I don’t think we owe college to our kids. Does that make me a bad father?

All you need to know about the student debt crisis in one graph.

It’s not that you owe your kid a fashionable coat…it’s that you owe her a warm one. Right? Anything beyond that’s a choice, not an obligation.

Being the da-da of a fourteen year-old sentient ape, a female, I think the same’s true for education. You don’t owe your kid college…you owe her a good start in life. Assuming the two are the same thing might be more harmful than helpful to both of you.

Give a guy a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you’ll feed him for his entire life.1

But teach him how to learn and you’ll never see him again. He won’t be dependent on you. He’ll know that Google is a thing, that educational videos are things, that books are things, etc. And presently he’ll be a teacher, not a student.

So the ability to self-program is one of the best starts kids can get—maybe THE best start—and we may or may not need to send them college to learn it. But if you’re convinced that it is, I ain’t a-gonna judge yez. I’m just saying the process of…continuous quality improvement?…makes it prudent to review and revise your plans as you go. I hope you’ll take into consideration, then, my ideas about the meaning of a “good start.”

A successful career isn’t necessarily the same as a successful life.

“Hey…who cares if you’re happy as long as you’re successful?”

We gotta stomp out that kind of thinking, my brethren and sistren, and the place to start stomping is in the heads of our kids. Or something like that. But given that success in common parlance has come to mean having achieved an above-average level of material comfort, we need to teach our kids to prioritize fulfillment instead.

I’ve frequently said if everybody felt fulfilled in their jobs, the FIRE movement wouldn’t exist. There are of course reasons why people would still quit fulfilling jobs—illness, age, pastimes that are even more fulfilling—but you wouldn’t have the kind of en masse impetus that we’re currently seeing.

Takes commitment. We have to teach by example, which can require major and uncomfortable adjustments.

It’s only been one generation since college became perceived as the gateway to success.

If you’re the parent of a college-age kid I’m guessing you’re GenX. If you went to college yourself, there’s a good bet it wasn’t from absolute necessity but because of cultural conditioning from baby boomers.

It’s highly likely the parents of baby boomers experienced the Great Depression; a watershed event in the perception of higher education. My grandfather, for instance, quit school in tenth grade, started as a farmhand, taught himself to read blueprints and pour concrete, worked in the post-war reconstruction of Japan, joined a union, and traveled the country from job to job. He saved until he could start a small business, and lived on its proceeds until he died.

While he believed in hard work, he and many in his generation came to define a “good job” as one that wasn’t so hardscrabble. College was the road to the middle class. They taught that to their children, who passed it on to you.

What’s been diminished, then, is the idea that the gateway to a “better life” is ability and not pedigree. When hiring a candidate for a sales position, would you rather find a recent college grad with a degree in sales, or a candidate with a ten-year track record but no college on his resume? You’d of course like both, but there’s a lot of institutional bias toward higher education—especially in entry-level positions a ten-year veteran might nonetheless want to take.

We need to re-think that.

Sending your kids to college requires them to submit themselves to unreasonable strictures imposed on them by the university system.

Don’t get me started on the nanny state, especially the required freshman dorm-dwelling. Last I checked this was the United States of America, where we have some basic freedoms that ought not to be transgressed…including freedom of movement and the freedom to fail because nobody’s got you under a microscope.

The best way to deal with a sense of entitlement is to replace it with a sense of personal responsibility.

My friend’s daughter is an excellent dancer.

She expected my friend to pay for a degree in dance. He refused. That caused a LOT of friction, mainly because in a moment of utter cranialrectumitis he said, “I’m not paying for you to major in your hobby. You gotta have something to fall back on.” To which she replied, “How dare you assume I’m gonna fail?”

They compromised. He didn’t pay for a dance degree, but he did pay for one in management with a concentration in entrepreneurship while splitting with her the costs of ongoing private dance instruction. She’d thus be equipped to someday open her own studio. She got on board mainly since he said he’d be willing to invest in such a studio when she was ready–as long as she paid a return equal to the long-term S&P.

