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The Color of Money

Parents should establish expectations before shelling out college tuition

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / August 26, 2011

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Just recently someone asked me whether parents should require their children to contribute to their college education.

Some parents feel that their children will not appreciate their college education if they don’t contribute. Others feel, as I do, that it’s part of the cost of raising a child to pay as much as you can.

When I say pay as much as you can, that’s intended for parents whose incomes have been so low that they struggled to keep up with household expenses. In those cases, I think it’s fair to ask your child to contribute by working hard to get scholarships, or by using money saved from any jobs they have had.

Now I want to address the parents who can afford to help but don’t, or could have afforded college expenses had they started saving early enough.

We know that, for the most part, a college education is the entry fee for the best jobs. You brought the kid into the world, so you should do what you can to make his or her start in the world as debt-free as possible.

To these same parents, I ask, what if your child got a full scholarship to their school of choice? Would you tell the child to turn it down because he or she wouldn’t appreciate the free money?

Of course you wouldn’t.

So let’s address the real issue here. Some parents are worried their children may not work hard if the money is there for the taking. If this has you withholding money, do what I intend to do with my children and what other parents are doing. Set limits.

Fidelity Investments just released its fifth annual College Savings Indicator study. It found that 66 percent of parents surveyed said they would require that their child maintain a certain grade point average to fund their education. The average GPA parents said they would require is a 3.1 out of 4.0.

Fidelity also found that the percentage of parents asking their children to graduate in fewer semesters almost doubled in the past five years to 28 percent.

It has long been the norm for students to take four years to finish school. But shave a year off that and you could save thousands of dollars. Most four-year colleges give students credit, on the basis of Advanced Placement exam scores, according to the College Board. If your child achieves good scores on the AP exams, he or she could graduate a semester or even a year early.

Almost half of parents are having their child live at home and commute (up from 38 percent five years ago). I hear parents say they want their child to have a certain social experience in college. They argue that it’s important for their child to live on campus or near campus. Really? Is it important enough to double the expense of college? Is it important enough to mire your kid or yourself in debt for decades?

With the high cost of college, it makes sense to forgo some of the traditional experiences to achieve the ultimate goal, which is to help your child get a degree so he or she can get a job.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.