We aren't paying for college.
It’s not because we can’t afford it.
It’s also not because we have great leads on scholarships, loan forgiveness programs, or have our names on the wing of a medical building attached to some prestigious university.
It’s because we have never had “cover all costs for our children’s higher education” on our list of must-dos. Ever. This was a decision made by my husband long before I even came onto the (step)mom scene, and, when he explained it, I totally agreed. Obviously, it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about prior to receiving my surprise children, and then not until our eldest child reached high school. Then I may have panicked a little as I could see the collision course of us (my husband and I) finally getting our financial feet back under us and they (our children) heading off to college. It was a short-lived panic, tapped down after one short chat.
Sure, I could go into how little interest we have in borrowing from our own financial future in order to fund our children’s present, but it’s such a small piece of our reasoning pie. The bigger piece of that pie is the total lack of interest that our children show in their future, financial or otherwise. And maybe this makes us bad parents, but the idea of dropping tens of thousands of dollars into something that, so far, we have gotten very few vibes of excitement from either of our children about just makes no sense to us.
We want our children to be invested in this investment. We want them to want to show up. We want them to have a reason to do well. For my husband, higher education was on his own dime - so his time in school was met with persistence. My children love to eye-roll his path as he did swap schools mid-way and he did leave with loans. But while in college, he gave it 110% all of the time because prolonging his stay or half-assing it would only have cost HIM in the end. My children love to eye-roll me because my parents did supplement much of my education ~ which allowed me to continue gymnastics at the collegiate level. They seem to miss the bits where, while taking a full load of classes and attending practices, I also had a variety of part-time jobs to fill in the gaps.
As far as I can tell, moving on to college has become as standard as moving on to middle school or high school, except the supply list is exponentially more expensive. It is no longer something kids aim for or dream of or work towards or see as a stretch. It is something that seems to be available to nearly anyone and most certainly is available to anyone with someone else standing behind them waving an open wallet.
Grades? Who needs those? Do you have a checkbook? Accepted!
It’s not that we are giving our kids a suitcase and saying “don’t forget to write!” We are encouraging them to choose their paths with financial sense and we are supplementing those choices. We have found that, within that higher education bottom line, room and board are essentially fairly standard: in-state, out-of-state, private, or public. Therefore, those are the pieces to which we have always been willing to contribute. Tuition? Tuition is up to our children. Tuition varies greatly but it can also be altered greatly via scholarships or other aid. In other words, the destiny of our children's dime is in their own hands.
Does this make us uncaring parents? I just don’t see it. Still, we are often side-eyed for doing something “extravagant” in lieu of paying tuition. What I want to say is “But we saved for this. We decided we wanted this and we budgeted for it. We saved for it. Now, because we planned ahead, we are going to enjoy it, guilt-free.” Yes, much of that side-eying comes from our current college-aged child, relatives/friends, and the occasional counselor (most of whom don’t have all the information) who are not quite as supportive of our decision.
What I also want to say is “My husband and I are not the only people on this planet capable of utilizing a savings account.”
Our current struggle with our college-aged-but-not-attending child is that she often uses this long-known fact of having to financially participate in her own education as the reason why she cannot commit to it. This same child claims paralyzation over the idea of payment yet is about to wrap up a second year of having zero money in her college fund savings jar and thousands come and gone from her summer concerts spending jar. Why should we be tasked with taking from our retirement in order to validate her desire never to miss a show?
We’ve missed loads of shows, my sweet child. We still do. And we are better for it.
We do have the unintentional bonus of a smaller window between dropping the last child off at college and the start of our retirement. This was an added challenge created by the re-starting of my husband’s retirement fund (from zero) after it was blown to pieces by an ex-wife, a divorce, and a settlement that moved the new starting line into our early forties. We have worked hard to rebuild. We have counted pennies and then dollars and then tens of dollars. We have missed shows.
So, no, we are not willing to borrow against what we have finally rebuilt. No, having finally reached a savings level in which we can breathe easy again, we will stand firm.
The reality is that we are not required to foot the entirety of our children’s college expenses. We are not required to pay any of it at all. We don’t have to cosign the loan. We don’t have to nod and smile if either child announces a plan to travel to an out-of-state school at twice the cost or opt for an overpriced private college rather than a reasonable public one. We don’t have to offer a car to get around campus or send along an open-ended credit card for living expenses or even share our Netflix password.
The reality is that we do have a say.
And what we have chosen is to say “no.”