Cutting Your Child's College Costs Starts Early with Tough Talks

Sue Grossardt, Special for USA TODAY

College planning is a big deal. In fact, for many families, paying for college is one of their biggest investments. With college expenses and student debt on the rise, wise parents engage in candid conversations on this hot topic earlier, rather than later, with their college-bound kids. How early? As soon as middle school. Some tips to get the conversation started:

1. Focus on cost, and don't be shy.

The cost of a four-year degree — including tuition, fees and living expenses — has exploded.  Public school cost 129% more in the 2013-14 enrollment year adjusted for inflation compared with 30 years before, according to the College Board. And private school cost 125.7% more. Meanwhile, the U.S. median household income rose just 15% in that same 30-year time frame, Census figures show.

Parents shouldn’t shy away from sharing those financial realities with their teens. And their heart-to-heart chat may include divulging the balance in the 529 plan and other investment buckets set aside for college.

“You should talk candidly," says Amy Podzius, financial planning director at TIAA (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America). "Given the cost of college these days, it’s highly possible that you haven’t saved enough to cover it.”

2.  Get some skin in the game.

“Deep down, your teen wants skin in the game.  And that includes college planning, selection and financing,” says Al Hicks, partner and certified financial planner at Summit Planning Group.  “Whether the student pays for tuition or room and board, or even books, it is a great motivator.”

Another way students can have skin in the game is by taking an active role in researching the cost of each school they are interested in. Picking a college needs to be a rational choice, but teens with big dreams might not see it that way.

“Your kids need to understand what they have to work with before they start looking at schools," Podzius says. "It’s not fair to let them apply to the Ivy Leagues and wait until they get an acceptance letter to tell them you can’t afford it.”

If you don't have enough saved for college, your kids need to know that. 

3. Figure debt (not guilt) into college choice.

Parents shouldn’t feel guilty about giving kids a reality check when it comes to choosing the college of their dreams. Big decisions in life have limits.

“A reality check is a gift to our kids," says Brett Graff, economist and author of Not Buying It: Stop Overspending and Start Raising Happier, Healthier, More Successful Kids. "A person's college major is more likely to determine her future earnings, not the name of the college, so the highest-ranking isn't always the best choice, particularly if the kid will take out loans."

Hicks agrees that avoiding debt is a smart move. “College debt has become a stranglehold on college graduates," Hicks says. "It’s not because of the cost of college, but because of the college choice that is made. A wrong investment is always more costly than a right one.”

4.  What’s your major?

Employable degrees have become the buzzword that can be difficult — but necessary — to talk about. Help your teen discern the difference between a hobby and a career.  For example, let’s say that your student is naturally artistic.  Talk about whether this talent will serve them well as a career path or a creative outlet. Making decisions like these will help them become a well-rounded person with multiple interests while still being able to pay the bills.

What are the most employable degrees? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students who choose business, engineering and information technology generally will be in greater demand.

“History, political science and music degrees are examples in which it is even harder to get any job without a master's degree or a Ph.D.,”  Hicks says.  Having these discussions with your high school student and putting a dollar value to the extra years of tuition for advanced degrees is a healthy conversation to have early in this process.

5. Define goals early.

Encourage your student to explore interests, college majors and career options early in high school to put them on the path to graduate in four years. That saves both time and money. Keep in mind that about 80% of students in the United States change their major at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On average, college students change their major at least three times.

How many of us, at 18 years of age, knew exactly what we wanted to be when we grow up? The reality is that the process of uncovering that is part of growing up. Having some tough talks ahead of time could help limit the cost of that lesson.

  • Explore career interests early with shadowing in the workplace and on-campus university workshops geared for high school students.
  • Make a list of desired colleges and their tuitions and fees.
  • Put a pencil to the equation: “Sticker price” of a college – scholarships, financial aid and family savings =  how will the balance be paid?