Parents just say no to college tuition

NEW YORK Tue May 15, 2012 12:02pm EDT

Graduates listen to a commencement speaker during the Berklee College of Music Commencement in Boston, Massachusetts May 12, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

Graduates listen to a commencement speaker during the Berklee College of Music Commencement in Boston, Massachusetts May 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tracy Repchuk's three children are still in grade school, but she's already got college funding figured out. The Repchuk kids are 14, 15, and 16 and when they head off to college in a few years, here's how much their parents will be chipping in: Zero.

Not because they are being punished for something: Tracy calls all three wonderful, outgoing and well-adjusted. And not because the family is strapped for cash: Tracy, 47, is an author and social media strategist, and her husband David Repchuk is a mobile solutions developer.

Instead, the financial tough love is simply the way the Burbank, California, resident was brought up, and she sees it as the best way to foster the self-reliance that will pay dividends for the rest of their lives.

"I've told my children that if they're interested in college, it would be their responsibility to pay for it," says Repchuk. "This wasn't a surprise announcement, since I've felt this way forever. It's their life, not mine."

It may seem a tad harsh, but Repchuk certainly isn't alone in letting children fend for themselves once they're grown. According to a new study from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, 62 percent of young adults (between the ages of 19 and 22) are getting some kind of financial help from their parents - which means 38 percent aren't getting a dime.

Drill down further into the numbers, and just 35 percent of those kids ages 19-22 are getting tuition assistance. Sometimes that's because parents don't have any money to give, and sometimes it's because their offspring are no longer in school by that point.

But other times, parents could potentially afford to help, but don't. "We did three waves of interviews, ending in 2009," says Patrick Wightman, the study's lead author. "Over the course of the recession we saw even higher-income families cutting back on their financial support."

It's not surprising that some parents are turning off the spigot. According to the Department of Agriculture, which tracks expenditures, the inflation-adjusted bill for raising a child up to age 17 these days (not even including college costs) is almost $300,000 for every single Sophia and Samuel.

Given the horrific state of savings in this country - 49 percent of Americans aren't chipping in to any retirement plan at all, according to financial-services trade association LIMRA - it's hardly shocking, and perhaps highly necessary, that parents should be thinking about themselves first. As we're told on airplanes before every takeoff: In case of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first, and only then help out your kids.

But even among those with the financial wherewithal to pay for their kids' college, there are some who just don't believe in the message it passes along. Without any skin in the game, the thinking goes, young adults won't truly understand the value of their education - or the value of a dollar.

"I worked, received scholarships, and took out loans," says Nerina Garcia, a psychologist and assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine. "It made me more responsible and work harder at school, because I knew I couldn't flunk out; it would cost me too much. Now I plan to do the same for my 10-month-old daughter."

Of course, these are trying economic times that we live in, and college is less affordable than it was when many of these opinionated parents did their coursework.

Tuition is already at record highs and rising: The average student who takes out loans is graduating with around $23,300 in debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. While median incomes have stagnated over the last 20 years, tuition and fees have shot up 130 percent, according to the College Board. If your attitude towards your children is "sink or swim," it's entirely possible that some kids may drown.

Also, don't think that just because parents aren't footing the bill, that kids will magically be granted even more financial aid. Almost all students in their late teens or early 20s are still considered dependents, so parental incomes and assets will still factor into the equation.

If mom and dad aren't contributing any money at all, it's the student who's going to have to come up with the difference - by dipping into any savings they might have, working part-time while pursuing their degree, or taking costly loans.

FIRST, DO NO HARM

Here are some guidelines for handling the tricky subject of tuition help while sticking to your parental principles:

- Don't torpedo financial aid offers. Even parents who aren't going to contribute should fill out what's called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is basically the gateway to all federal grants and loans.

If parents don't intend on chipping in? "It doesn't matter," says Joe Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com. "The parents' assets and income must be reported on the FAFSA."

If they don't fill it out, the student won't get any federal financial aid, and their options become very narrow. In that case, their only shot at federal aid is if they're officially classified as an "independent student" - which is highly unlikely unless they're already married, have a kid, or are over age 23.

- Get creative. There are ways to give your kids a running start in life, without necessarily writing them a blank check. When children attend college in their hometowns, some parents let them stay at home rent-free for a while. That frees up the kids' cash flow to be earmarked for other necessities like tuition or books, without putting a dent in the parents' own savings. Or reserve the right to help out with student debt later on, after your own retirement-savings goals are further along.

- Find the right balance. College financing isn't necessarily an either/or proposition. With an obligation to cover a portion of their education, kids will learn the value of the dollars coming in and going out, without being totally crushed by financial burdens.

"We contribute when and what we are able," says Jacquie Whitt, co-founder of Adios Adventure Travel and mom to 21-year-old college student Keenan Whitt Linsly. "But should college students contribute to their own education? I would have to say ‘Hell, yes!' Our son chooses to work and contribute, and we support his efforts. It's good for him. It's good for everyone."

(Editing by Linda Stern and Andrew Hay)

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