In many cases, a child's college education will be the second-biggest expense parents will pay, behind only the cost of their home. Houses, of course, are generally bought with a mortgage that allows people to spread the cost over 30 years.
It's possible, of course, to borrow money to pay for college, but it's not nearly as common as students taking on that debt themselves. In the 2017-18 school year, for example, parent loans accounted for 12% of the total undergraduate subsidized and unsubsidized direct loans (779,000 vs. 6.5 million). Parents, however, borrowed an average of $16,450, roughly 2.5 times what the average student borrowed, according to CollegeBoard.
That at least partially explains why parents have a high level of anxiety when it comes to paying for college. It's a fear that starts early, peaking (as you would imagine) in high school, when the expense becomes imminent, according to a survey of 1,000 parents by Care.com.
It's not just money
"As kids grow up, the countdown to college seems to come quickly. It's not a surprise that parents in our survey were the most stressed about college once their kids got to high school," according to the Care.com report. "College costs have risen dramatically, and the costs are being passed onto children via historically high levels of student loan debt."
It's worth noting that cost is not the only reason a parent might be stressed about their child going to college. Parents may also be concerned about their child leaving the home, what his or her future holds, and countless other things.
For this survey, however, the question was asked alongside questions about how much parents have set aside to pay for college, which suggests that economics play a big part in why 48.6% of parents are stressed over the prospect of their preschool-age child going to college and 77.4% feel that way once their child hits high school.
There's a reason to be worried
College prices keep going up. "Over the past 10 years, the average price for tuition and fees at four-year private colleges and universities has jumped to $34,740 per year, up more than $7,000, according to statistics from the College Board," wrote Motley Fool's Dan Caplinger. "Those costs have outpaced the rate of inflation by more than 3 percentage points, continuing a troubling trend that has persisted for decades."
Public schools are dramatically cheaper but still average just under $10,000 annually for tuition and fees. Given that Care.com found the average parent with high school-age children had $12,528 saved for college, you can see where there's a potential stress-causing massive shortfall.
What can you do?
As a parent, you can't go back in time. If you have young kids, you can, of course, ramp up your savings. That's less plausible if your child has already entered high school.
In that case, you should explore options beyond simply borrowing a lot of money. Scholarships may be an option for students with strong grades or unique talents, but nontraditional options have become more common.
There are numerous employers who will pay for part of -- or even all of -- a college education. It may be worth pushing your child to a company like Starbucks or Discover Financial Services that fully pay for some degrees. Those companies are not the only ones, and while degree choices and school options may be limited, it's hard to underestimate the value of graduating debt-free with years of work experience under your belt.