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They’re on Their Own: Why I’m not paying for my kids’ college

One of the questions I get asked a lot as a mother of five kids, is “But how do you plan to pay for their college?”

The answer: I don’t.

In some circles, this admission is tantamount to saying you lock your children in the closet as a form of discipline or let them eat nothing but Doritos for breakfast most days: not technically abuse, but a sure sign that you aren’t really capable of meeting their needs. These days, any self-respecting middle-class mom knows that part of her job includes providing the means necessary for, at the very least, a four-year degree at the best institution to which her child is able to gain admission, plus the costs of room, board and books (and let’s face it, beer).

I’ve even heard parents argue passionately against requiring college-going kids to hold part-time jobs to help defray costs, because twenty hours a week spent slinging burgers or answering the phone might prevent said young scholars from being able to “fully immerse” themselves in the college experience.

Cue the violins!

It’s not that I’m anti-college. I think higher education is great, particularly when the student is motivated to succeed (which I personally was not until I was in my twenties – after I’d wasted plenty of money). I’d love it if each of my kids finishes school, whether pursuing a specific career goal or simply for the love of learning.

It’s just that I’ve never considered getting them through to be in my job description.

I spend most of my time caring for or working to provide for my children (often, I’m doing both at the same time). I’ve sacrificed my body, free time, career advancement, and much of my cash for them. I rejoice over their successes. I grieve their struggles. I want nothing more than for them to grow up into happy, successful people.

But I have my limits.

I’m not saying my husband and I will kick them out the door the day after they graduate high school, saying, “Well, good luck with all that!” Our plan is to assist each of our children with lots of support (including living at home if necessary), encouragement, and information; and as much financial support as we are able to – and that it makes sense to – give. Taking out a loan for an ultra-motivated kid to pursue his dream of attending Harvard? Sure. Reaching into my pockets to allow an unmotivated child to finish a marginally useful degree without debt and make a nearly effortless introduction to adulthood – while I’m left paying the bill in middle age? I don’t think so.

Paying our kids’ ways through school has become such an integral part of “good” parenting that we feel pressured to do it even if footing the bill means mortgaging our own futures. Yet even Suze Orman warns that it doesn’t make sense to tap into our retirement funds or put our own finances at risk in order to subsidize the education of young, able-bodied people with lots of time ahead of them. By doing so, couldn’t we in effect punish those adult children when they have to, one day, support our broke and aging butts?

And philosophically, I’m not on board with the whole idea of making the transition to “real life” so easy on young folk. It’s like we’ve come to expect that young adults shouldn’t have to struggle. What about the time-honored tradition of sitting on milk crates, eating crappy food and checking out movies from the library for entertainment? Isn’t that struggle in itself valuable to growth?

Besides, if we’re looking at a college degree purely as an economic investment, we may want to think again. In a recent New York Times article, Matthew B. Crawford, author of the new bookShop Class as Soulcraft, writes: “There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children . . . A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive.” But in the current economy, Crawford argues that the trades may be especially in demand – a worker in India, after all, can’t fix your car over the Internet. “If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that eighteen-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn),” he writes.

Do I want my kids to have a better life? Depends what you mean by “better.” Maybe traveling for a year or two and then apprenticing to become a plumber would prove to be a more horizon-broadening and financially rewarding choice than studying to become, say, a sociologist. Or an investment banker, for that matter.

Of course, that would require some of us to put our pride aside and accept a career in the trades as befitting our precious offspring. I’m reminded of a conversation a friend of mine overheard between two parents at a school function in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. One of the mothers was complaining to the other that her daughter, who’d graduated the year before from a prestigious public high school, had decided to attend a two-year vocational program to become a paralegal. “It would be less embarrassing if she had a drug problem,” the mother confided. Thanks, Mom.

Do I want my kids to have a better life than me? Depends what you mean by “better.” I want them to learn how to be self-sufficient and responsible. I want them to find a career that both puts food on the table and feeds their souls. I want them to be loving, kind, generous, compassionate, and down-to-earth. I believe they can get there whether they have a Ph.D or a GED; whether they have student loan or zero debt; whether they work with their hands or pursue academia. How they get there is up to them, and I believe they’re bright, creative, and resourceful enough to figure it out.

In their adult lives, my kids will struggle. They will fail. They will also succeed. I will love them and encourage them when they do either.

But I’ll keep my money. I’ve earned it. How to earn theirs? Well, that’s up to them.

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