Four years ago, my wife and I decided that we were ready to start a family. As we braced to have our lives turned upside down, we realized that our current home was no longer adequate. In our new home, we desired affordability so that we could continue prioritizing giving, service, and experiences; a safe yet challenging environment; and diverse neighbors who would become lifelong friends.
Days after moving, we learned that we were expecting. As I’m a higher education administrator, it didn’t take long before I began to consider my son’s education—daycare, primary and secondary school, even college.
We opened an education savings account and discussed his future: we wanted top-notch learning that didn’t hamper his (and our) ability to give, serve, or experience; a safe study environment that encouraged him to take big risks; and access to lifelong friends and mentors who reflected Christ. We soon realized that a common philosophy guided both our home-buying and education-investing.
Worth the Investment
I often hear families of prospective college students say they’re looking for the cheapest school in order to help their student avoid a crushing debt load. As a parent, I completely understand this. But I remind them to make their decision based on value, not cost.
As Christians, we understand vocation differently from the world. A calling isn’t just a degree or paycheck, it’s our lives. In response, we should pursue learning that reflects and prepares students for fully integrated lives—both as world-changing engineers or epidemiologists and as community-transforming spouses, parents, deacons, and youth soccer coaches.
I remind parents and students to make their decision based on value, not cost.
Like a home, a quality education will also appreciate in value. Our students will gain foundational skills and worldviews that will prepare them to navigate their ever-changing environment and profession. They’ll cultivate a network of lifelong relationships that will only become richer after graduation. Above all, they’ll engage in an ecosystem that prioritizes Christ over all things.
However, just as a financial advisor will encourage you to avoid overextending your pocketbook on a home and becoming “house poor,” we should avoid becoming “college poor.” If repaying loans prohibits us—or our children—from tithing, stresses our relationships, or prevents us from pursuing God’s call, it’s likely not a stewardly investment.
So how should we respond to price tags that rival our salaries?
It’s important to understand that most colleges, unlike real estate, operate on a discount model. In other words, the college typically determines a targeted average tuition discount (anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent at many schools) and then prioritizes discounting based upon the number and profile of students they desire to enroll.
Discounts come through academic and cocurricular scholarships, provisions for financial need, and many other avenues. Some states offer grants that encourage students to stay in-state and make private colleges’ prices more comparable to public universities. My advice: apply to the schools that are attractive to your family and then work closely with their admissions and financial aid offices.
Interestingly, sticker prices are often the worst predictor of future student debt. Instead, research on-time graduation rates, retention and degree completion rates, and career outcome rates to forecast future financial burden. Here are a few additional recommendations for families seeking an affordable Christian education:
Be intentional. Students are increasingly arriving at college with limited career exposure. The better understanding students have of their career options, the more likely they are to be confident in their vocational choice, complete their degree on time, and receive major-specific scholarships. So, begin creating meaningful experiences early—spend a Saturday serving alongside a food pantry manager or attending a naturalists’ presentation on restoring habitats. As a family, discuss these experiences and the importance of these image-bearers’ work. Also, pro tip: your church is a great place to begin identifying people to shadow.
Encourage and model the goodness of work. Your parents may have told you, “When I was your age, I paid for college by working in the summer.” That was probably unrealistic for you, and it’s almost certainly impossible for your kids. But current economic conditions have created an opportunity—compared to last year, students likely make 50 percent more each hour while colleges costs have only increased by 3 percent to 5 percent over the same time. In addition, many colleges, mine included, have launched expanded work programs for students who want to fund more of their education through employment.
Develop a game plan. Years ago, some high school students aimlessly collected college credit only to discover that basket weaving wasn’t required for a computer science degree. These days, strategic course planning can optimize your child’s college experience and help them graduate on time—or early.
Crunch the numbers. Include your child in your familial practices of financial stewardship and tithing, helping them understand real-world living expenses (housing, childcare, entertainment, etc.) and teaching them about opportunity costs, firstfruits, and return on investment. During their senior year of high school, sit down as a family to determine how much debt both you and your child are willing to take on. Consider future earnings (many colleges track their graduates’ initial career outcomes by major) and forecast living expenses. If the price is still out of reach after receiving the financial aid award letter, don’t immediately dismiss it. First, talk with that school’s admissions team—they may have creative solutions to cut costs including graduating early, working a premium on-campus job, or enrolling in alternative financing opportunities.
My wife and I have been homeowners for eight years. It’s been a bigger blessing than we ever imagined, but it wasn’t always clear that we had made the best decision; after all, we had to sell our second car to make the down payment.
With the clarity that hindsight offers, I can now see the immense growth that our home has created—for the community we’ve developed, for the financial equity we’ve gained, and for the opportunities for engagement it has facilitated. I expect that I’ll be able to say the same of my children’s education.