the college conundrum

Back when we took our first financial class, my husband and I didn’t pay much attention to the lesson about saving for the kids’ college. Our children were still young, and we didn’t have any extra money to put away. There seemed to be nothing to talk about.

Four years later, we still don’t have any extra money to put aside for college, but now our oldest is fifteen. College—if he decides to go the traditional track—is three short years away. So this time around, we paid closer attention to the college lesson, especially the little segment they did for people in our shoes—no money and no time for planning.

According to the class instructors, the best options for minimizing college debt (or staying out of debt altogether) are to pursue financial aid and scholarships, get a job, and attend community college or in-state schools. I thought the first two suggestions were obvious, but the third one was new to me. I mean, not really new—I’ve always known that community colleges are an economical choice. What was new was to hear those schools presented as a viable, worthy, smart option in contrast to a four-year, private, or out-of-state college and the ensuing debt.

See, I’d always thought four-year colleges were best because of the whole college experience thing, like what I enjoyed. Living independently from parents in a caring, heady environment packed with peers was the quintessential culmination of a healthy childhood. Four whole years set aside for pondering the meaning of life, finding a purpose, making friends, analyzing the state of the world, thinking, mulling, searching, questioning, being! Any other route, including community college, could only be second best.

So whenever the sending-the-kids-to-college conversation came up, I couldn’t help but feel shame and sadness. Shame because we didn’t have enough money to give this gift to our kids, and sadness because my kids might not get to experience the college magic. According to my standards—standards that coincided with those of the friends in our social circles—I was perhaps failing my children.


My evolving perspective of debt plays a key role in this college conundrum. Through our money management classes, I’ve become much more wary of debt. No longer do I take it for granted, a necessary evil to be accepted with a sigh and a shrug. But at the same time, I don’t think debt is all bad, either. Sometimes it is a necessary tool for advancement. A college degree is, perhaps, one of those necessary tools.

However, now that college costs are skyrocketing, many parents can make only a small dent in their children’s college bills. As a result, the brunt of the cost falls to the children, and they end up beginning their adulthood mired in debt. This, I’m afraid, has potential for serious ramifications.

My thinking goes something like this: When you sink teenagers into a four-year university program and then turn them out into the world with maybe-useful degrees and a mountain of debt, the fresh young adults are trapped. A well-paying job, regardless of whether or not it is a good fit, is imperative. Often, the new graduates discover that their best bet, if they really want to do what they enjoy, is to go back to school for a better degree. Gone (or severely curtailed) is the freedom to volunteer, work part time, be stay-at-home parents, take creative risks, and travel. They are less likely to shake up the status quo, challenge power, and take a job for the pure joy of it, regardless of pay. At precisely the point when these young adults think they are finally their own masters, they discover it is their debt that reigns supreme. It’s ironic. It’s maybe tragic.


Over the course of the last several months, partly because of the class and partly because of my reading on alternative education, I’ve realized that I’ve had everything backwards. The goal isn’t college. The goal is self-actualization. Many ways exist to become a fulfilled, educated, productive person. There’s the life education that comes from volunteering, apprenticing, working, and traveling. There are the cheaper community colleges and in-state schools for when a degree is necessary.

My job as a parent isn’t to automatically send my children to college just because they’ve turned eighteen. My job is to support my children as they discover their interests and passions, and then encourage them to figure out a way to make a living doing the things they love. Their plan may or may not include college.
Even with this epiphany, doubt niggles. In our culture, a high-class education is the holy grail. Devaluing that feels heretical. To complicate matters, in our Mennonite circles where most everyone is either an alumnus and/or an employee of a church university, the belief pervades that a money value can’t be placed on a Mennonite education. Maybe there is truth to this! By allowing the threat of debt to dictate how we approach our children’s educations, perhaps my husband and I are being shortsighted. Maybe we’re doing lasting damage to our children’s development by steering them away from a Mennonite university.

But we don’t have a choice, really. There’s that no money thing and all. And the fact is, now that my husband and I have come to terms with how we’re approaching the college conundrum, I mostly just feel enormous relief. There is freedom in living within our means, in being open to less costly ways of getting an education, and in pursuing nonlinear educational time frames. It’s liberating.

What’s your approach to kids and college? 
Does the benefit of a quality college education justify incurring big debt?

