How and Why to Talk with Your Child About College Affordability

For many parents, talking with their child about the price of college and how to afford it, can seem daunting and uncomfortable.

College choice has traditionally been so linked to a student’s life chances and identity, that asking your child to take a break from dreaming about their first-choice school to pay attention to the nitty-gritty practicalities of tuition bills can almost feel like you’re taking something away from them or—even worse—putting a cap on their dreams. No one wants to make their child feel that way.

The problem is that college is really expensive. Even after accounting for financial aid, the cost of an in-state public school can top $25,000 per year, and a private school can total well over $50,000 per year. This kind of financial commitment can affect your child for years to come and even delay or derail your retirement plans. 

That is why it’s important to talk with your child, as early as possible, about how paying for college works today and the roles that parents and students have in curbing costs and protecting their financial well-being.

Having an honest and thorough conversation about the cost of college can equip them with the knowledge to make a good choice for themselves. But how should you have that conversation? What should you talk about? 

Do You Really Need to Have the College Money Talk?

At first, it might all seem pretty straightforward. You pay for things all the time. Paying for college will be just like that, right? The college charges tuition, you pay them through one means or another, and the student goes to school. How complicated could it be?

The answer? Surprisingly complicated. College pricing today is dynamic, akin to buying a car, where the sticker price is not the real price you end up paying. Most students at most schools are not paying the sticker price for college. So, students within the same school might all be paying dramatically different amounts of money for the same experience and credentials.

One of the major reasons for this is that while there are a few high-profile places that reject almost everyone who applies, most schools have to work really hard to attract more students. These schools will gladly provide significant price breaks in order to fill their classroom seats.

Schools are providing nearly 50% of student aid dollars today. These tuition breaks, or “merit aid,” can be given for any number of reasons, including achievements in leadership, athletics, arts, of course academics, and much more. 

Sources of Student Aid Dollars

While that’s exciting news, one of the problems with this approach to paying for college is that it’s something of a “wild west.” Unlike with other consumer purchases, there’s no real transparency or standardization in the process, and higher education doesn’t have the consumer disclosures and protections that we have in other parts of our economy.

Colleges are making student aid decisions based on their enrollment needs, not your financial interests, which can lead you to make decisions that put your family in financial hot water, including taking on excessive student loans. This debt can have serious consequences for students’ professional lives, and even their mental health, for years to come. 

Seen from this perspective, college choice might be your student’s first major adult decision. But no matter how sophisticated your child is—and we both know they’re brilliant—they’re going to need help from someone with life experience and an understanding of how money works. Their sole job as a summer lifeguard or retail salesperson will not equip them with the understanding necessary to make one of the biggest financial decisions of their life. 

That’s where you come in.

What Will the Talk be About?

So, you’re ready to have the big chat about college expenses with your aspiring scholar. But where do you begin? As I see it, the conversation should cover three areas: college value, college costs, and family budget.

College Value

To get started, it’s worth connecting with your child about why college is important in the first place. What’s in it for them?

One of the potential returns on investment for college students is the opportunity to learn a lot more – both in a career field and across other subjects and topics, which may support their advanced education, work and other experiences. College can also provide time for student personal growth and the chance to live independently and make more of their own choices. And, ultimately, having a college degree is a starting point to higher lifetime earnings.

Now is also a good time to help them get some perspective on college choice. While media messages and college marketing departments focus on prestige and popularity in college rankings, study after study tells us that, at the end of the day, it’s what you do in college that matters much more than where you go. Choice of major, as well as time spent studying, and being involved in campus life, are what really make the difference—not the school name on your degree. 

Starting your discussion with these topics can help your child to reflect on why they want to go to college, and how they can responsibly and maturely approach their collection selection.

How Much Does College Cost?

This is of course the question of the hour: how much is this actually going to cost us? 

Before talking with your child about this, it’s worth taking a look at the prices of a few schools yourself. As noted above, the cost of college is dynamic and varies according to different factors, so you won’t know the exact price you’ll be asked to pay for a school until after you receive admissions letters. But in the interim, you can gain insights into what might be ahead. As well as set the stage for the affordability part of the conversation that’s coming up next.

The sticker price, or cost of attendance (COA), is an estimate of tuition, fees, room & board, books, supplies, transportation and personal expenses for one year of college.

However, the net price is a better estimate of what you’ll actually be on the hook for: that’s the cost of attendance minus the average financial aid award.

For net price estimates, check out online resources like College Navigator and College Transitions, where you can search by state or specific school name and review the net price or costs tab for details. Many online net price calculators exist, but with varying degrees of accuracy, so keep in mind these are just estimates that may not reflect your actual costs.

To get started, try comparing the costs of a few in-state and out-of-state schools. That will give you a realistic range of potential costs to share with your student during your talk. Having more concrete estimates can make the conversation clearer and more immediate for them.

How Much Can You Afford?

Round out your college money talk with a focus on affordability and its importance to your family’s financial well-being.

Your ability to avoid overspending on college costs starts with figuring out what resources you’ll have available to pay for college. By knowing your college budget, your family can comparison shop for schools that are within your means and are more generous with financial aid that reduces your costs.

How much will you be able to contribute from savings and cash flow? Do you have a 529 plan in place? Will other family members be chipping in? It’s important that you know the answers to these questions, but it’s just as important that your student knows the answers as well. You don’t want to set them up for a rude awakening after the admissions letters start coming in. And, you don’t want to miss out on opportunities earlier in your college planning that can help you reduce your overall costs.

paying for college Sources of Funding

An important part of this conversation is making sure that your student understands their role in college planning. For them, “doing their part” will often mean being successful in school while cultivating the talents and interests that will attract merit aid. Similarly, it’s worth talking with your child about what, if any, are their responsibilities for identifying outside scholarships, as well as any expectations you have for them to work and earn money, both before and during college.

By being honest with your child about what you can afford to contribute and what their responsibilities are, your family can begin to work as a team to tackle college costs and avoid shortchanging your financial futures.

While reducing your college costs is the ultimate goal, costs are high enough that many families may still need additional help and will take on some debt. Discuss the importance of responsible borrowing, for yourself and for your student. Student loans and parent loans are expensive, must be repaid and increase your out-of-pocket college costs. The more you borrow, the more you’ll owe and the longer it will take to repay. Loan repayments of hundreds of dollars per month means less money available for the life you want to live.


Having a conversation or several conversations with your child about college costs isn’t about dashing their hopes or limiting their dreams. It’s the exact opposite, actually: by helping them to understand what college pricing is and can mean for their lives, you’re setting them up for a life of success. 

This talk could even be a great chance to introduce your child to the basics of personal finance. Financial literacy is one of those key areas of life that for some reason even the best educated find themselves trying to piece together in their twenties and thirties. Do your student a favor and give them a leg up by getting them started on the basics early. Trust me, they’ll thank you.

Wondering where to go next? Try the College Money Smart “Less Stress, More Success Checklist”.

Or, contact us for help with your college funding planning.

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