What I learned from my grandmother about paying for college

Knowing how much help your family will be providing for a college education can affect how much you value the costs of college.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
Students hold up signs as they attend a demonstration calling for lower tuition at Hunter College in the Manhattan borough of New York November 12, 2015.

One day, while I was in high school, my grandmother sat me down to discuss college. At the time, I was just a punk teenager who didn’t know what he didn’t know. My grandmother showed me some Treasury bonds and said, “Here is how much money we have saved for your college. You can go to any college you want, but anything more than this will be your responsibility.”

About seven years later, I graduated from college, but I didn’t use those bonds. I joined the Navy and got my degree on the military’s dime. Shortly after my graduation ceremony, my grandmother presented me with the Treasury bonds. “This is yours to spend as you see fit,” she said.

My grandmother’s message was one of the most powerful ones I’ve ever received. By telling me exactly how much she was able to give me for college, she made sure I wouldn’t take it for granted. She had given me the responsibility to make the best decision for myself.

Like many people, I joined the Navy to leave my hometown and see the world. However, it did not take me long to realize the importance of a college education, and I was able to find a way for the Navy to pay for it. And it wouldn’t have happened if my grandmother did not teach me to be realistic about paying for college.

This level of realism about available resources is not the case in many families. Today, I hear too many stories about middle-aged people wrestling with job responsibilities, raising kids, taking care of their own parents and struggling to save money for college. At some point, these pressures exceed the resources people have to meet them, and that is not sustainable.

My wife and I have made a conscious decision about what to set aside, and we will have a serious conversation with each of our children. We expect our children to know what money we have saved for them and what college options are available. We will help answer questions, based upon our experience, and give suggestions, but we will expect our children to fully research and understand their college options so they can choose the program that’s right for them.

This is not intended to limit what our children aspire to, but to fully inform them about one of the biggest decisions of their lives so they can think about it for themselves.

In case you have reservations about this approach, here are three points to consider:

1. The government will subsidize your education, whether it’s through tax credits or subsidized loans or (in my case) government-employer-paid education programs. Your retirement, however, must be paid for upfront. Would you rather your children be able to repay their college loans during their peak earning years, or would you rather shoulder their burden for them and have to postpone (or cancel) your retirement to make it easier for them?

2. Maturity — or lack of it — affects this huge financial decision. Except for marriage and buying a house, a four-year college education can be the largest financial decision many people will make in a lifetime. A lot of people make this choice hampered by the limited maturity level of a high school teenager. Why? Because most people are in high school when they decide which college to attend. It helps to have a sense of parameters and some adult guidance.

3. It helps to think clearly about what returns the student will get on this investment. I got a practical lesson in the value of my education. Since I knew I’d have to evaluate costs (and be responsible for any overages), I quickly eschewed any idea of degree programs without a “payback.”

I think we owe it to our children to have informed conversations with them about their college decisions — including what they can expect from us and what they’re expected to do on their own. Even if there’s a limit to the financial backing we can provide, we can give 100% of our emotional and moral support.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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