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The College Conversation?

Last week, I watched from the hallway as my oldest son shaved for the very first time. Oddly, he wouldn’t let his old mom video the momentous occasion! It made me think about the fact that I have 5 more summers with this human who changed the world as I know it before he heads off to college. The thought of our beloved children leaving the nest and going to college brings up a mixed bag of emotions from sadness to pride to relief. And for many of us, it brings stress and maybe guilt over how much financial support we can afford to give our college-bound kids. Even more awkward, how do we talk about these financial issues with them?

Yesterday, I had the privilege of being part of a conversation with Ron Leiber, the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times since 2008, whose new book The Price You Pay for College will be released next Tuesday, January 26th. The insights and perspectives he offered in less than 60 minutes were thought-provoking and extremely practical. I will be buying the book… in hardback! That’s how helpful I think his book will be in framing how we view sending our kids to college and how to have college conversations with our kids.

Here are a few questions/takeaways from the conversation with Ron:

  • The real question in conversations about college is not how to save or how to pay for college, but what to pay for college. Ron explores the question of if a school like Northwestern at full price was $100,000 better than Marquette University, once “merit aid” is fully applied.

  • What does your family value about a college education? Is it the education? social network? credential? No shame. No blame. These conversations help your family uncover what your child wants to derive from the college experience. Maybe it’s to go to a name-brand school. Maybe it’s to find forever friendships. Maybe it’s to party his butt off. When you are more aware of what your family values about a college education, you are better equipped to determine how much you are willing to pay for this experience.

  • We all have emotional baggage, especially about money. Why would it be any different when thinking about spending 6 figures on 4 years of college? Ron encourages parents to dig into their own emotions about their college experience. Questions to start with: Did you attend college? If not, how did you decide not to? Any regrets? What did you like most about college? And what’s the one thing that you’d like to be different for your kids, if anything?

  • Do you feel like you are a bad parent if you don’t pay for most or all of your child’s college education? If your parents paid your way, is it possible that you should not feel obligated to do the same, given how much the world has changed? And if your parents paid nothing, have you asked yourself whether 15 years of extreme thrift starting now (or going deep into debt 15 years from now to pay for your child’s first-choice college) may not erase whatever pain lingers from that period long ago — or may create new conflict with your spouse and kids?

Interesting, right? A different way to think about the college conversation. The New York Times will be sharing an excerpt from his book in tomorrow’s edition if you want a preview before the book is released.

FYI – I also just purchased Ron’s book The Opposite of Spoiled. I’m officially a super fan.

Financial Planning