This same time, years previous: sushi!!!, the quotidian (12.3.12), red lentil coconut curry, and chocolate truffle cake.  


  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    "My job as a parent isn’t to automatically send my children to college just because they've turned eighteen. My job is to support my children as they discover their interests and passions, and then encourage them to figure out a way to make a living doing the things they love. Their plan may or may not include college." – this is perfect. I always felt like you, it is a MUST to send my kids to college…but not because I DID, more because I DID NOT and wanted them to have more opportunities than I've had. But as my boys grow I see that they are not cookie cutter, they are individuals. My oldest is currently at college, bumbling his way through (thanks to grants, scholarships and my full-time job)…my youngest, a jr in high school, is probably going to go the trade school route because he's mechanical…he likes to fix and tinker and figure out. What I've learned in paying attention to my boys' individuality, strengths and interests is that I need to help them find what will feed them…in all ways…feed their wallet, feed their bellies and feed their hearts… You're a good mom… Parenting teens changes things, doesn't it? As they grow and become "who they are", and if we are paying attention, it makes it a bit easier to guide them in the direction that is best for them, rather than the direction WE want them to go.

  • Lauralli

    I have so many things to say, I don't know where to start! I've been mulling this over since you posted it. With every new comment, there's something else! Anyway, here goes: I mostly agree with Anonymous #2 above who is thick in the college process. I'm in thicker–first son is a jr in college–biology/pre-med, 2nd son is a senior in high school–will be computer engineering major. 3rd son is 11 who says he's going to be a professional athlete (I SO pray not! :))
    My husband and I are both college graduates. My husband had student debt and a car loan (since his parents had terrible finances–it gets passed on) that hampered our early years of trying to "get ahead". Yes, we also had not so great spending habits pre- Dave Ramsey class too. I had no student debt (Don't know how we would have managed if I had!)
    I have always thought that parents owe their children a college education. (Mind you not the fancy overseas programs that are all the rage!) I still do. Unfortunately, we are not able to pay for our kids college–not fully, we do help out some. This does make me lose sleep over! But, we too, (after homeschooling many elementary years–and still do the youngest) sent our kids to a private Christian school. (I am still a stay at home mom who works part-time from home as well) Even if we had gone the public school route, we still couldn't have outright paid college tuition expenses. (I also need to point out that the college my son and soon to be other son attend is also a private Christian university. This is totally their choice, but something we like.) I don't regret having sent them to the Christian high school. We will probably make the same choice for son #3.
    But, saving for retirement (which I'm sure isn't enough) and college is just not doable for us with just over $100k/year income. We are caught in the middle (make too much to get any need based grants or scholarships and do not make enough to pay it outright). We do not live lavishly at all. Our kids live/will live at home since we live in the same town as the university which alone saves about $7k/year. Our oldest receives about $10k/year in academic scholarships. We paid the first year and continue to pay his books each semester. We also paid for two summers of classes, which oddly enough, costs less per hour. He still will graduate with about $30k in student loans.(BEFORE med school loans!) This makes me sad. (And, yes, he understands (as well as he can as a 21 year old) his debt load.) He is a very responsible, hard working young man. I keep telling myself he will be fine eventually. But, will he really? Or, will he struggle with this debt forever?
    Son #2 has better scholarship offers based on higher ACT scores, but is taking it again this Saturday hoping (and praying and working for) the magical 32 (which begins the sweet spot for the most scholarship dollars). His last score was a 31. We'll see. This son also understands the debt that can be part of his future.
    Now, ALL of that being said……….I don't have any answers for anyone else. I'm in a boat with the same leak! Our income is most definitely not keeping up with the cost of anything (except gas at the moment which is only 2.34/gallon here–yay!)!! I seriously wonder how on earth our kids will manage in their lifetimes!
    And, regarding the chart that was linked to: I'm not, per se, a chart person. But, one thing they for sure got wrong is the cost of appliances. Yes, I'd say the prices haven't risen so much, but they only last about 1/3-1/4 the time our parents' appliances lasted them, making them much more expensive today!! (And I could go on and on about this topic–things being made so cheaply!)
    But, I'll save that for another day!

