How to Talk About College With Kids of Any Age

Talking About College With Kids Of Any Age

Talking about college with kids is complicated. We want them to make a smart financial decision but also not feel the stress of such a significant expense that they can’t fully comprehend. Since Fuss Fish is still little, I am incredibly pleased to bring in a seasoned expert to chat with you about this important topic! My friend Liz from Chief Mom Officer is here to share how she uses an incredible college compact system with her boys. Take it away, Liz!

Hi! I’m Liz, the Chief Mom Officer, and I’m honored that Mama Fish has invited me over here to talk to you about my college compact concept, and how you can use it to talk to your kids about college.

As the mother of three boys of varying ages (14, 10, and 2), including a high school freshman, college is never far from my mind. Not only will my oldest be heading off to college in less than four short years, but I also have three kids to put through college! Seeing all the dizzying statistics about just how much college is going to cost also scared me. I also used to struggle with just how I should talk with my boys about college.

Most times, when we see advice about saving for college, all people tell us is one of two things:

  1. Save early and often (but what if you can’t? or didn’t?)
  2. Your kids can get loans for college, but you can’t get loans for retirement (implying that you shouldn’t even try to help your kids)

I felt something was missing from this usual advice. What if I can’t afford to pay for just any school (hello, $200k for one child for private college – it’s just not happening!) but I still want to help in some way? What if my son decides not to go to college? What if I save a bunch of money, but then my kids end up getting a scholarship?

Enter – the college compact.

What’s A College Compact?

It’s a simple but powerful tool for helping you decide:

  • What you’re willing to pay for college – and what you’re not
  • What sorts of conditions there are on you paying for college – for example, maintaining good grades, not getting in trouble, etc.
  • What will happen if your child decides not to go to college
  • What you’ll do if there’s money left over from what you saved

Think of this as a guide to your college values. You can use this as a tool not only to make these decisions but also talk with your kids about college expectations in a clear way. After all, you don’t want your kids mistakenly thinking that the Bank of Mom And Dad is going to buy them a golden ticket to any college they want, only to be surprised come senior year. When it’s time to fill out the FAFSA and apply for colleges isn’t the time to have the conversation.

How Can You Create One?

It’s simple, but it will take some time. Be sure to block an hour or so on the weekend to sit down and take care of this.

You’ll want to do a little bit of research ahead of time. Figure out:

  • What’s your target college? Now don’t worry – this doesn’t need to be the actual college your child ends up going to. You’ll just want it to be the type of college you want to target. Is it an in-state public, in-state private, or out of state private college? Each of these comes at very different price points.
  • How much your target college costs today. You should be able to Google “Cost Of Tuition + [name of college],” and a page listing just that information should pop right up at the top of your search results.
    • WAIT! Be sure to not just note down the cost of tuition, but also typical fees, books, and room and board. This is the total cost of college. Some colleges have a great page where they lay all this out clearly for you, and others you have to look for it.

That’s all you need! Then during the time you set aside on your calendar, ask yourself the following questions – and write down the answers.

  • Of the cost of the target college, how much am I willing to pay for – and what do I expect from them?
    • Tuition
    • Books
    • Living Expenses
    • Fees
    • Cell phone
    • Car/car insurance
    • Other
  • Will you pay for your child to get any major in school, or are there specific ones you’re willing to fund?
  • How many years of college will you pay for?
  • Are you paying just for undergrad, or also graduate school?
  • What grades does your child need to maintain?
  • What are your expectations for their behavior?
  • Are you planning to fund the most expensive meal plan or the least expensive one? Or for them to buy and cook food themselves?
  • Do you expect them to buy used books, or rent them online?
  • Will all room decorations come from Ikea or second hand? Or be new?
  • If your child decides not to go to college, what will you do with any savings?
  • If your child goes to college but doesn’t spend all your savings (e.g., due to scholarships) what happens to the extra?

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions! The purpose of going through this exercise is so you can make thoughtful decisions about how you’ll be tackling college when the time comes.

I choose to put mine in the form of a letter (and you can check out this post if you want an example). But you don’t need to write a letter – you can put the same information in a spreadsheet, a word document with bullets, or any other format that works for you! The important thing is that you give these questions thought and planning, so you can talk to your kids about college in a clear and concrete way as the opportunity comes up.

You’ll want to put a reminder on your calendar to come back in a year and revisit this – there’s a lot that can change in a year, after all! College costs could go up, or down (but probably up). Maybe you had a great year and received an unexpected bonus, and you decide to bump up your college promise. Or perhaps there was a medical crisis, a job loss, or something else happened, and you had to stop saving for a while.

How Do You Talk About This With Kids?

