You expect your kids to go to college, of course. And if you’re like many parents, you probably expect to foot the bill for a good chunk of that education—or maybe even all of it. After all, isn’t sacrifice what “good parents” do to help their kids get ahead?

I’m going to take a slightly controversial stand here and argue for the importance of having college students shoulder some of the burden of their education. Here’s why:

Empowerment

Requiring young adults to contribute to their college education encourages them to take it seriously. Students who realize the value of what they’re paying for are more likely to treat a college education as a serious long-term investment, not an excuse to party or goof off.

Our main job as parents is to launch kids who are independent, self-sufficient human beings. Remember standing back when your 2-year-old demanded to “Do all by myself!” and nervously allowing your new teen driver to take the wheel of the family car? All their lives, our children have looked to us to give them the space to discover their own abilities.

This can be a painful process for everyone. Many preschoolers sob when they realize Mom or Dad won’t be staying in class with them (and some parents are teary-eyed too!). Learning to accept financial responsibility can be equally shocking.

I vividly remember my dad refusing to pay for my books when I started my first year of college. I was shocked but also empowered. I realize that what my dad was really saying was that he had confidence in me and my ability to take care of myself. And that faith launched me into figuring out how to do it.

Modeling

We can teach our children how to have happy and fulfilling lives by modeling how to follow our own dreams, care for our own needs and communicate our wants.

What lessons are we teaching if we neglect our own needs and put all of our hope and dreams on our kids? Family life suffers tremendously when we focus our all our time and money on our kids or we work incessantly to support our children’s every desire.

Recently I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling to find time to practice yoga, which relaxes me and keeps me limber. She pointed out that I had no problem making sure my 11-year-old daughter never missed any of her nine hours of weekly gymnastics practice. Her point was well taken. I’ve since recommitted to my twice-weekly yoga routine.

Financial Impact

When our children are high school seniors, we’ll be, well, older. We’ll be closer to retirement and may be caring for aging parents and other, younger siblings. Middle age is often a time of self-evaluation that can include changing priorities and goals and increased anxiety about aging and financial security.

I recently met with “Sarah,” who has been a stay-at-home mom for the last 15 of her 45 years. She and her husband are divorcing. They’d saved aggressively for their daughter’s college education. But now, Sarah is wondering whether she should use some of that money for her own education so she can support herself and ultimately not become a burden to her daughter.

Where to start?

Before parents start socking away big bucks for their children’s college education, they should make sure they’re financially stable and on track to be able to retire. Students can always take out loans for college, but unfortunately, no one will loan you money to fund your retirement.

I regularly refer my financial-planning clients to “The World’s Simplest College Calculator” at www.savingforcollege.com. It’s an excellent place to start the process of determining how much to save for college.  A financial planner can also draw up a savings plan to take the sting out of saving.

Whatever you opt to contribute, rest assured that your children benefit from the education they get at college, but even more from the groundwork you’ve laid for them in 18 years leading up to their high school graduation. The bottom line is that giving them a sound grounding is the best gift of all.


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