Worthy of frigging Solomon, I thought.

Not all kids can handle college.

Again, self-evident. Ask yourself: is your kid mature enough to leave a structured environment for one that’s much more self-directed?

By extension, are you willing to face the risk of paying for your kid to skip class, drink beer, chase after shall we say “romance,” and eventually flunk out? If you think that risk’s too high, you’ve got a good candidate for the military on your hands. Service is highly honorable, after all, and the military’s damned skilled at teaching discipline.

Furthermore, if my daughter gets to be college age and I think she’s too irresponsible to go, THAT’S ON ME. I’ve failed to give her what’s clearly a vital part of a good start. I have to own it. So how would I deal with it? I don’t know…but if it works out that way, hopefully it won’t be too late to remedy the the situation, or ideally help her find the remedy herself.

If you’re carrying credit card debt or any other debt above student loan rates, paying tuition is a terrible economic inefficiency.

If you fall into GenX’s “typical debt” range, you already know that you’re essentially borrowing from your credit cards at 18% or whatever only to pay it right back out to your mortgage, car loan, etc.—all of which (should!) carry rates of much less than your credit card’s.

Where’s the sense in that?

True, it’s likely that you owe less than $10K on your credit cards…but how long have you been carrying that balance? Are you merely rolling it forward? The intention, then, to pay for your kid’s college can be a serious inefficiency in your financial dealings.

What’s true in that situation is also true for student loans, which you can find at, what, 6-12%?

So get yourself out of all debt above student loan rates before you pay tuition. If this means your kid has to take out loans on her own, make it so, and then help them pay the loans off after-the-fact if you’re dead set on sending them into the world debt-free. And in the end if it works out so they have to pay most of their student loans off themselves…so be it.

Many of us will have to balance taking care of our kids against taking care of our parents.

I’m perhaps atypical in that my parents and my wife’s parents are financially secure. Military pension, government pension, insurance company pension, a mom who enjoys the hell out of her job and at age 69 refuses to quit. But ask yourself: are you realistically gonna be able to support your parents in their old age AND pay for your kid’s college?

Because that’s the same dilemma your kids’ll have if you can’t fund your own retirement, which is statistically quite likely. And even though your kid will likewise have to fund her OWN retirement, carrying student debt will mean she’s missing out on compound interest at the time when it’s most advantageous. That’s to your mutual detriment.

Which begs the question: is that’s what best for your family? Your entire family? So if you choose to pay for your kid’s college and you end up having to take care of your parents, how much will be left over for them? Never mind you?

To wit: if you pay for your kid’s college you may have to forget about ever retiring yourself.

A common thought is: “By paying for college I’m only postponing my retirement, not forsaking it altogether.” But Generation X, after all, is screwed for retirement savings. We tend to be consumption spenders, to have only five figures socked away, and to be financially overextended…all of which has contributed to the widespread belief that we’ll be working until we drop.

Blah, blah, blah.

I’m sitting here at some bastardly early-morning-before-school hour in a Leatherette® chair at my daughter’s thrice-weekly physical training session. This chair has become my writing studio. It’s a great place from whence to work because it’s far too uncomfortable for sleeping, meaning whoever picked it did so because it encourages upright posture and therefore a healthy back. Physical trainers are saintly in their wickedness. They do NOTHING without reason. Or pain.

Pain is why we’re here. Some months ago my daughter started complaining about her knee. We figured it was a growth spurt, but her pain got worse until one day she and I were out for a Pokéwalk2 and I realized she was limping slightly. I asked, “It looks like you’re really stiff today…your knee hurting that bad?”

She gave me a sad look. “I can’t run anymore, Daddy.”

Holy shit. So I had her at a sports medicine clinic inside of forty-eight hours, where they did an MRI and found that no, it wasn’t an IT band problem,3 but a inflammation of the plica: a weird little vestigial fold of synovial tissue behind the kneecap that, like the appendix, is one of God’s corny dad-jokes.

Five weeks of PT have since passed. Her knee’s getting better.