As I mentioned above, I’ve given a lot of thought (and practiced with my own kids) how to talk to them about college. After all, I don’t want to sit them down with this scary letter and start going through it, lecturing them about good behavior in college while they’re still in elementary school! Things are going to change over the years, and my kids will change as they grow. Plus no one likes a lecture!

Once they’re a senior in high school, your college compact will be pretty much final. At that time, it’s fine to actually give them a copy and go through it with them. After all, if they’re headed to college, they should be mature enough for a frank money talk.

But before then, I would recommend using the compact just as a guide to your conversations about college with your kids. At young ages, like in elementary & middle school, they’re simply too young, and college is too far away for reviewing the details to make sense. Also, there’s so much can change over the course of 10-15 years (in technology, colleges, and our own lives).

Conversations about money need to be tailored to your child’s age, maturity level, and interest in the topic. The way I like to talk about money with my boys is to have a discussion when the subject naturally comes up. So, for example, if a co-worker has a child headed off to college I’ll talk to my kids about it, and then tell them briefly about our goals. If I see an article in the paper about college, I will make sure to show them and chat about what we’re thinking. I have my college savings goal bar chart hanging up behind one of my kitchen cabinets, and every three months when updating our savings, I color in the chart and proudly show the kids how we’re doing towards our goal. Or let’s say you see a college kid misbehaving in the news (like this guy famous for his jalapeño mac n cheese meltdown at UCONN!) –use that to talk with your kids about your expectations of their behavior.

When my oldest son went on a college tour of Wesleyan in eighth grade and showed interest in possibly going there, I thought that was a perfect opportunity to talk about college. I told him our goals, and we looked up the cost of Wesleyan online. It was a lot more than we’ve targeted, so we talked about how he could close that gap (scholarships, loans, work, etc.). It was eye-opening for him to learn that some colleges cost $60k per year!

I Want to Hear From You

What kinds of questions do you have – either about deciding how you’ll pay for college, or how to talk about it with your kids? Let me know in the comments!

And be sure to keep in touch – pop by my blog at Chief Mom Officer, where I talk all about money, work, and frugal family life. You can also find me on Facebook or Twitter, or drop me an e-mail at [email protected] with questions. Thanks again Mama Fish for letting me stop by!

This post was proofread by Grammarly.

How to talk to kids of all ages about the real cost of college

4 thoughts on “Talking About College With Kids Of Any Age”

  1. Your bullet points really make the reality of it eye-opening. I plan to encourage my kid to apply for scholarships and grants as much as possible and early. on. Since we are in the financial field, it’s especially important for us to make our kids aware of all the resources out there that are available. Costs are rising every semester and colleges are getting more and more competitive. At the same time, it’s so important to find more and more ways to counteract these costs.

  2. Great post. The list of questions to answer and record answers is especially helpful. High school kids can handle these concepts, and it is so helpful for them to know the situation and expectations.

  3. My dad’s rallying cry was “Out in 4”. Only to find out later if I’d wanted another semester or year for another major or a masters in 5 he would have supported it. I wonder how different my initial job search could have been with that ‘more time’. I double majored biology education. The education part meant student teaching, which was a big time commitment. It lead to taking summer classes, (plus retail work), and not considering an internship. The lack of internship hurt my job prospects. At the same time I was kind of ready to be done with school. However having a plan would have been helpful.

    Also prepare for the non-college option, and how your child can get career help. My sister isn’t sure what job she’d like enough to do after this one. Family has run out of suggestions and resources to suggest. I know through my college there was an office for career assessment, advice, resume help, career counselors. There were alumni who could be networking connections through this office. Do you, the parent, have friends, colleagues and or their spouses who your child could shadow at work to see the reality of the job? In high school I could not imagine being in an office. I took a summer temp job and spent time in an office and it wasn’t that bad. I now have an office job, after years in the lab.
    I have some friends and relatives who are super smart, talented and great people, but the idea of 4 more years of school wasn’t for them for whatever reason. My cousin went into the restaurant industry. Another person loved fire trucks, and became a fire fighter. That path included joining the local volunteer squad in high school, taking the calls etc. My sister has gotten on the job training for what she does. A friend in IT could make more right then vs waiting to finish a degree, and he’s doing fine.
    I know my academic career was a mix of not wanting to disappoint my parents expectations, my own stubbornness to not give up (even when things were really difficult (I’ve been diagnosed as an adult with a math learning disability, and ADHD without the H)), and a natural affinity for learning (I read the signs at museums). I knew life was supposed to be: high school, college, jobs. With an entrepreneurial society growing, be mindful that the parental expectation of going to college doesn’t lead the child to go down a path they aren’t ready for, or undue stress and anxiety.

    My brother wasn’t ready for college right after high school but took some classes last year. How long will the money be available? Is another question to consider.

    Having topical discussions about college, and career from middle school onwards can help. It can also give insight into the child’s personality and their own expectations.

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