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How students can help their parents pay for college

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Just recently, someone asked me whether parents should require their children to contribute to their college education.

Some parents feel that their children will not appreciate their college education if they don’t contribute or pay everything themselves. Others feel, as I do, that it’s part of the cost of raising a child to pay as much as you can, if not all, of college expenses.

As you see, I hedged a bit.

When I say pay as much as you can, that’s intended for parents whose incomes have been so low over the years that they struggled to keep up with their household expenses. In those cases, I think it’s fair to ask your child to contribute to the cost of his or her education by working hard to get scholarships, or by using money saved from any jobs they’ve had.

Now I want to address the parents who can afford to help but don’t, or could have afforded college expenses had they started saving early enough.

We know that, for the most part, a college education is the entry fee for the best jobs in the United States. You brought the kid into the world, so you should do what you can to make his or her start in the world as debt-free as possible. Why would you play a part in your child starting out in debt, if you have the financial resources to do otherwise?

To these same parents, I ask, what if your child got a full scholarship to their school of choice? Would you tell the child to turn it down because he or she wouldn’t appreciate the free money?

Of course you wouldn’t.

So let’s address the real issue here. Some parents are worried their children may not work hard enough if the money is there for the taking. If this reason has you withholding money to pay for college, do what I intend to do with my children and what increasingly other parents are doing. Set limits.

Fidelity Investments just released its fifth annual College Savings Indicator study. The financial company looks at the percentage of projected college costs the typical American family is on track to cover, based on its current and expected savings. The study also examines strategies that families are using to cut college costs.

For example, 66 percent of the parents surveyed said they would require that their child maintain a certain grade point average in order for them to fund their education. The average GPA that parents said they would require is a 3.1 out of 4.0.

“We call this shared accountability between the child and parent,” said Joe Ciccariello, Fidelity’s vice president of college planning.

Many scholarships require students to maintain a certain grade point average, so why shouldn’t you? You can be flexible if your child is taking a tough course.

Fidelity also found that the percentage of parents asking their children to work toward graduating in fewer semesters almost doubled in the past five years, to 28 percent.

It has long been the norm for students to take four years to finish school. But shave a year off that and you could save thousands of dollars. Most four-year colleges in the United States give students credit on the basis of Advanced Placement exam scores, according to the College Board. College policies vary by institution, but if your high school student takes enough AP classes and achieves good scores on the AP exams, he or she could graduate from college a semester or even a year early.

Almost half of parents are having their child live at home and commute to school (up from 38 percent five years ago). I hear parents say all the time that they want their child to have a certain kind of social experience in college. They argue that it’s important for their child to live on campus or in an apartment near campus. Really? Is it important enough to double the expense of college? Is it important enough to mire your kid or yourself in debt for decades?

If you don’t have the money saved for the experience of living on campus, change the expectation. Otherwise, what are you teaching your children?

You are teaching them that they are entitled to a certain lifestyle even if they can’t afford it.

“We see a lot of strategies that parents and children are employing so that they aren’t saddled with a lot of debt and their children aren’t saddled with a lot of debt,” Ciccariello said.

With the high cost of college, it makes sense to forgo some of the traditional college experiences to achieve the ultimate goal, which is to help your child get a degree so he or she can get a job.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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