  • Rachel

    I went to a Mennonite college and it was by far the best educational experience I had in my life. I left a more well-rounded person with world experience, and I felt I could ask important questions in a supportive environment where I met life-long mentors and friends. That was really important to me at that point in my life, when I was ready to be off on my own. I also wanted to be a doctor, which meant that college was an essential step.

    That being said, I don't think that any of the options mentioned above are inherently bad (and, frankly, even the option of having kids go to college and manage their own debt isn't bad!). It has to be tailored to the child and family, for sure. I have one son who has said since he was 4 that he wants to be a chemist, and I have no doubt he'll do something in the math/science realm. College is likely in his future, and we'll expect him to help with jobs/scholarships/financial aid (I'm not the kind of doctor that can write a check for college tuition!!), and I'd like him to go to a Mennonite school. My other son–we'll see! He may not go to college, and that's OK too.

    It seems that if parents and kids are going into these things with open eyes, open hearts, and open minds to all the possibilities, there are myriad "right" answers!

  • Anonymous

    Given we’re in the thick of the college process, I’ve been thinking about this. You will find it’s a messy system and one that’s made me quite upset, and I’ll share with you what I’ve observed and some private financial info at the risk of sounding very upper-crusty. Here’s my advice for what it’s worth:

    *Remain on one income. DON’T work! If you’re grossing $50k or less per year, leave it that way!

    *Forget saving for college. It’s bullshit, anyway…who has a couple thousand $$ a year that they can sock away in a 529 or a Roth IRA? If we weren’t sending our kids to a private high school, we could contribute some I guess. We’re just making Wall Street look good by participating in Roth and 401K plans anyway.

    *If you keep your income low, you will qualify for FAFSA (Federal Aid). If the kids go to a Menno or private college, they will receive merit scholarships that make them the same price as an in-state public school. Or if they go to a well-endowed school, some money from the institution will be there as long as their grades/SAT/ACT scores are good and your income is low. Be prepared to fill out LENGTHY forms on your family’s financial state.

    We are penalized for earning too much, as is anyone who has 2 incomes and makes $90k+. We’re in the middle for we make too much money to qualify for much federal aid but not enough that we can pay the crazy sticker price in full. Had I realized this when we decided to send the kids to a private high school, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have kept them in public schools and stayed home, for I went to work to pay for their schooling and the house remodeling and now it’s biting us in the butt.

    We’ve found all the schools our oldest is interested in (small, private liberal arts schools) are crazy expensive!! It’s amazing and I’ve read college tuition has risen 80% since 2000!! You are right…the only smart thing is for our child is to live at home and go to a community college, the local Mennonite college, or the state school, and she’s not interested in that idea. I don’t feel I can limit her at this point in her life for she’s so ready to be done with high school and to leave the Valley and explore.

    So, stay a one-wage-earning family, don’t bother saving, and don’t worry about the cost if your kids decide they want to go.

  • Rebecca

    We have told our kids that their choices are cheap and local or EMU. Or no college at all. Crazy idea! In my opinion, too many college degrees are decorative things that prove you're a member of the middle class. We'll pay for college if (1) the kid has demonstrated NOT a love of learning but a love of the mechanics of academic success – two totally different thing, (2) the kid has a calling that requires the hoop-jumping of an academic program, and (3) the kid has finished a year of college credit with online classes/community college. We have a 16 year old and a 13 year old so the theoretical is becoming practical at an alarming rate!

  • GeorgiaHoneyBee

    I do not think parents are responsible for a child's college education expense. If a parent can help, great! If not, the child should not expect it, and the child should be taught that from an early age. I think that it is important for children to understand: If it is to be, it is up to me! (and God!) We live in a culture where schools have been so dumbed down, and EVERYONE thinks they MUST go to college. I was listening to a "man on the street" type interview on a university campus in Texas, and the COLLEGE STUDENTS were asked 1. Who was Joe Biden? 2. Who won the Civil War? and 3. Who won the Revolutionary War? Only one college student could correctly answer all three questions. Is something wrong with that picture??? How did these young people even get into college? And then so many people graduate with tons of debt, and NO JOB! Not everyone has to be a lawyer, a doctor, a political scientist, :-)… Our trade schools need to be better promoted to our youth. For a community to be healthy and functional, we need shop keepers, electricians, HVAC technicians, plumbers, hair dressers, and on and on. Why force via peer pressure everyone into a four year college? We need more trades people taking on trainees and giving them hands on, live on-the-job training. When the culture sees these people being more successful that the debt laden college drones, then maybe eyes will be open, and people will begin to see college as NOT NECESSARY for success. (sorry for the rant…)

