What to do when you can't pay for college

Students take their College Scholastic Ability Test at a school on November 8, 2012 in Seoul, South Korea.

Saving for college is a priority for many parents, but sometimes life gets in the way. So what happens when your star student gets into his or her dream school and you can’t pay for it?

Ron Lieber, Your Money columnist for the New York Times, offers 8 tips to parents who find themselves in that position.

On what parents should do first

"For starters, you need to stop apologizing. If you have not been able to save anything for your child’s education, it is probably because you’ve been spending an awful lot of money along the way, making sure that child has a decent place to live, has a good school to go to, enriching activities and things for the family to do together ... If you’ve been doing a good job of that, your child is probably well-adjusted and is going to find a way to get to and through college on way."

On the importance of open and honest conversations

"We have a real problem, us parents in the world, around silence and money and families. And it happens for any number of reasons. Some parents want to protect their kids from however much money the family has, or the lack there of, and other people think it’s impolite to talk about money and politics. The kid needs to know where you stand. The kid needs to know how much money is available, how much money might be available, how much money the parents are able to borrow, willing to borrow. That conversation needs to start pretty early on in high school so the kid has realistic expectations. And so, I just think parents shouldn’t be keeping secrets by the time certainly a child is ready to apply for college."

On considering the 'gap year' between graduating high school and starting college

"College is wasted on most 18 year old's. It’s incredibly expensive. We’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars a year spent on an 18-year-old who are cut loose from home for the first time often without many bearings or social survival skills on their own. And they’re sort of meandering through these very expensive schools for a year or two before they get their heads screwed on straight. Now, imagine a teenager who has taken a year or two off before college, they’ve gotten a sense of what life looks like in the real world and they come to the classroom with all of that experience kind of set to put it to bear on whatever it is they’re learning. They’re usually milking way more out of that first year than an 18-year-old would be."

"When it comes time to apply for jobs later, if you’re an employer, you’re going to look at someone who has taken a year or two off and gotten some real world experience a lot differently than you’re going to look at somebody who went straight through and maybe worked at a couple of day camps or scooped ice cream during the summer."

On why parents have trouble being honest about their financial situation

I think in the words of the great personal finance sketch artist, Carl Richards, money equals feelings and it evokes especially strong feeling here because we’re talking about our children and how we launch them into the world and whether we’ve done enough and whether we could’ve done more. And no matter how much we do, we’re almost always going to kick ourselves or question or second guess because these are the beans we put on the planet or cared for from a very early age and so it just makes a mess of your emotions. And the other tricky thing about this is that very very very few parents can actually save enough ahead of time to write a check for a public university tuition and room and board let alone a private school that now costs more than a quarter of a million dollars for four years. And so people get to the starting line when the student is a freshman in college and even if they have half the money saved they start to feel like well did we do something wrong. Did we spend too much on ourselves. And people are kicking themselves and they just need to stop. The system is what is it is and you have to muddle through just as best as you can.

On why parents have trouble in this situation

"I think in the words of the great personal finance sketch artist, Carl Richards, money equals feelings. And it evokes especially strong feelings here, because we’re talking about our children and how we launch them into the world and whether we’ve done enough and whether we could’ve done more. And no matter how much we do, we’re almost always going to kick ourselves or question or second guess because these are the beans we put on the planet or cared for from a very early age. And so it just makes a mess of your emotions."

"The other tricky thing about this is that very, very, very few parents can actually save enough ahead of time to write a check for a public university tuition and room and board, let alone a private school that now costs more than $250,000 for four years. And so people get to the starting line when the student is a freshman in college and even if they have half the money saved they start to feel like, 'Well did we do something wrong? Did we spend too much on ourselves?' And people are kicking themselves and they just need to stop. The system is what is it is and you have to muddle through just as best as you can."

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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