Why Are Families So Lax About Controlling Their College Costs?

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Student loan debt continues to hobble the majority of college graduates, and is one of the top worries among students today. College debt is holding young people back from all kinds of life activities older Americans took for granted during their own youth, such as buying a home of their own.

A new study by Discover Student Loans finds that parents worry about their childrens' debt, too. A full 85% fret that big purchases like cars and homes will be out of the question for their college-aged kids once they graduate and begin paying back their college loans.

While it's not too surprising that 96% of parents still consider a college education worthwhile – despite the burdensome debt it engenders – I do find one attitude quite odd. Almost half said that cost would not be a consideration when it comes time to choose a college, and 53% said that they would pay for whatever course of study their child chose.

Are these parents rich? Not at all. In fact, 75% of parents worry that they will not have enough money to pay these unknown college costs, a percentage that has stayed fairly steady over the last three surveys.

In addition, about half of all parents said that their child planned to take out both federal and private student loans to finance their college education.

A culture of helplessness?
The mind-set seems clear: College is absolutely necessary, and families just have to ante up whatever is needed in order to educate their children. I find it astonishing that people feel so helpless in the face of procuring something that should be considered an asset, instead of a liability.

Perhaps this is why families don't take an active part in lowering their own college costs and expenses. There are, however, several ways to do so, beginning with career choices.

There's plenty of evidence that some degrees, such as those in the liberal arts, are just not very marketable anymore. Despite this fact, too many students continue to pursue degrees in the humanities, where job prospects are bleak, than in math and science, where opportunities abound.

The first step is for parents and their children to discuss college majors that will truly provide job choices and opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook is an excellent place to begin such research.

Planning ahead for college costs
Once a career path is chosen, deciding on a college should be quite a bit easier. For students who wish to attend an Ivy League school and can gain admission, a free education may be waiting – as long as annual family income is below $65,000.

If the Ivies are out of the question, public colleges and universities are an educational goldmine, providing a top-notch education for a very reasonable price. The average in-state cost of tuition is under $9,000, and many schools now offer regional programs that allow many students to pay in-state rather than full cost, even if they are not residents. 

Of course, there is always the option to attend community college for two years, and then transfer to a four-year school. Choose schools with articulation agreements, which will pretty much guarantee that all credits will transfer without a hitch. 

There are myriad other ways to save on college costs, but getting the basics done – choosing a career path that is in demand, then picking a college that won't cost an arm and a leg – is priority No. 1. Once those important issues are settled, college becomes what it is meant to be: an investment in the future, rather than a future burden.

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  • Report this Comment On July 07, 2014, at 2:21 PM, ARBE123 wrote:

    My wife and I began saving when our oldest was 12 and the youngest was 8. They are now 21 and 17.

    Oldest is attending a private college and has 1 more year before graduation and beginning grad school.

    We've been able to cover all costs for oldest including what it will cost for grad school.

    Youngest has one more year of high school. Will begin college in fall of 2015. We have saved enough at this point to cover 5 years of private school. If youngest decides on grad school, we will have that covered before he begins.

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Amanda Alix

Foolish financial writer since early 2012, striving to demystify the intriguing field of finance -- which, contrary to popular opinion, is truly what makes the world go 'round.

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