  • Starr

    We won't be able to help our kids very much for college either. The grandparents contribute to some education savings accounts, but the amounts are pretty small. However, since I'm a graduate of a super selective top ranked university, my eyes are wide open to what kind of investment that entails, and it ain't all money. I found the environment to be unnecessarily competitive, and the wealth at these schools was very overwhelming for a girl whose parents paid full price (for three years–I graduated a year early to save them money) but couldn't afford one penny beyond that, so I was considered "poor" in comparison. I will not be actively discouraging my kids from at least applying to such a place, but I won't be encouraging it either.

    I hope to impart to them that going to the chichi school or even getting the degree isn't really the end goal–it's about taking steps to find fulfillment, either through the job or through the paycheck, which affords people the chance to pursue meaning (it's not always through the paying job, right?). I was blind to that and found myself with a degree and no clue where I was going. I'm still kind of there 14 years later.

  • DnD_Saga

    I am positive that my husband is currently getting a wonderful education from a community college. Some of the things the college is doing as a whole we aren't too happy about but his classes are smaller, teachers friendlier, and he has more networking opportunities because he is a medium sized fish in a medium pond, and not a medium sized fish in an overwhelmingly large pond. I know I personally enjoyed it as a transition from a traditional high school because the environment was about the same. Going to my large local university scared the crap out of me and a community college was the perfect choice.

  • Becky

    This is what keeps us up at night – how we are going to send our daughter off to college and not have her pay loans off the rest of her life. We both graduated debt free thanks to in-state tuition that was a bargain, generous parents and jobs. She's only in seventh grade, but it's definitely on our horizon. She is very interested in engineering, so I'm hopeful we can work it out so she's not saddled with loads of debt when she gets out of college. We only have one, so I think we can do it.

  • Margo

    PREACH IT!!!! I agree with you!

    My husband and I are deliberately not saving for our kids for college. We view college degrees as tools – depends on what the kids want to do with their lives. It's a terribly expensive way to explore the meaning of life and make friends – there are other ways to do this.

    I went to a state school with a small scholarship because of high grades, a tiny bit of help from my parents, and a job. I graduated debt-free. I lived very cheaply in off-campus apartments after commuting from home the first year. My overseas awakening happened courtesy of a "missions" program that had me away from home nearly a whole year. And furthermore, my husband and I were able to be volunteers TOGETHER in the early years of our marriage thanks to our lack of debt. This was an enormous help to our early married life – until he needed a graduate degree to advance his career. Now we're paying that off along with the mortgage and a renovation loan. It's doable but we have counted well the cost!! There is no way I am getting an advanced degree unless someone else is paying or I have a clear correlation in job advancement.

    Given the instability in American white-collar jobs (which we have experienced first-hand through multiple layoffs), I sometimes hope my children choose the trades because it is hard to outsource a plumber, carpenter, or electrician and the training for those jobs is much cheaper.

  • Ellies Wonder

    I went to a 4-year Mennonite college and my parents didn't help me out one bit. I had some small scholarships and worked through college (but that didn't make a difference). College was a blast, I learned all about myself, got a great education, made some life long friends, and came out $38,000 in debt. Was it worth it…probably. Did I feel hampered and held down by debt upon graduation? Absolutely not! A lot of service opportunities will help you defer your college loans, and some will even help you pay them off while you do service. I applied and got into Peace Corps, but then decided not to do it. Instead, I taught English in South Korea for over a year and made enough money to pay off a huge chunk of my loans all while adventuring and experiencing another culture. If your kid(s) want to go to college, and then want to adventure they will find a way despite the dept. Coming out of college in debt was probably the main thing in my life so far that has taught me responsibility. I can happily say that my student loans were all paid off by age 27…only 5 years after graduating.

