Should I Pay for My Child’s College Tuition?

I have four children, and most of them will probably enroll in college. My question is, how much of their tuition should we pay? When I went to college, my parents told me that was my financial responsibility. On the other hand, college is a lot more expensive now, and we have enough money to help with some of the costs. Should I withhold help so my children learn to manage their expenses? Try to pay for the whole thing? Aim for something in between?

I love your approach to your children’s education. When they were born, your children totally depended on you. From that day forward, your task as parents is to gradually but steadily prepare them for the coming day when they will be on their own. Moses, Jesus, and the apostle Paul all reminded us that while children need to start out with a father and mother, the day does come when they must leave them (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7; Eph. 5:31).

College often provides the final transition from relying on you to living independently before their Lord. You’re planning for this already, and that’s great.

As you know, God has gifted each of your children differently. You’ll have to help them discern which path will prepare them for the highest and best use of their own individual gifts. While not everyone needs to—or should—go to college, that experience can build character and provide a base of knowledge and wisdom that can be applied to almost any calling your children may receive throughout their lives. It sounds like you already see that, for most of them, college is in the future.

But you also have shown wisdom in seeing that college education is a joint endeavor. Without your assistance in transitioning to stand on their own, your children may stumble and “fail to launch” effectively.

Your Kids Should Pay for Their College

I spent nearly all of my adult life as a pastor or college president. When people would ask your question, I would (almost) never suggest that parents pay all the costs for their children. That’s not because I’m unkind, but because children who are becoming adults need to take on more adult responsibilities. Helping them to recognize the cost of college, and how they need to contribute, is moving them a step closer to responsible independence.

In addition, research ​shows​ that students whose parents pay the entire tuition bill tend to “engage in more leisure activities” and study less—as a result, their GPAs are ​lower​ than students who carry some of the cost themselves.

The cliché is “skin in the game.” Students tend to more deeply value their college experience and to be more successful academically when they’ve had to put some “sweat equity” into their educational enterprise.

So encourage your kids to start investing in their college financial future now. Part-time jobs, even ones where you pay them for household chores, can contribute to a college-savings account. Demonstrate to your children that you also are putting aside money for their college education, perhaps in a state-run 529 account. Make this a shared endeavor, too.

It also may be helpful to remind your children that hard work in their studies during middle and high school will be rewarded with academic scholarships or grants (though it can be hard for young adults to fully appreciate this opportunity). Also cheer on their participation in athletics and arts—good endeavors on their own, to be sure, but which can also yield a future scholarship.

Your task as parents is to gradually but steadily prepare your children for the coming day when they will be on their own.

In addition, AP and dual-enrollment classes during high school can provide up to two years of college credit by the end of high school and potentially reduce the number of years necessary to earn a baccalaureate degree, saving considerably in college tuition and accelerating entrance into full-time earning years. That’s all part of training up our children in preparation for the day they’re on their own before the Lord (Prov. 22:6).

The goal of these activities is first to glorify God and steward the talents he’s given your children. It’s also to teach them how to diligently do their work with excellence, as unto him (Col. 3:23–24). The fruit of scholarships, if they come, is an additional gift from God.

You Should Pay for Their College

As you noted, college costs are much higher than when you attended. Making college possible for your children, then, will likely mean you will need to help cover the expenses. In fact, research ​shows​ that students whose parents help pay for college—even with just a few thousand dollars—have a higher graduation rate.

Figuring out how much to pay isn’t one-size-fits-all. Research your child’s potential career path. Scout out her favorite colleges. Ask questions of the school’s financial-aid office, of your high school’s guidance counselor, of other parents who’ve done this recently. Look for scholarship opportunities with your child. Fill out federal and state financial aid. And when you have the final total, talk openly with your child about how much you can afford to cover.

Although sometimes controversial, I do encourage both students and parents to make judicious use of debt when appropriate during the college years. Remember, most young adults will borrow for something even if they don’t go to college—a car, a motorcycle, a truck, or van to start their own business. Such purchases (or even building up a debt-free savings account)—if it means foregoing a once-in-a-lifetime experience of foundational personal formation—could fall under Jesus’s warning about laying up treasures on earth (Matt. 6:19–20). College can be a great investment that incurring manageable debt can help make possible.

Plan Without Fear of the Future

It’s never too early to contact a college-admissions or financial-aid office to get a realistic picture of what might be expected. And while you do, enjoy thinking ahead with your children. Dreaming about college and career paths can be a time of great joy and exploration.

Then pray consistently with your spouse and your child, grounding your decisions in the confidence of God’s leading. Remember that he has knit your children together exactly as they are (Ps. 139:13) and set them in this time and place. If they trust him, he will make their paths straight  (Prov. 3:5–6).

Editors’ note: 

TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].