There are many talks parents have with children: about doing well in school, making good life decisions, sex, how much to spend on that first car. Yet when it comes to the cost of college, it seems the money discussion isn't one moms and dads are so ready to have with their kids. Or sometimes each other.
If you're the parent of a high-schooler, there's at least one reason you should be having this particular "talk." On Oct. 1, the federal financial aid application process — also known as FAFSA — opens for the 2019-2020 academic year, which could bring to light questions about the economic realities of a college education and more importantly, who's footing the bill and how.
To help with this conversation, Marketplace Morning Report's David Brancaccio spoke with personal finance expert Beth Kobliner, about her latest project "We Need to Talk College." Below is an edited transcript of their talk.
David Brancaccio: So, before you sit down for the "discussion," you think there's a discussion that should have happened even before you talk to your child?
Beth Kobliner: Yes. Parents first off need to get on the same page. And to do that they need to talk and answer the question, "How much will college cost us?" You know, the vast majority of parents are not going to pay the sticker price of a college. So you really need to get a sense of what it'll cost you and first you need to do the technical analysis by looking at the net price calculators, which are just an estimate of what you as a family are going to pay for college. You find these at collegecost.ed.gov. This will at least give you a sense of a place to start with your kid, but you might be surprised that the conversation with your spouse can be a little dicey. You think it's fine to tap into your 401(k) and send your kid to his dream school. Or maybe your spouse thinks, "You know what? I don't want to have my kid have any student loans," and one of you is like "No! Why shouldn't they have student loans?" It gets tricky, so parents have to sort that out themselves and then they can talk to their kids.
Brancaccio: So then comes the time to talk to the would-be college student. How early do you start? Like, when they're on their little tricycle? "Johnny, we need to start talking about what one year of college is going to cost." No, when do you start?
Kobliner: Start as early as the end of eighth grade, beginning of ninth grade. And that might seem early, but you have to keep in mind, this is a series of talks. Not a one-time talk.
Brancaccio: Don't do the whole memory dump at once.
Kobliner: Exactly. Don't try to just get everything you need to say out there right away. But, it's good to start early because first of all, ninth grade is when grades start to count, so it's good to count toward college, it's good to tell your kid that, but it's also a way to start managing expectations early about what your family can afford and what your kid has in mind about college. I know so many adults who now tell me "You know, I was disappointed because I got into my dream school and only then did my parents break the news: 'Oh we don't have money to pay for this,'" so, it's a tough series of conversations. Choose a low stress moment, don't force it and do a lot of listening. You could say to your kids, "Do you want $1 million?" Because kids who graduate from college earn on average $1 million more over their lifetimes than people who don't graduate college.
Brancaccio: You've been doing some field work here. Here's a bit of one of the conversations that you sat in on, with Julie and her son, Perry.
Julie: "[I made] some bad choices in there because I deferred my student loans for a while. Well, we did, your dad and I did, because we were new young parents and we were struggling and we just couldn't make that payment."
Perry: "So you're saying that's not how I should pay for it?"
Kobliner: You know, most money conversations do have awkwardness to them. And there's a good chance your kid knows about college coming up in a few years. They've heard about skyrocketing costs. They're worried if you can afford it. So the fact that the median student debt level at graduation is $20,000, that's a lot to have when you graduate from college, but it's not the astronomical figure they might be hearing. But I know some parents who are so stressed out by this that they make decisions in their head, "Oh, we're not going to have our kid take on any federal student loans or any student loans at all." And the fact is 70 percent of kids do borrow for college. So it's important to talk about things like that and your expectations. Do you expect your kid to work over the summers, to have some money to contribute? And talk about the fact that you've done your research, you're in this as a team, you'll find low-cost loans. Getting into those conversations is really important to set a kid's mind at ease and know what's coming up.
Brancaccio: One of the things that's so difficult about this conversation is that when the child is growing up, there's this big identity issue. Who am I? And the parent comes by and says "You know, if you go to the college or university I went to, you might get a better deal." That is super complicated for the child, that they have to go follow in the footsteps of parents. And even though we wish this was just a money question, it isn't just a money question...
Kobliner: Don't I know it. I spent my whole life telling my kids how much I love my alma mater. And so far, two out of the three haven't gone and the third one hasn't.
Brancaccio: I got nobody into mine.
Kobliner: And I think that as parents, when we were kids, we didn't have these kind of "what do you feel like" discussions with our parents quite as much. Because for me it was, "you go to the local college or if you get into one or two really top schools, we'll scrimp and save and send you there." That was my parents' attitude. And I think there's so much talk about finding the right fit, what's the right place, where do you feel good and that's important, too. But I do think as parents we have to take a step back and be realistic that if you can't afford a school that's on your kid's dream list, that's OK. You can say, "You know what? We're not going to go deep into debt to send you there" or "We don't want you to go deep into debt to send you there because we don't think we want to be old and relying on you because we spent all our 401(k) money paying for college." It's a lot more complicated than it used to be and these conversations are more complicated and I think parents feel a lot of guilt and stress about it, whether you want your kid to go to your alma mater or you want your kid to go to a much less expensive school, whatever that is. I think it's important for parents to work that out among themselves and then talk to their kid about it early because they know all these thoughts are swirling around and it just helps you get on the same page.
Brancaccio: So the parents somehow find it within themselves to be their best self for this series of great conversations about the real cost of college. It may be that the child isn't their best self when initially reacting to this. There's going to be pushback...
Kobliner: Absolutely. And be prepared for that. You might even be surprised to find, as in one of our scenarios, the kid's like, "I don't want to go to college." [He's] in ninth grade and he's like, "I don't want to leave home, it's a good deal, I don't want to make my own bed." As parents, we all know you start those conversations and it sounds like you know, Charlie Brown, "wa-wa-wa-wa." You know they're not listening but somewhere deep in the recesses of their mind, they hear it and it's good to start talking about it because it's not that it should be an all encompassing pressure at all times, but it has to enter the conversation.
Brancaccio: Tis the season now for dealing with this. What's your big tip?
Kobliner: Fill out the FAFSA.
Brancaccio: That federal form that used to be a nightmare and now is only very difficult?
Kobliner: Right, exactly. It is still hard and it's not fun but so many families who don't apply because they don't know about it or they think they're ineligible, they're leaving billions of dollars on the table. And a financial expert told me that even if you earn up to $150,000 you might still get some financial aid, especially if you have more than one kid in college.
Next week, we’ll hear some tips from Beth Kobliner about how to increase your chances of getting college aid. And, again, the federal financial aid application for the 2019-2020 academic year opens Monday.
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