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Tuition Help: Who Should Pay for College Costs?

In the hot zone of the parenting blogosphere, not all the abuse is leveled at mothers with an inadequate commitment to breast-feeding.

Just try declaring that you don't plan to pay for the higher education of your precious and talented offspring. Here's a taste of the feedback: "Unbelievably selfish!" "Irresponsible!" "It was your idea to get pregnant. Why should your children pay for it?!"

When Babble.com founder Rufus Grisom raised the issue recently on an NPR talk show, callers and e-mailers flung insults and warned of dire consequences, including the inevitable: You don't pay for college, your kids will end up on drugs. Or, as one parent put it, "Not making sure your kids get through college makes as much sense as not teaching them to read!''

Why the heat? All financial issues are emotional, but paying for college is a hot-button fiesta: pride, status, fear; how Mom or Dad treated you; how your own career has panned out; whether your kids take their work (and your sacrifice) seriously or seem hopelessly spoiled (hm, that's a last-century word).

All of which can make it tough to distill the important point: Parents can make this decision, should make it early (or now), should act on it in a deliberate way, and should then communicate it to their children.

Start by asking yourself (and any other parents in the picture) these questions:

1. Did you go to college, and did your parents pay for it? How do you feel about that? Whatever your history ("My blue-collar mom slaved for us" or "My dad taught me to fend for myself'''), unpack those feelings.

Figure out whether you want to follow in your parents' footsteps, and why. And don't forget to update your assumptions. Working your way through college isn't the same proposition now that college costs about three times what it did 30 years ago.

2. Can you afford to pay for college? (And what does "afford" mean?) Of course, you'll apply for as much financial aid as you can get; this is about the remaining balance. If you're among the 10 percent (and counting) of Americans who are unemployed, you may barely be paying the bills. And if you have anything left over, saving for your own retirement should be your priority.

Among many other reasons, here are two.

  • You and your kid can borrow money to pay for college; borrowing for retirement is a lot harder.
  • If you end up woefully short of funds in retirement, your kids will end up with that burden. Better to press them now, and save them later.
Other families are in a much happier bracket. If you can pay your bills, max out your 401(k) contributions and write the checks for tuition, the questions are simpler, and the tradeoffs easier. Do you want the bigger house and family vacations now, even if it means your kids will stagger through their 20s with bigger debts? And how modestly are you willing to live in retirement: Grand Tour? Annual cruise? Staycation?

3. Are you convinced that your kid will prosper only if he or she spends four years at an Ivy and four summers of unpaid internships in cities other than the one where he or she could live for free? Plenty of studies -- and anecdotes -- say otherwise. (Given my own finances right now, these are certainly the studies I want to read.) There are plenty of happy, successful adults who went to public colleges and universities (even community colleges!) and spent hours dishing up mac-and-cheese to their fellow students.

4. What do you want to teach your kids? This is where the discussion gets really flammable and we start throwing around words like entitlement (is "entitled" the 21st century equivalent of "spoiled"?), privilege, skin in the game, work ethic. Whatever your kids learn at college, this is the biggest financial lesson you'll ever deliver. And it's not just about self-reliance or the value of those 100 cents. Trade-offs and priorities are Life Skills 101 (and 201, 301, etc.) You may want to signal to your kids that you, the parent, are entitled (!) to comfort, pleasure, security, and a bunch of other budgetary items, too. Special call-out to women, who are often too skilled at putting themselves last -- and sending the messages to their kids (daughters and sons) that "last" is where they belong.

5. Is this a yes-or-no question? Of course not. There's no one answer here, and there are many ways for parents and kids to share the burden. (Check out the discussion at CollegeConfidential.com.)

And parents of more than one child should fine-tune their approach. Your strategy can vary depending on the kid's inclinations (fencing scholarship? GI bill?), career plans, and likely earnings. (Painter? Investment banker? Insurance industry lobbyist?)

Whatever you decide, don't let your kids be the last to know. If they're old enough to know about GPAs, they're old enough to hear about IRAs and 529s.

But should you share the same thoughts with other parents at the soccer field, or your sister, or father-in-law? Try it and let me know what happens.

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