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Guest opinion: Financing college doesn’t have to be a solo venture

By Susan Madsen - Special to the Daily Herald | Sep 2, 2022

Courtesy photo

Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

As colleges and universities start fall semester for another year, I am grateful to live in a state that offers quality, reasonably priced higher education, generally ranking third nationally for affordability in public universities. But add up tuition, books and housing, and the price tag is more than many of our young people can pull off on their own. Most students need help to pay for college, and starting a savings plan, however small, can yield big results.

From time to time, I get pushback from parents on this. “Nobody helped me pay for school,” they say. “I did it all on my own.” While that may have been the case a few decades ago, times have changed. If you attended a state school in Utah in the 1980s, annual tuition was around $1,000. In the mid ’90s it was $1,500. When you factor in inflation, that price has more than doubled, making it much harder for students to cover the costs on their own. And during those same time periods, Pell grants could cover about 90% of tuition. Now it’s down to 60%.

What about getting a job? Working while in school can yield many benefits. Students learn to structure their time, become more disciplined and make valuable connections. But for students who work more than 20 hours a week, the benefits stop. If students work too many hours, it can affect their grades as well as keeping them from engaging deeply in the full college experience — including clubs, service, etc. — which are invaluable parts of an education. Yes, kids can and should work — but even with work, many will have to get student loans to survive. Do we really want our kids to have a lot of debt when they finish college?

I believe that helping with the cost of college won’t create more “privileged kids” if done right. As with most issues, paying for college doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition but a both/and scenario. Students can work part time and families can help make up the difference. Utah has one of the best systems in the country with https://my529.org/. I have an account for each of my grandchildren. For birthdays and Christmas, I give them a few toys so they have something to open and then put money in their accounts. By the time they are in college, it should help supplement their tuition costs each semester, and I believe it will make a difference.

Parents can also encourage kids to start saving some of their own money. A research snapshot from the Utah Women & Leadership Project found that the most important activity that impacted whether our female participants committed to getting higher education was to save their own money for college while young, often working part-time. And it became a high predictor of educational success and college completion. The second was discussing financial aid with someone. Although most of these discussions took place with parents and counselors, it did not matter who they talked with. Just having those important conversations made a difference. And finally, having parents who were willing to help in any way impacted whether they attended college or not. This support was often in the form of money but also included material items (e.g., books), living expenses (e.g., staying at home) and emotional support.

Sometimes as parents, we want to help but feel financially ignorant or don’t know where to start. For women, one place to start is to attend the annual Women in the Money Conference coming up soon. There is a session on paying for college and sessions on budgeting, managing debt, estate planning, investing and more.

Wherever you are financially, we owe it to the next generation to help them get the education needed to thrive. We must acknowledge that the cost of college is not what it once was, but as we work together with both parents and kids saving, having discussions about finances and balancing school and work, we can find ways to help our kids make their college dreams a reality.

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

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