  • Shannon

    As one of four kids, I was expected to pay for college on my own… so I went to a community college for the first two years (for free– my community college had an honors program, and all those admitted to the program had all tuition covered… plus the honors classes– usually two per semester– were very small and tended to have more experienced professors) and went to a state school for the last two. I lived with my parents (the state school was nearby) and worked part-time all four years, and graduated with a debt I was able to pay off in less than a year. The class sizes at the state university were pretty small as I majored in French and there's not a huge demand for that, apparently.
    So I didn't get the usual American college experience, but as an introvert I doubt I would have enjoyed it much anyway. But I was able to have a lot of other experiences I might not have otherwise been able to have, including being free, due to the lack of debt, to work relatively low-paying but satisfying jobs. I was also able to travel a bit and spend three years studying theology at a tiny school near Paris. And in the years since then, the fact that I've lived abroad has been far more interesting to employers than where I graduated from college.
    So… I don't have any regrets, but if I had to redo my education, I would at least consider schools abroad from the start, as they are often far cheaper than schools in the U.S., even for international students.

  • Camille

    Another option to throw into the mix is distance education…it's do-able, high quality (if you carfully choose your school) and much easier on the budget. No, the kids don't live *on campus* and they don't have an *automatic* social life (not impossible to create their own)….it's what we are currently doing with our Calvin. His University is in London, England…he visited the campus while we were there, and met with administrators of the program he is doing. It's working out well so far. Hugs, Camille

  • Lana

    We did not save a penny either but all five of our went to college and we are debt free. The key is to load, load,load the transcript and work, work, work on higher level classes especially classes that the public schools have ditched. Ours did Latin, Logic and high level sciences and maths that our public high schools no longer offer. Our state requires 24 credits for graduation but we loaded ours up with 40 credits. We wrote a lot, too. We did tons of essays and research papers. Four out of five had full tuition scholarships. The other one worked a co-op engineering job every other semester. The key is to send them to secular private schools where they have endowments for scholarships. Our youngest son has a $190,000 education debt free. Our oldest daughter has a $140,000 education debt free. Our middle son has an electrical engineering degree paid for by the Air Force for 5 years at a state college. He is paying that back with four years of service but he was military bound anyway so why not go in as an officer instead of a flunky? It was a ton of work but worth every day that we spent in the books to have been able to educate them all without any of us being loaded down with debt. If you know of a family in your home school circles in your state whose kids are going to college on full scholarships you need to pick their brains and ask how they did it. That is how we learned how to get the college dollars. The family who advised us have 6 college grads debt free. It is very doable.

  • Anonymous


    Anyway, I got out with no debt, have been able to use my degree (okay, so I also specifically picked a "useful" degree), and while it's not necessarily the path for everyone, I do strongly endorse at least a small helping of community college before "regular" college, either public or private, especially for homeschoolers. If the community college is any good, it's a softer-but-better induction into academia and the world of sitting still and shutting up when appropriate (and, at the right times, asking questions, or going to office hours) and gives you a slightly more realistic slice of the world than a more specialized school. It could even just be one or two specifically-selected classes in the final year of high school, or a "gap year" of half time work, half time community college to give some space for deciding where and what. And if kids then do decide to go to an expensive school, it is not a bad thing to go into Getting-Into-Giant-Debt-Land being confident and aware of your options and *choosing* that option reasonably, with a grasp on how it will affect your future choices, rather than just sort of wandering into it because it's the next thing one does.

    That said, yes, do the PSAT (libraries have prep books, and has SAT prep questions as well as vocabulary questions now!) and the auuugh SAT, because of college entrance requirements and also free money. 🙂 If someone takes some basic college courses, looks into what degree programs are available and what they "mean" practically (you can do stuff with robots! or bridges! or books!) and then still decides, nope, I really want to be an auto mechanic, then there is no shame in doing good work that helps the community and not having to deal with the four-year debt, though. I guess – keep options open as far as that's feasible and help prioritize things and make things conscious choices… and then support any good outcome?

    Anyway, in short: I did the community-college-last-two-years-of-high-school, then state university thing, and it served me well, and I think it would serve other "non-conformists" well (especially if they deliberately consider each jump rather than moving on automatically).

    Hope all goes well!

