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College Costs Are Less Terrifying Than You Think

Most of us become parents with the hope that our kids will do better and achieve more than we have — or at least be happier. The right kind of higher education can help. But then, at some point, we contemplate saving and paying for it.

If fear is one of the elemental feelings of parenting — first, that we will hurt them and then, as they get older, that they will hurt themselves — fear of the college bill is often the largest looming financial one.

Ever notice how the Department of Agriculture conveniently leaves higher education costs out of its $284,570 estimate of the expense of raising a child? Even as the federal government also has great expectations that it bakes into its unrealistic financial aid formulas about what we’ll be able to afford to pay for college?

I noticed. I did when the cost of some state schools crossed the $100,000 barrier for four years and the most expensive private colleges started to top $300,000. But that is not what most people pay. So, a few facts to tamp down the feelings.

According to the College Board, the net tuition (after various aid and discounts) and fees that first-time, full-time undergraduates paid this school year was $3,230 at public colleges and universities and $15,990 at private ones. That does not include room, board, travel and books.

How much might it be in 10 years? The experts have proven to be very bad at projecting it, but you can use your own estimates via Vanguard’s college calculator.

So that’s a far cry from the retail price of $300,000-plus at many private universities. But still, the cost of tuition, room, board and fees today at a public university can easily hit $100,000 if you’re at a more expensive school. How best to ease your mind?

A plan helps. I like the one that Kevin McKinley, a financial planner in Eau Claire, Wis., shared with me years ago — save a fraction, spend a fraction during the college years out of your current income (and eat a lot of rice and beans or skip vacations then) and then borrow some (half in the teen’s name, half in yours).

Also, have a talk with your parents if they are in the picture. There are so many ways they can help, especially if they can see you are trying to ease your own fear, and not attempting to grab an early inheritance. They probably want you to worry less.

I know this doesn’t necessarily solve the more overarching, existential dread. And you are not alone in your concern about your kids’ future. The last time the Pew Research Center asked, in 2019, 60 percent of Americans believed that children would do worse financially than their parents had.

However you define “worse,” we have a lot more data than we used to on recent trend lines. If parenting is at least in part about prudent risk management, it pays to take a quick look at the actuarial data. Some of the best resides with the researchers at Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit at Harvard. People born in 1940 had over a 90 percent chance of having a household income greater than their parents by age 30. Babies born in the early 1960s saw the likelihood fall below 60 percent. But by the early 1980s, we were close to 50-50.

So it’s a coin flip, given that we can’t exactly project the trajectory of any given elementary school kid on a piece of blue-lined graph paper.

This is uncomfortable for many parents. We don’t have many established narratives for downward mobility in America, and none of us want our children to be protagonists in that genre, either.

And perhaps what you really want is to spend more on your kids — the most you possibly can. Many parents do, at least for some things along the way. Nobody should feel shame for wondering whether the most prestigious, expensive version of anything for their kids is the safest choice given our frightening national circumstances at present.

And if you’re scared that you won’t be able to do that, or anything close to it? One of my favorite parental fear-mitigation tactics is to stare for a couple minutes at a drawing that Carl Richards, the former Sketch Guy columnist for The New York Times, drew years ago. There are two circles representing things that matter and things you can control. And the small area where they overlap? That’s what you should focus on.

So first, flush the things we can’t control out of our minds. We don’t know where our kids will win admission to college, and no amount of feeding and watering (and spending) will guarantee anything. We can’t be sure about who might discriminate against them and for what. We also can’t predict what kind of discounts colleges may offer, whether based on financial need or a child’s academic or other performance.

But there are things we can control and that matter plenty. One is what we save and are willing to borrow for college. Another is what we learn about the process.

We can start early, years ahead of time, to study up on how need-based financial aid works and how merit aid has changed the financial aid game entirely. I recommend Kalman Chany’s book “Paying for College” to learn about need-based aid, along with the Paying for College 101 Facebook group for merit aid, which has no connection to Mr. Chany.

Finally, we can remember that doing better than one’s parents may not be the metric that matters to today’s children. We of course want our children to be able to meet their basic needs without working themselves to the bone. But beyond that, what will any particular household income figure mean in an unknowable world, with a spouse (or not) or kids or both or maybe neither?

Do enough of that sort of emotional resetting, and something like the opposite of fear can set in. Not outright confidence, perhaps, but the calm that comes from knowing that our kids may not need what we have to be happy themselves. And then, finally, comes hope that whatever that is, wherever they learn, will be enough for them.

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