Now: taking your kid to the doctor when she’s ill isn’t exactly father-of-the-year stuff, but your quality of life takes a big hit when you don’t have healthy knees, and these early-morning PT sessions are one way of ensuring she has a healthy future.

On the subject of healthy futures: she’s unaware she has a college fund. When she was born my wife and I set up a 529 for her, the balance of which in the intervening fourteen years has tumesced4 to just over seventy grand. In four more years that seventy grand oughtta be enough for at least three months of the basic meal plan at a cheap in-state school. A nice boost, eh?

I don’t have to be here at her PT sessions, and I don’t have to contribute to her college expenses, either. The reason we haven’t told her her 529 exists is: we’ve explained how expensive college is and that she’ll have bust her petite little rumpus to get grants & scholarships. Thus far she’s doing it, although ninth grade is mighty early. So I don’t know, man…for that reason alone I feel like her 529’s a gift and not an obligation.

Well…whatever your decision about whether to pay for college, my advice is to use it as a life lesson; a character-building exercise. And maybe, just maybe, the lesson your kid needs is that grownups oughtta pay their own way, and doing so takes self-discipline.

In other words, a full ride is never a full ride.

In conclusion, to the blackest hole in hell with this beastly chair. The body’s an illusion: we’re beings of spirit. Good posture is therefore bad for one’s soul. So tomorrow morning I’ll be tying my hammock between the iron maiden and the Catherine wheel, and the outrage of the torturers in this place be damned.


  1. However short it might be thanks to the slow buildup of mercury in his system.
  2. Which: have you noticed how common Pikachu has become?
  3. Praise all gods large and small.
  4. Is that spelled correctly? It means “to swell provocatively.”

Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit http://EarlyRetirementDude.com or email EarlyRetirementDude@gmail.com.

25 thoughts

  1. Your article was timely as just the other day my son asked what masters degree I had. He was shocked at my answer that I only went to college and got a 3 year degree. He then followed up with the question “that’s all you have you never been to university?” I could tell his impression on how smart I was had just dropped….luckily my daughter still thinks I know everything. 🙂

    My son is currently in high school and as part of a career building project was looking at future jobs and finding out the requirements. He selected one in video game design as video games are his life currently. He tells me it the jobs he wants require a minimum of a masters degree. Either he is mistaken of I have lost touch with the “degree education inflation” that is going on in the work force these days!

    In Canada we have RESP (Registered Education Savings Plan) similar to your 529, and I started putting money aside when the kids were born. I agree with your take there should be no free ride and we too have not told the kids about this money. I paid my own way through school while living at home for free. Of course, the costs were not as crazy as they are now and I was lucky to have a good part time job. I want to encourage my kids to work part time to help pay for school and also believe the experience they gain and also having a stake in their education is key to learning responsibility and success.

    Doing the numbers for paying for a master degree is a little scary. Just back of the napkin numbering crunching has me wondering if it be worth that amount of time, money and energy for the return?

    1. >He tells me it the jobs he wants require a minimum of a masters degree

      Which is nuts. The sole qualification factor oughtta be showing up with a brilliant portfolio.

      “Here’s what I developed.”

      “That’s awesome stuff. You’re hired.”

  2. Very timely. I’m starting to think more about this for my 7th and 8th graders. We have $25k-ish dedicated in each of their 529s (still roughly 2.5-3 years of tuition around here!). What do we owe them beyond that? How much skin in the game do they need? Is it okay to expect them to get jobs in high school and college, summer jobs, etc? How will we handle traveling all summer and bringing them along with us, because that means they can’t work and make their own money.

    I have more questions than answers but I’m skeptical of the “you’re rich, you should give each of your 3 kids a full ride to the most expensive school they can get into”. I’m much more of a fan of incentives to keep them motivated to succeed in a timely manner with costs in mind, and with an eye toward cost-benefit analysis.

