The Paying for College Experience

Thursday, Sep 06, 2012 9:30am  |  COMMENTS (13)

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.


  1. POSTED BY lisaromeo  |  September 06, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    Funny, we felt this same way every year and surprise we still do even right now — and my oldest just started freshman year two weeks ago (yes, at his dream school). On one hand I agree, one way or another we will all (that includes the kid) figure it out as we go — scrimping, saving, scholarships, grants, the kid’s summer job(s), the two of us taking on more work, student loans, home equity loan if need be. On the other hand, on a bad day, I just wonder how the heck this will be in any way possible. Then, I too have a cookie.

  2. POSTED BY jdmannato  |  September 06, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    If I’ve learned anything in 5 1/2 years as a dad, it’s this: cookies make a lot of things better. Thanks for reading!

  3. POSTED BY crankinmontclair  |  September 06, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

    “Then you factor in room and board and it’s probably pushing $40,000 at least.”

    Reality check: It’s more like $50,000 plus (including books, etc.)

  4. POSTED BY johnqp  |  September 06, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    Double Reality Check : Try 58/59k at some schools – What a scandal.

  5. POSTED BY jdmannato  |  September 06, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    I know, I know.. I was lowballing it. My wife works in higher ed and I am still in denial.

  6. POSTED BY cricket  |  September 06, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.”

  7. POSTED BY herbeverschmel  |  September 06, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    I’m sure you hear it all of the time “enjoy cause it goes fast”. I laughed when people told me that and you know what, they were right. It flew. I recall walking my oldest to school the first day like it was yesterday. Or walking all my kids to school together when they were in the same school with our long departed rescued doggie.Not sure when I wept more when when I dropped #1 off that first day or at college. I’d go with college. Then again not sure when I wept more cutting that check or the drop off. The only thing I can say is the best way to pay for college is have them work hard at sports and earn that scholarship, don’t worry about the books because they are for nerds. Nah, just kiddin, you can only do what you can do to save and with the cost the way they are unless you are the enemy one percenters so vilified these days your not going to be able to pay it. I know it’s early but good grades is the best route to financial help.Ivy’s and top schools ND, Stanford just dont give money , they don’t care if you come or not beacuse there is someone willing to pay full boat. Even if you can get in those schools go down a notch or two because schools will give you money and at times a lot of it to get you. So there are ways to get it done. With a kindgarten child , be more concerned with enjoying the time with them and playing ball and doing things with them than worrying about college. I’m sure I’m not telling you something you don’t know already but with my kids in college and the rest ready to go, it leaves a bit of empty space in the heart not having them around like we used to. Gotta go, herb is tearing up like a baby…..and remember work on that sports scholarship.

  8. POSTED BY jdmannato  |  September 06, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    Thanks for that perspective, @Herb. I am glad to say that my wife and I are in fact enjoying every minute. We are live-in-the-now types. But the absence of a day care payment just got us thinking about this subject, and inspired this post. I appreciate you sharing your experience. Best of luck to your family.

  9. POSTED BY agideon  |  September 06, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

    “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.”

    Am I missing something? I agree with your view of college as an investment. Why do you presume that the result will be a [financially] worthless degree? Isn’t that a choice, and one that is years in the future? There would appear to be years for your daughter to find some area of expertise that both excites her and offers a decent chance for a career that offers financial security.

    Or are you simply making this a worst-case analysis?


  10. POSTED BY jdmannato  |  September 06, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

    I was being tongue-in-cheek, Andrew. Sorry if it didn’t come across clearly enough. In a perfect world, I’d want my daughter to study something more practical that could get her a good job in a solid career. Then again, I’m the same guy who a few paragraphs later said I am “the keeper of my daughter’s dreams.” So I guess if it’s going to be art history… so be it.

  11. POSTED BY agideon  |  September 06, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    “So I guess if it’s going to be art history… so be it.”

    When I was that age, I’d multiple directions in which I could go. Some were more potentially rewarding – financially – than others. I took that into account when determining which path to follow.

    I would imagine it’s the odd person that has only one possible path.

    Besides: being able to support one’s self is also a “dream” of sorts.

    “I was being tongue-in-cheek, Andrew”

    Sorry; I missed that. Perhaps it is a reflection of my own related concerns for my children. I guess my sense of humor tends to fall away too easily on this topic. I apologize for that.


  12. POSTED BY flipside  |  September 06, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

    Justin, I wish you all the luck the world raising your family. I am putting 3 kids through college right now and it is true they do grow up fast. I was fortunate enough to go to college in time when you could actually work you way through school. Unfortunately due to reckless lending the cost of higher education skyrocketed…believe me because I am feeling it. My best advice is start saving now. It is all about values…I worked hard and made a good living but lived well below my means. 500k house when my income justified 800k, Toyotas instead of BMWs, modest vacations, etc….the payoff, my kids will graduate from excellent (and very expensive schools) debt free. I will never forget the look on my daughter’s face when she got into her first choice and I told her she could go…forgoing a decent scholarship to her third choice. I realize not everyone has the opportunity to save as I did but every little bit helps. Invest wisely and start now…less Starbucks, less sushi, more savings…little expenses add up. Good Luck!!

  13. POSTED BY jdmannato  |  September 06, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

    Thank you, flipside. Wise advice. I am sure we will work it out. We’re pretty frugal, like you. And Andrew: no apologies necessary. Opposing comments are always welcome. No offense was taken. Sorry if my “comma” seemed snarky. I, personally, AM snarky. My comma was not.

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