiled by Kristy Bertsch, cuLearn and a talented writer/editor


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