According to a T. Rowe Price survey, more than half of American parents are saving for their kids’ college before retirement, which can be concerning for a couple of reasons.
Recognizing that higher education may not be the best fit for everyone is essential to understanding what side of this discussion you favor. Some people may opt not to pursue it or doubt their ability to succeed once they do. Furthermore, numerous jobs are available that pay a living wage and do not require a college degree.
Whatever life path someone chooses, they can’t avoid aging into retirement. Time and compound interest are your best friends when saving for the future. If you delay contributing to your retirement, you are losing out on substantial growth opportunities and the potential for significant principal savings.
Maybe you’ve prioritized your savings but are now wondering how you will pay for college. There are available and affordable options for college, and the entire burden doesn’t have to fall on you. While grants and work-study opportunities may not be available to all students, a range of alternatives are available to almost everyone aspiring to obtain a degree. These options include:
Consider dual enrollment programs
Remarkably, 48 states and the District of Columbia have dual-enrollment programs. Even two classes per semester in the senior year of high school can impact the first-year costs of college.
Start in community or junior college
If you want your child to have the same four-year college memories you had, then you should know “the university experience” is no longer as affordable as it once was. There are alternatives. Community colleges in 33 states have free tuition. Although mandatory fees, books, and room and board expenses apply if the student moves or relocates, community colleges are considerably less expensive than starting at a four-year program.
Encourage early saving
Whether they take on a full- or part-time job, encourage your child to save those paychecks for college. If they aren’t gainfully employed, ask them to consider creative ways to make money, like selling clothes, games, books or other belongings they no longer use.
Apply for scholarships
Encourage your child to apply for scholarships. Don't consider free money "not worth the effort because the amount is so small.” Free money for college is free money for college, and many unclaimed scholarships are up for grabs.
There are a few ways to improve that search for scholarships:
Check out local and national service organizations.
Reach out to the registrar's office/financial aid office.
Talk with your student’s guidance counselor.
Use caution with loans
Even if payments are deferred until the student graduates, and you have an agreement with your student for them to pay the loan back, you are still liable for it. Before committing to the loan to cover education expenses, ask yourself if you can afford those payments now and in the future.
When I was working as a professor, I included that question as an assignment for my students to discuss personal finance with their parents. Most parents responded with a “No!” Although it caused panic in some homes, many were relieved I raised the question during freshman year rather than before graduation.
Don’t borrow from the future
This can’t be said more directly: Do not borrow against your retirement accounts to foot the bill for school. Instead of delaying—or potentially destroying—your retirement, it’s important to weigh that burden and consider how it will affect your future finances. Only you can be counted on to take care of yourself in retirement.
Social Security will exist, but the benefit will likely be much smaller than it is today. The amount already isn't enough for someone to survive without a drastic change in their standard of living. In fact, according to the Social Security Administration, the average monthly retirement benefit for Social Security recipients is $1,781.63, which is a little over $21,000 a year.
Prioritize retirement first and then college. Fully fund your retirement every year. If you have money outside of that, you have free rein to save for your child's college education. We’ve all heard the airline directive of putting your oxygen mask on first and then your kids. Prioritizing your well-being first will save you, your family and your finances in the long run.
Dr. Kate Mielitz, AFC®, is a seasoned financial expert and compassionate counselor at Beyond Finance, where she leads their comprehensive financial counseling program. With over 20 years of experience in financial services, she has helped countless individuals navigate money issues and decisions to achieve a more secure financial future. She can be reached at email@example.com.