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Are you college ready? – Preparing for your child’s first year

August 16, 2023

It’s August 15th and next week my wife and I will be moving my daughter into her dorm so that she can kick off her freshman year of college.  It truly fits the definition of bittersweet.  On one hand, I am extremely proud that she has made it this far and seemingly has a semblance of a plan.  On the other hand, I am going to miss her so much that it hurts.  Kids at this age are literally starting a new chapter and many of us (including the parents) struggle to manage this momentous occasion with grace.  

At 18 years old, our kids are faced with some pretty daunting choices.  What college should they go to?  How far away to I want to be from my family?  What major should I choose?  What do I want to do with the rest of my life?  These decisions are non-trivial even for the most mature 18 year old, imagine how this is compounded for those that still have a ways to go in the maturity department.  Even if your kid has a great head on their shoulders and seemingly knows what they want to do, there are still many things to prepare for like financing for example. 

As parents, what should we be doing? 

There is no single, right or wrong answer here.  Every situation is different, but I certainly appreciated the advice and feedback that I was able to accumulate from friends and colleagues.  I will share some of that for you and hopefully it will give you some peace of mind to help you get through this (or prepare for it). 

It’s been a long time since I graduated college and back then things were a bit simpler.  I was fortunate enough that my parents were able to finance my four years of college.  But 30 years ago, college tuition was much more affordable.  Comparing the cost of a four year degree from the university that I attended back in the early 90’s to today, it has more than doubled.   

Consider this:  according to 

  • The average cost of a 4-year degree at an in-state public university (living on campus) is $104,108 
  • The average cost of a 4-year degree at a private university is $223,360 

My first house was barely more expensive than the first bullet and way under the second.  What really sucks about all of this is that most kids entering into college have no idea what this will mean for them financially if they have to cover the entire bill themselves.  My daughter is a straight-A student who took all honors and advanced placement classes in high school.  When I sat her down to talk about the cost of her out-of-state college choice and tried to prepare her for the financial burden she would be facing when she graduated… her answer was “YOLO”.   All I could do was shake my head. 

My wife and I made a promise that when our kids were ready to go off to college we would guide them the best that we could, but we would not force them to make a particular decision.  That wasn’t an absolute, mind you… I did have some ground rules.  For example, they have to pick a school based on the education that they were seeking.  I wasn’t going to let them go to University of Hawaii just because it was a vacation destination.  Outside of that, they were pretty much in the driver’s seat. 

If you are anything like me, you might have started out with this grand idea that you would provide a full ride for your children.  I know I wanted to do this, because my Mom and Dad did it for me.  I felt it was my duty.  Well, after 27 years of marriage, 3 kids and a healthy wack with the reality hammer I had to come up with a compromise.   

Here is “the deal” that my wife and I provided to our kids: 

  • We started a 529 for each child after they were born.  I deposit a portion of every paycheck into their accounts and it’s weighted by their age (and thus proximity to needing the money) 
  • Each child has a savings account that is deposit only until they graduate college (or equivalent).  We put a healthy portion of their cash gifts throughout the years into this account up until about 12 years of age.  My deal was that as long as they did this, I would double the deposit amount.  So if my daughter got a $25 check from her aunt for her 10th birthday, I would deposit $50 into her account. 
  • When it comes time to decide where to go to school and what to major in, it’s completely their choice (within reason).  They would get whatever has accumulated in the 529, but the balance is on them. 
  • I also promised the kids that I would help them as much as I can financially after the 529 runs out but, that is ONLY to the extent possible without sacrificing my retirement or our current lifestyle. 

I think that is a pretty fair deal.  The fact that the 529 is like a salary cap from dear old Dad means they have to make some calculated decisions.  In-state vs out-of-state, private vs public, trade school vs University, etc.  I am not sharing this information in hopes of making me look like a hero.  I honestly feel as though I should be doing more, but I feel that this plan will help kick start some of the critical thinking that many of our kids need to develop sooner than later. 

I also want to let parents know that it’s ok to be a little nervous yourself.  It’s ok to even panic a little bit.  This is a pivotal point in our kids’ lives as they transition into adulthood.  These are the same kids that leave their clothes on the floor in their bedroom, forget to turn off lights, leave messages on the steamed up mirrors in the bathroom and wear shorts in the middle of winter.  How the hell are they supposed to take on the logistical nightmare of preparing for the first year of college on their own? 

Let’s stop here for now… this is enough to think about for a little bit.  My next post (or maybe posts) on this topic will cover a few other things that I learned along the way that might help you out: 

  • Visiting colleges 
  • College loans 
  • Scholarships & grants 
  • Checklist of things to prepare for from graduation to move in day 

Please tell me about “the deal” that you made (or plan to make) with your kids or if there are other things you wish you knew about at the time. 

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