How Will Your Kids Pay for College? Here’s How to Talk About It Now

Paying for college
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The high cost of college and the burden of student loan debt are well-known issues in our national dialogue.

Still, going to college seems like an inevitable next step for most current K-12 students.

The cost of college isn’t a deterrent for most teens, according to a recent survey by Junior Achievement.

Of the 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed, almost nine in 10 (89%) say they plan to attend college. An annual T. Rowe Price study of younger kids, ages 8-14, puts that number at about eight in 10 — slightly lower, but still a large majority.

These expectations are surprisingly close to actual results.

By age 26, 88% of high school graduates have enrolled in college, according to a 10-year study by the Center for Public Education.

Why Kids Don’t Go to College

Why do the rest decide not to attend college?

Two-thirds of non-college-goers come from low-income homes, so it’s unsurprising finances played some role in the majority of reasons for not attending college.

About a quarter (23%) said flat out they couldn’t afford it.

Sixteen percent said they’d rather work and make money. Another 16% said they had to support their family.

Another sixteen percent of students said they didn’t go to college because they already had a good job. Less frequent answers included some related to finances, as well, including pregnancy, child care and marriage.

Only 5% said they didn’t attend college because they didn’t need to or couldn’t get in.

But few students anticipate these financial issues.

When asked how the conversation about student loan debt affects their plans, only 4% of teenagers said it makes them less likely to go to college. Instead, 60% say they’ll figure out a way to pay for college without taking out student loans.

While higher education feels like a certainty for younger generations, what’s uncertain is just how they’ll pay for it.

How Will the Next Generation Pay for College?

Four in 10 teens who plan to attend college say they expect scholarships and grants to cover most of their costs.

Only 1 in 10 anticipate taking out student loans — a pretty stark difference from the number of current college students who receive student loans.

Recent data show more than half of college students take out student loans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Are today’s teens being too optimistic? Or does their response mark a change in our awareness of the burden of student loan debt?

Time will tell.

It could be their parents are doing a better job of saving for college than ours did. Or maybe they have more creative ways to cover costs.

It could be a simple matter of youthful ignorance (ahh, remember those days?).

Teens may have the best of intentions — 17% even say they plan to have a job to pay for college — but maybe lack the perspective of the high cost.

What Kids Say vs. What Parents Say

If kids and teens are too optimistic about paying for college, it could be because they over-estimate how much their parents are going to cover.

There’s a major disconnect between how kids and their parents view paying for college.

In 2015, 48% of teens told Junior Achievement they expected their parents would help pay for college. Only 16% of parents said they planned to pay.

It’s similar with younger kids, too.

Nearly a quarter of kids in the T. Rowe Price survey expect their parents to pay for all of their college costs.

Of those, 1 in 5 have parents who expect them to contribute, but the kids are apparently clueless about this expectation.

Why the disconnect?

I’m not a parent, but out of sympathy I’ll venture a guess: Paying for college is just too complicated to think about, let alone to clearly explain to your kids.

Talk to Your Kids About the Cost of College

Teaching kids anything about money is tough.

Talking to them about college piles major career and life choices on top of unpleasant financial issues.

Where do you even begin?

My parents didn’t go to college, nor did most of the parents of my high school peers.

Our teachers and counselors went to college at a time when tuition was much lower and highly subsidized. For their parents, college was reserved for the wealthy elite.

They knew to push us to attend college, but couldn’t offer proper guidance about how to responsibly pay for it. And now, our generation is buried in unprecedented debt.

We don’t want it to be worse for the next generation.

So how do you help your kids?

Start by including college in your list of what to teach kids about money.

In addition to talking to them about whether and where they’ll go, as well as what they’ll study, talk about the cost and options for covering it.

As your kids think about and prepare for college, discuss these topics with them:

Will you or anyone in the family help pay for college?

This is a basic place to start.

Make sure your kids know whether to expect money from you for college, so they plan accordingly.

How much will they have to cover themselves?

If you’re paying, how much do you plan to cover? Is it a set amount, a percentage, or is it contingent on other factors?

How can they start saving money for college now?

Do you need to help them start a savings account or set savings goals? Where will their money come from, and how will it grow?

Where can they find scholarships, and how do they apply?

One mom helped her son win $100,000 in college scholarships. Read her tips!

We also have tons of resources to help you find scholarships. Here’s a list of 100 college scholarships and another 100 bizarre scholarships that might surprise you.

What are student loans, how do they work and should they get them?

Long before they fill out a FAFSA, help your kids understand student loan debt in simple terms (you may have to study a little yourself…).

Explain what it actually means to take out student loans. Help them understand the commitment they’re making and think about how they plan to pay it back.

How Will Your Kids Pay for College?

The question of how to pay for college has plagued us for decades.

Just as college becomes more necessary, paying for it becomes more of a burden on students and their families.

Constant political and social changes only seem to complicate the issue more.

The cost, funding and relevance of higher education shifts with every generation, leaving parents of young children to only guess what to expect for their kids’ future.

Will your kids be covered by college scholarships?

Will they be buried in debt after graduation?

Will they be able to pay up front with savings?

Will they work during college to pay their own tuition?

Or, who knows? Maybe by the time they’re out of high school college won’t be necessary at all.

Your Turn: Are you saving for your kids’ college fund? Do you talk to your kids about paying for college?

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post,, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).