    It makes no sense to spend six figures to help a kid get a job that pays less than $30-40k/yr in the intermediate term IMHO. We’ve already had the chat with the kids about “art might not be the best major in college” to dissuade them of those notions (at least to the extent that we are financially responsible for their costs 🙂 ). Not that art isn’t an intrinsically valuable pursuit in itself, it’s just not my place to pay big $ and steer them toward a career that has high odds of leading to a just above poverty lifestyle.

      1. Hi, John…thanks for the comment. Is it possible you’re saying lifestyle when you mean income? Since our income is based on realized capital gains, I have a decent amount of control over what it’ll be thanks to loss harvesting, and our AGI often does end up in the near-poverty zone.

        But our cash flow’s entirely different. And since we live in a hip district of a mid-sized city in a house that’s entirely paid for, and since we have a $4,000/month budget, saying we live an essentially impoverished lifestyle seems inaccurate.

  3. >Not that art isn’t an intrinsically valuable pursuit in itself, it’s just not my place to pay big $ and steer them toward a career that has high odds of leading to a just above poverty lifestyle.

    Agreed. The win-win, I think, is the one my friend took with the dance degree. Don’t quasi-force your kids to go into the opposite field of what they feel like is their calling (engineering comes to mind)–but instead, find a major that supports it. If your kid wants to be a writer, for instance, support them like crazy with off-campus classes and have them split the costs. And meanwhile, encourage them to take a degree that helps round them out and gives them an edge up in the post-newspaper world. A double-concentration in journalism and web development, maybe. But you see what I mean.

  4. Great article – the one thing I still can’t wrap my head around is how to explain to a kid, or get a kid to conceptualize, what a large amount of debt would mean to their everyday lives for many, many years.

    I went the college route, did all the right stuff, got a high-paying job, etc., etc. and it still took me 7 years and a lot of self-discipline to pay off $100k in student debt (and luckily I qualified for some financial aid and got some athletic money).

    Granted I chose a uniquely expensive school, it must have been brutal on my parents to watch me take on that amount debt. I assume they trusted it would be worth the long-run return, but I don’t think they knew how to articulate the mental and emotional baggage that this amount of debt comes with. It was the bane of my existence for the last 7 years. I can’t even begin to calculate the opportunity cost.

    I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, I naively brushed off that “this is a lot of money” and luckily it panned out… but had I graduated a few years earlier into the start of the recession, it would have been a different story, maybe.

    How do you explain the gravity of that financial decision to a 17-year old?

    1. >the one thing I still can’t wrap my head around is how to explain to a kid, or get a kid to conceptualize, what a large amount of debt would mean to their everyday lives for many, many years.

      This is a cool thing about having FIREd…I can say, “Do you think when you’re an adult you’ll ever want to live like we do now? If you take on a hundred grand in student debt–which is enough to buy this van you’re riding in twenty-four times, by the way–it’ll set your early retirement back by ten years or more.”

      A decade’s about as long as her living memory. Has a powerful impact.

  5. My mom and Mimi helped pay for college (about a thousand a semester, definitely nowhere close to a full ride), but that was only after I’d gotten 12k a year in scholarships and I maintained a 3.5GPA. It was like a personal scholarship. I did well, and they helped me reach my goals. But it was also implied that I would go to college. My Mimi has her PhD, so does my Grandpa, and my mom has two master’s degrees. I think that for my children (should I have them), I’m not going to make college an expectation for them, but if they want to go, and they work to go (get scholarships, passing grades, etc), then I want to help them get there best I can.

  6. Very good post and I totally agree with you. Education (and its costs) is something that picks my mind these days despite my older daughter will start elementary school only two years from now. I don’t know the system over there but college and university can be totally tuition-free over here if you have good degrees. There are free places in limited numbers so you have to compete for them. If you fail you can still go for the paid places which are also limited. There are also scholarships and other options as you mentioned.

    Currently, my plan is that I would like to provide them with the basics (a roof above their head and food on the table) and probably with other stuff what is needed for education (books & notebooks maybe, not sure if that will be a thing in ten years but whatever). However, I don’t plan on financing them with the latest iPhone, designer clothes or binge drinking feasts. I will try to engrave good sense into them. If they will still want these things they will have to work for it.