  • Anonymous

    I know everyone's going to have an opinion on this one, but I was homeschooled, then went to community college for the last two years of high school (which was free [except for books and supplies and any remedial classes needed] through a program through the local public school), then transferred into Large State School (check whether there's automatic acceptance, though – there was in my state). When I transferred to Large State School, I had partial scholarship funding (and probably could have collected more; see: take the PSAT and apply for All The Scholarships) and had a relatively well-rounded Full College Experience (I even spent the first year of university in the dorm on the "party" floor! and then lived with a clump of more-like-minded girls sardined into a cheap apartment!), tempered by the knowledge picked up from older returning students at the community college that Drinking And Fitting In Is Not The Be All And End All Of Existence (hence, during the "party floor" dorm year, I was the one holding the heads of puking girls over the toilet, rather than the one doing the puking. Also, no ill-advised stripping and no drugs. Also, then carefully selecting a living situation in which we were all more or less agreed on "house rules" rather than just blithely moving in somewhere where I would have been the one doing *all* the dishes.).

    Finances-wise, I did have some savings, both from jobs I had and from parent/grandparent college nest egg (my grandpa sold a pig when I was born) and kept working part time through college. No debt… which, indeed, meant much more freedom to jump off scary ledges and just *go* and do. But also the community college "101" sort of classes were much smaller and hence had much more personal and useful feedback than Large State School equivalent classes. If there is a guaranteed-enrollment program and you can find a community college with a decent reputation, I strongly encourage that route. They're also less likely to pressure or demean someone into getting a BA in something random if the person would be much better served for their goals and ideals with a vo-tech degree. (some people really are better served with a vo-tech degree and no debt, although I'd argue that just about everyone should be chucked through English 101 and 102 and the other "basics" at some point, which the community college will likely do a better job at than a large school anyway).

    To be continued…

  • Jen J

    I also recommend the VA community college guaranteed acceptance route, for any child that feels they want a 4 year education. Live at home, pay cash for the first two years of classes and with a B or better average get automatically accepted into your choice of VA public colleges? Heck yeah!

    Another option to consider, and what we are doing with our youngest, is to consider the dual enrollment programs at the community colleges. They take classes through the college while also getting high school credit. For us this was a good choice because our daughter was advanced and this allows her to keep engaged.

    Overall, I agree with everything you have said. College isn't right for everyone and that's okay. But if it is right for your child, definitely consider opportunities to get through it as cheaply as possible. In the end, if your child does consider a career that requires a college education, most employers just care that you have the degree, not where it is from.

    Good luck!

  • Suburban Correspondent

    I think the best thing about homeschooling is that you can use the teen years to figure out what the kids are best suited for in life. You don't waste as much time jumping through "college prep" hoops, as it were. That said, I feel it is remiss of some parents to totally ignore basic skills a child might need if he were to go to college – algebra, say, or composition. It is wisest to try to keep all paths somewhat open. They change so much over these years!

  • Suburban Correspondent

    Also, Virginia has the automatic acceptance thing – earn an AA at the community college and – with a decent GPA – be accepted at the Virginia University of your choice. Saves a lot of money on college applications alone, not to mention tuition, etc.

    Or, enlist in the Armed Forces for 3 years, learn a real skill, AND get the benefits of the GI Bill: college tuition and a living stipend for 4 years of college. Not only is college paid for, but your kid has 3 years to mature and figure out what he wants an education for. You would not believe the number of freshman males who drop out after a (very expensive) year, because they were too immature for college at age 18.

    We, too, are against mortgaging the kids' future with loans. Most of them are not subsidized now, by the way. That means that the interest accrues while they are in school ( it used to not start accruing interest until the student had graduated). This is madness. As you point out, the options after graduation are dramatically narrowed by the existence of this debt.

  • Suburban Correspondent

    A quality college education depends on the student – you can send a kid to an Ivy League college and they do not necessarily become educated. Embarrassing case in point – I received a BA in History from an Ivy League institution and still did not have a clear idea of where Maryland was located (and I grew up on the East Coast). As a parent, you probably know best what sort of an education will benefit your child the most. The dual-enrollment program available to Virginia high school students is particularly helpful to homeschoolers. Our current senior has enjoyed college-level physics and chemistry courses and has joined the robotics team. It has given us some reassurance that a 4-year degree will not be wasted on him.

    Oh, and make sure your kids take the PSAT. If they score high, there is a bit of college money in it. Not really fair, but there you are…

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