Should parents pay for college tuition

Most parents do whatever they can to put their kids through college, not only because they don’t want grown children living in the basement for the rest of their lives, but because they want their offspring to have every opportunity for a successful career and a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, not all parents plan properly by starting college funds early on. And things happen; many times the money that would have been saved gets spent on maintaining the home and raising the family. But should parents be responsible for a certain portion of college tuition for their children, or should kids take on the burden all by themselves? They are, after all, adults by the time they reach college (or at least most of them are). So, should parents pay for college tuition?

In truth, there is no legal obligation for parents to contribute to the cost of tuition. For one thing, attending college is not mandatory (unlike prior schooling). And for another thing, the moment a child turns 18 he is a legal adult, making him solely responsible for disbursing any debt he accrues. So legally speaking, parents have no duty to pay. Of course, any student (except those that are emancipated or over the age of 25) has to include their parents’ tax returns in their financial aid application, at which point the federal government determines how much money they’re going to offer a student based on the portion that they deem to be the parents responsibility.

The EFC (expected family contribution) is calculated based on the income tax information of parents, including income, assets, and benefits (but offset by number of kids who will be going to college, especially if several will be tackling higher education at the same time). But whether the federal government is willing to extend funding to a college student or not, parents cannot be compelled to pay in most cases (divorce agreements are one possible exception to this general rule).

But this doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. Although parents are not legally bound to contribute to college tuition for their kids, should they? And how much should the average student reasonably expect? Most parents will go to any lengths to get their kids into college, offering money for tuition and related expenses, allowing kids to live at home rent-free while they pursue a degree, and even paying for peripherals like a car. Some will sell stock, take out loans, or even dip into their retirement funds to help their kids. How far is too far?

In truth, there should be limitations. Do you want your kids to go to college? Certainly. But should you mortgage your own future to get them there? Probably not. If you’re smart, you’ll start a college fund when they’re still in diapers. But if you didn’t have the foresight to do this, or you simply couldn’t afford it, be smart now. If you can’t afford to send your kids to Ivy League schools, don’t tell them you can. See if they’ll start with general education at an inexpensive community college, finish their bachelor’s degree locally, and then consider getting an executive MBA online, for example. Don’t overextend yourself if you don’t have to. Sit down with an accountant to figure out what you can actually give and then have a conversation with your kids. And if you can’t pay for all of their expenses, make them get jobs to pay part of their own way. It’s better than taking out student loans.


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