College Planning – How Much Should Your Child Contribute?

It’s that time of year—that time of year when parents of college bound seniors get to sign up for the monthly payment plan. That time when you look at your kid and ask yourself whether it really is worth it to pay someone $56,000 to take them off your hands. Just kidding. But another question does arise—how much, if anything, should Jason or Jennifer be expected to pay?

Easy answer, huh? As much as possible! But what is really possible, in this economy? Herewith I share with you a view from the trenches, highly personal but with applicability to many families in similar straits, um, situations.

My assumption, up until this summer, was that my own little darling would have a summer job, save $1,500-$1,750 (what colleges figure when they do your financial aid budget), and contribute to tuition and books with that. It was not to be. She started looking in late April, and blanketed 3 high rise office buildings, every store in our town and the nearby mall, and registered with three temporary agencies. The kid types 85 wpm, knows Excel, is very web savvy, a great organizer, loves elderly people, and has worked in a nursing home and in retail. What did she find? Nada. A couple of one-day gigs with a temp agency, but otherwise absolutely no bites until this week, when one temp service placed her as a clerical assistant at a property management firm, which looks like it will last until school starts, so maybe she’ll nail down $1,000.

I thought maybe she had a unique experience. Now I hear that none of her friends has been able to land a job either, this summer. Recently I’ve also heard from two UChicago and one Northwestern grad that they were NEVER able to find a summer job during their undergrad years (since 2008). A temp agency used to be a slam-dunk, and is in fact the way I put myself through college and grad school—and it paid more than on-campus work. Now it appears that employers use temp as a way to try out for permanent, and they’re not interested in anyone who actually wants to be temporary.

So that got me thinking, is it still possible to put yourself through college, or even contribute significantly by working–no loans? Sadly, I don’t think so for most kids, and here’s why.

College costs are so far beyond what the average unskilled worker can make, that even covering a significant portion is pretty nigh impossible. Let’s take a look at my own experience. Back when Moses was a pup, I worked about 20 hours a week. I really don’t remember what I made (memory says $10 an hour and if that’s true, kids today aren’t much further ahead than 30 years ago, because my dear one is getting $12). So let’s say I’m getting senile and I actually made $5/hour=$100/week. In 36 weeks of school I’d make $3,600, which, conveniently, was exactly what my tuition was in graduate school. Then, 16 weeks of summer at 35 hours = $2,800, which is about what I lived on—my rent at the time was $150/month. I also worked full time over Christmas and spring breaks, so excess would cover books. Most years I got grants or scholarships, and a few loans—I graduated with $10,000 in debt, which was less than I could expect to earn my first year out. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t spend spring break in Cozumel, but certainly it was doable.

It’s easy to see that this kind of economics no longer works. At $12/hour, dear daughter can’t begin to cover the tuition bill at a private school if she works the same 20 hours/week for 36 weeks ($8,640 is about half State U’s tuition). In fact, to pay the total freight at the Univ. of Illinois, she’d need to come up with $30K. I’m so sick of “college counselors” advocating State U as an affordable alternative and quoting some ridiculous tuition. You need to add on room, board, books and activities fees! Actual cost of attendance is the only meaningful figure. And she couldn’t even rent a room for $150 nowadays.

The only ways I see that kids can work their way through college nowadays are to stretch it out by part-time attendance, choose a junior college for the first two years, live at home, and work their butts off. Yeah, it can be done, but there are so many downsides—no enriching and network-building extra-curriculars, no time to explore ideas, generally a lesser school and lesser academic experience, etc.

Still, I think it’s very, very good for kids to have skin in the game. Having difficulty getting a job teaches 1) start early and 2) value what you get—both good lessons. Once you get a job you learn 1) how hard it is to make a buck (puts a whole new economic spin on that iPod) 2) what you’re worth depends on what skills you have but also what the marketplace has need for—excellent lessons for choosing a major. No kid who’s worked all summer at a real job is going to major in communications or hospitality. And finally, it teaches desperation—nothing made me stay in school like the specter of being a file clerk my whole life.

She’s a great kid and she’ll contribute all she makes toward her college expenses. After working so hard to get a job, then working hard at it, I think she’ll take a much more consumerist view toward her college classes. For example, I suggest she evaluate her classes by figuring out what each costs per term, and considering how long she would have to work to earn that money. Kinda prevents taking classes like bowling. Next, I told her to figure out her cost per each class—when you’re tempted to cut and stay in bed, think about how long you worked essentially to throw that money out the window. And finally, I hope she does what I did in evaluating professors—not choosing ones who will give an easy grade, but ones who worked hard, taught fiercely, and gave me my money’s worth. If I’d had to put money in a meter outside the prof’s classroom each day, would I? She actually did run these number, and it gave her indigestion for the rest of the evening.

I’m not giving her any spending money, not paying for books (which I hope will encourage her to shop around), and right now I’m expecting her to make at least one of our monthly payments out of earnings and savings (she has a little internet biz as well). She’ll end up covering about 1/3 of our costs via earnings and loans. She’s looking for a near-campus job right now. YMMV, but I think that’s reasonable skin in the game.

If a kid didn’t have at least this much hustle, I’d really re-think whether I would consider an investment in tuition a good one. It’s not just off-loading, after all, it’s sinking a lot of capital into someone. Would you give $200,000 to a start-up venture if the entrepreneur didn’t appear to be pretty hard working?

And oh, by the way–anybody need an assistant near Philadelphia?

About the author

Danielle L. Schultz, CFP®, CDFA

Danielle L. Schultz, the principal financial planner of Haven Financial Solutions, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a NAPFA-registered Financial Advisor, and a Registered Investment Advisor in the State of Illinois. She studied financial planning at Northwestern University’s Certified Financial Planner™ certification program. She also holds a Series 65 license (Registered Investment Advisor Representative) and a CCPS (Certified College Planning Specialist).

She writes a regular column for Better Investing magazine and is currently working on a revision of their mutual funds handbook. In addition to academic training and professional experience, Ms. Schultz has personally managed Social Security, Medicare, retirement and long-term care issues; college funding concerns; and cash flow and transition planning in self-employment and divorce situations. Her social work background gives her an innovative perspective on financial planning issues; for her, financial planning is not only about money, but also a key component in a satisfying and well-lived life.


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  • Good article overall. I would quibble a little bit with the characterization of alternatives as a lesser college experience, etc. I have just had this conversation with my daughter out of necessity. I had to tell her that I can afford to pay for our family EFC (about $4500/yr) and no more. We figured out that if she worked this year (her senior year), went to our local community college, and worked during those two years, she would be able to go to her final two years covered, with no debt. That is the greatest gift I think she can give herself is to be free from debt at graduation. Too often, we as parents and students buy into the myth that you have to have debt to go to college. That has never been true and is still not. I agree that the kids have to have skin in the game. I put it to her this way in her freshman year. If she did well in school and worked hard, she could earn money for college. If she didn’t she would have to work. She chose the latter. I also explain to her now that she can still do well in her first two years and earn money for college so she can stop working. Will it be hard? Yes. Will it teach her the value of hard work? Of course.
    Additionally, I encourage everyone who has an opportunity to go to a more elite school to not discount it because of price. I went to Northwestern based almost exclusively on price. After comparing the amount of grants and scholarships available from their $1.4 billion endowment with the other schools I applied to (DePaul, Loyola and UofI), I found that it would cost me more to go to any of those schools, even though it had the highest tuition price. As a community college transfer myself, my entire undergrad education cost a little over $11000, excluding living expenses (we lived off campus). I worked during school and still networked. It was hard, but possible. And worth it.

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