As teens submit college applications and weigh different post-graduation paths, their parents face tough decisions, too. Do they:
Help pay tuition, even if it means dipping into retirement savings?
Take out parent loans, as a growing number of people do?
Encourage their children to attend a dream college, no matter the cost?
When couples clash over the answers, it’s often because their values about money and education are at odds, says Megan Ford, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia and president of the Financial Therapy Association. Financial therapy, a relatively new field, addresses financial, emotional and relational challenges.
Imagine a hypothetical student’s parents. One equates prestigious institutions with success and is bent on sending the child to an Ivy League school. The other believes a less-expensive state university offers an equally valuable education. Of course, the child’s opinion matters, too.
To reconcile a disagreement, start by understanding costs for your family. Then have honest conversations, look for common ground and call in experts if necessary.
Establish your college-cost baseline
First, estimate what college would cost your family at different schools. Look up school net price calculators — almost every college is required to have one — and compare the amount you’d owe after grants and scholarships at various institutions.
You may be surprised. For example, contrast Harvard University’s sticker price of $69,600 with its estimated net price of $9,600 for a Massachusetts family of five with a gross annual income of $100,000 and one undergraduate student. Going Crimson could be cheaper than attending a state university where the sticker price is lower but the financial aid package smaller, resulting in bigger out-of-pocket costs.
Net price calculations are just estimates, but they're a good starting place for discussing whether parents will contribute and the sacrifices they might need to make to do so.
Hear each other out
When it comes to financial disputes, relationship therapists recommend digging into the reasons behind opinions before compromising or trying to persuade. People’s values about money and education are often rooted in their past, Ford says.
She recommends asking questions like, “What did education mean to your family growing up?” and “How did you pay for your college?”
Explore whether a stance represents a broader emotion, says Jennifer Dunkle, a financial and couples therapist in Fort Collins, Colorado. The parent lobbying for the pricey private school, for instance, may regret not attending his or her own dream college. The other parent may have put himself or herself through college and want the child to practice responsibility by doing the same.
Find areas you align on
Strive to find areas, however small, that you agree on. Here’s a freebie: Kids should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, so they can be eligible for federal grants, work-study programs and, if necessary, federal student loans.
As you seek agreement, Dunkle recommends an exercise derived from the research-based Gottman Method of couples therapy. You each draw a large circle. Inside, write things you’re not willing to waver on — for instance, “We will not dip into our retirement savings to pay for the kids’ college.” Outside of the circle, write what you’re willing to be flexible about, for example, “I paid for college completely on my own, so my child should do the same.”
Then, compare notes. Seeing the issues on paper may illuminate a compromise.
Call an expert
If you’re still gridlocked, consider bringing in backup. A few sessions with a couples or financial therapist can help if you’re struggling with communication or underlying emotional issues, Ford says.
In addition, a certified financial planner can help you crunch numbers — for instance, by how many years would you need to delay retirement if you pay for your daughter’s $50,000-a-year private college? Experts generally recommend prioritizing your retirement savings above a child’s college costs; you have a limited earning time left, while your child has longer to offset college debt.
Throughout the college-planning process, remember that it’s natural for emotions to run high when a kid leaves for school, Dunkle says.
“It’s a developmental change in the life of the family,” she says. “It can be a hard transition for everyone.”