My daughter started Kindergarten today. A big step. A big transition after fours years of daycare. Yet, there’s something else that keeps popping up in the back of my mind. It’s nagging me and it’s not going away. I’m worried about college. Yes, college. Specifically, paying for college. It’s something every parent thinks about, worries about, frets over, almost from the moment of conception. Now that my daughter is beginning her actual education, I feel the savings clock is ticking. And it frightens the hell out of me.
A recent study by Fidelity Investments shows most families fall far short – about 30% – of the money it takes to pay for their child’s college education. It shows parents don’t do enough to save for college, or they wait too long. I must admit that my wife and I are in the same boat. More than five years into our daughter’s life, we haven’t put away nearly as much as we would have hoped, or thought we would have by now. Things always come up. Bills, debt, home improvements, illnesses, jobs changes, even vacations. (Because sometimes you have to enjoy life.) So the issue isn’t as clear cut as the black-and-white facts and figures of a study.
Another aspect of note from that Fidelity study is that a lot of parents misjudge how much college costs. Personally, I don’t know how that is even possible. News flash, people: it’s expensive. According to College Board, the average tuition alone at a four-year private school is $28,500 a year. That seems very LOW to me. Then you factor in room and board and it’s probably pushing $40,000 at least.
As my daughter enters Kindergarten, we will be greeted with a new monthly financial windfall since we no longer have a daycare payment. Good child care comes with a cost, and while we loved where we sent our daughter the past four years, we are relieved to be free of that bill. After factoring in some other budget adjustments, part of that money will go towards college. But it won’t nearly be enough. So barring the serendipitous appearance by an anonymous benefactor (we’re taking offers if you’re reading), we’re once again in the same boat as the people mentioned in the study I referenced above.
When I stop asking myself how we’re going to pay for it, I start asking, “Is college worth it?” On the surface, from a pure financial investment, I say, unequivocally, no. It’s hard for me to justify a $200,000 four-year expenditure (rounding up) that barring some good fortune that rains riches upon our family, will certainly put my wife and I further into debt. Not to mention my daughter, who will likely be graduating with a degree in a field where it will be difficult to find a job and be saddled with a mountain of her own debt. More than half of college graduates now leave school an average of $25,250 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
This “investment” goes against every basic accounting and budgeting philosophy I follow. It’s simple. You don’t spend what you don’t have. When you consider consolidations, delays, grace periods, graduate schools, and rollovers, my wife and I are still paying off our college loans. (Class of 1997 right here, hello.) You’ll have a hard time convincing me that sending my daughter to a university to study art history or English literature is worth that kind of money.
Truth be told, we’ll probably end up sending her to her first choice when the time comes, assuming she gets in and assuming she wants to go. Why? Because I am the keeper of my daughter’s dreams. And if her dream is to go to a certain college, then as long as she has earned it I will do all I can to make that happen. It could change her life like it changed mine and my wife’s. Our parents did all they could to send us to our first choice. A private out-of-state school that we’re still paying for. Don’t we owe it to our daughter and our parents to do the same? Some would site all of the numbers I outlined above and argue no. There are days I am one of them. So I get it.
Then I take a deep breath, relax, eat a cookie and realize there are always ways to pay for these things. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it. But we’ll figure it out somehow. Some way. There’s always a way.
Justin is a husband, dad, and writer who also blogs about the perils and pearls of parenthood at Daddy Knows Less.