This past October, Inside Higher Ed came out with a report on how families pay for college. The report placed the average amount that families spend on an undergraduate education per year at $26,458. The report also found that parents chip in almost three times more than students, 28 percent of the total cost is covered by scholarships and grants, and 53 percent of families borrowed money in some way to pay for college. With this data in mind, we wanted to dig into the stories of how a family pays for college
While statistics like this are a great way to gauge trends in higher education costs, these numbers don’t show the different ways individual families finance a college education. To follow up on this report, we’re focusing on three families, and how they have chosen to pay for college. In particular, we’re talking to Eric Strong, who works in sales here at Peterson’s. Strong has two children – a son who is currently in his second year at Lafayette College, and a daughter who a senior in high school and in the process of choosing a college. Strong shares how his family is financially putting two students through college, and how the process works within his family.
Strong first explained how the finances of higher education are addressed in his family. He and his wife decided that they would take on complete financial responsibility of their children’s undergraduate degrees.
“My wife and I were both lucky in that we never had to get a student loan. So, early on when we decided to have kids we started putting money away,” said Strong.
This decision to pay for all of both children’s education has taken a lot of planning, various methods of saving, and includes backup options. In order to save enough, the Strongs used a 529 savings plan and a Coverdell ESA. They also used investment tools, which included stocks and mutual funds. Strong said that cash gifts from the children’s grandparents were also helpful in funding these plans. So far, this has worked for the family, but Strong said that they do have other plans in case these plans cannot fully fund college.
“So that we can keep up the tradition of no student loans for our kids, we could look at some different options should the need arise. We could refinance the house as needed, but no student loans is our ultimate goal,” said Strong.
Another component of the higher education cost conversation is variances in price of different colleges, as well as differences in price if a student stays in-state or ventures out-of-state. Strong said that his family chose to not put a cap on which colleges his children could attend.
“Any college you get into, you’re welcome to go to. Differences in price didn’t affect college choices,” said Strong.
However, Strong and his wife put a limit on this generosity. While they will finance an undergraduate degree, the funding ends after four years.
“If they’re going to go to grad school, law school, or medical school, they can take on that debt. But, going to college for four years, we don’t want them coming out and owing x number of dollars because you come out of college having to pay off the student loans,” said Strong.
The Strongs also encouraged scholarships to lower the price tag of an undergraduate degree. Strong’s son was applying for scholarships around the same time the family sold their house in California, so their income statement was larger and his son didn’t qualify for any financial aid. However, this year they’ve undergone moving to a different state and career changes, so the family’s finances look different and Strong’s daughter was able to earn some scholarship money.
“My son is working on receiving some scholarships and grants, so it’s all in the process of making sure that we can pay less,” said Strong.
The Strongs were able to start saving early on, making college a much less stressful life event when the time came. He said it would make paying for college much easier if families could start saving, even if it’s only a little at a time, early in their children’s lives.
“I mean, friends of mine never started saving money for their kids to go to school. So then all of a sudden their daughter is a sophomore, and it’s too late to grow in savings,” said Strong.
While some parents are able to pay for their children’s college education, others are not. Robert Leppek was a college student who funded his own undergraduate degree. Leppek attended California State University, Sacramento, and is now a Co-Owner of Central Valley Engineering and Asphalt. Leppek was able to avoid taking out loans by attending a state school with lower tuition rates and working 20 to 30 hours per week during school. Like the Strongs, Leppek’s main priority was to not take out student loans. He recommends working more during college, even if you have to take fewer classes to avoid borrowing large amounts of money.
“I would recommend if you have to work, try and get as much work as you need to pay for school and take classes at the same time. Obviously you may have to go into the year half a semester later or something to not walk out with huge amounts of debt,” said Leppek.
Of course if you have a tight budget like Leppek did for his education, doing everything you can to make college cheaper is the first step. When filling out financial aid tools like the FAFSA, make sure you put your income if you will be supporting yourself. It’s also smart to evaluate the price and reputation of colleges you apply to so you get the most bang for your buck. You want to go to a school where you’ll get a solid education, but you don’t want to burn yourself out trying to pay for it as quickly as possible – and sacrifice your education in the process.
“You’ve got to learn how to prioritize to get things done. Schoolwork is always the first thing that people want to get done, but you also need money to survive,” said Leppek.
For students juggling a full-time job with being a full-time student, there are going to be some sacrifices. But, making room to relax sometimes and have a fun college experience is the third priority.
“Get your school in, work in between, and then you’ll decide how much fun you can have,” said Leppek. “Try and mix as much work, fun, and school as possible. College experience is the most important thing for everybody.”
See also: College Work-Life Balance: How to Fund your Education Without Sacrificing your Education
Then of course, there are families that combine student work and loans with parental help. Katarzyna Wolanska, IT Quality Assurance Engineer at Peterson’s, also has a son and daughter in different stages of higher education. Wolanska’s son began taking psychology courses at Arapahoe Community College. At the time, he was able to utilize the FAFSA for financial aid and a government loan. However, it wasn’t a good fit and his GPA dropped.
“When that happened I said, ‘are you sure you want to do that? Let’s think about something different maybe,’ and he switched to software development and he really liked that,” said Wolanska.
Unfortunately, since his GPA was low, Wolanska’s son no longer met FAFSA requirements and lost the aid and loan.
“He lost the loan, so I decided to give him the boost and pay by myself for two or three classes to make up that GPA dip,” said Wolanska.
Wolanska’s son was unable to re-qualify for the FAFSA, so she took a step back to re-evaluate her son’s post-secondary education.
“I was pushing him and I was thinking, maybe it’s too early for him, maybe it’s not the right time,” said Wolanska.
Wolanska’s son is now working full time. While she says she hopes he goes back to college someday, she knows it is not the right choice for him at this point. Wolanska’s daughter is currently in high school, and she wants to go to college for art and graphic design. Wolanska expressed that she wants to do a few things differently as her daughter approaches her post-secondary education.
“For my daughter, I’ve been trying to save for those first couple classes but I think she knows that she has to take a loan and she has to pay it off once she graduates. I will help as much as I can, but I don’t want to do the same thing that I did with my son and put myself into debt,” said Wolanska.
Another factor is distance. When Wolanska’s son attended college, he continued to live at home, while her daughter wants to go away for school.
“My daughter really wants to go to California. I don’t want her to be by herself but at the same time I don’t want to make the same mistake I made with my son. I want her to be independent. So, if she decides to go to a school outside of Colorado, I will let her do that, although it is more expensive,” said Wolanska.
To mitigate the costs, scholarships are another important topic of conversation between Wolanska and her daughter.
“I talked to her about scholarships as well. She wants to go to art school, and we are looking for scholarships for that. And, we will fill out the FAFSA and see what happens,” said Wolanska.
Every family treats higher education differently. Some parents do not pay for college, others pay for all of it, and there is plenty of in-between. The Strongs, Leppeks, and Wolanskas are just a few examples of families making financial decisions about college, but there are many ways to go about this. Understanding the true cost of college, how to earn scholarships, and how to save for this expense are all important for families undergoing the process of higher education.