    I totally agree that a degree could be totally irrelevant if your life & career is successful or not. Skills, abilities and mindset can beat a degree in many fields in any given day. I have a bachelor’s degree in CS. My parents paid for the first three semesters and I became a dropout… Then I got a part-time job, started over, grabbed a free place and in three years… I became a dropout again. Then I started over in a different school and got my degree in two years. It was a long journey and something I could have totally avoided if I had the proper mindset and necessary information at hand to make better decisions. So that is what I think we owe to our kids, to teach them think and learn the proper way as much as we can.

    1. “I don’t know the system over there but college and university can be totally tuition-free over here if you have good degrees.”

      Good grades I wanted to write 🙂

  7. Great article. Especially the point on teaching them how to learn – and how to fail and get back up again.
    We determined to ‘help’ our kids with school. Meaning our daughter lived at home and drove a car we bought, while she commuted to a local 4 year private school. They gave her a really good scholarship as she’d worked hard in high school to get the grades needed to merit one. She also worked all through high school and college. She is now about to graduate with NO DEBT – on her part or ours.
    Our son goes to private school out of state – again with great academic scholarships. He has no car at school, works part-time while going to school and will finish his undergrad in 2.5 years due to early college access as a high school student (his Jr/Sr years were almost completely college courses). He will have a small amount of debt when he finishes, but it will only be the govt. loans that are very limited in amounts as those are solely his own responsibility.
    College is a choice – an expensive one – the kids that work hard for it (I believe) appreciate it far more. This is obviously my opinion, but it has shown to be truth from observation of the kids that my kids attend class with daily.

    1. >We determined to ‘help’ our kids with school. Meaning our daughter lived at home and drove a car we bought, while she commuted to a local 4 year private school.

      You raise a great point…”help” can mean many more things than just tuition. If she had to buy a car and pay rent and such, that’d just be that much more debt piling up–those expenses would knock down the size of the tuition check she’d be able to write.

      >the kids that work hard for it (I believe) appreciate it far more

      I think there’s a lot to that.

  8. Nice thought. Just recognize that your children will not be declared independent for their financial aide. Your income and savings I’ll be held against them.

    1. >held against them

      Such an awesome point. Definitely the right wording. I get red around the gills when I think about that.

      Thankfully my wife and I are about to turn 50 and we have a major portion of our assets in IRAs but we’re not currently taking income from them. That’ll be a big help.

  9. I am of the mind that I will do what I can for them via putting money into a 529. The catch is that 529 contributions only occur after retirement contributions. Do I feel like I need to save up enough to fully fund their college, no. My reasoning is that college can be as expensive or as cheap as you make it. My goal for each of my 4 kids is 50k by 10 yrs old and then minimal contributions there after, hopefully compounding will get them to around 100K by 18. Anyway, like you said in your article, there is a component of personal responsibility here that should not be understated. If you have say 100K then you either choose a path that leads to no debt, i.e. in state school maybe close to home so you can commute or community college for 2 years then transfer… so many options to cheapen things up. There are very few scenarios where a person could benefit from a prestigious university at the undergraduate level. Graduate school however is a grown up choice and while they can have any money left in the 529 for this, they will primarily be on their own. Again, plenty of ways to reduce cost doing this too, such as working for the university during…

    Where I think my role really comes into play is showing them how choices they make will impact their lives financially, potentially forever, should they make an expensive and likely poor one.

    That being said I really hope none of them stop schooling till they achieve a terminal degree. That to me seems to be the only higher education path that will make sense in the future.
    Also, I do think trades will be more lucrative in the future and would not steer them away from that path either.

    1. >Where I think my role really comes into play is showing them how choices they make will impact their lives financially, potentially forever, should they make an expensive and likely poor one.

      Hear hear. About the best you can do, I think, is help them understand how to make good decisions.

  10. I struggle with this as well. Both of my young children have 529 accounts. I often wonder if by then time they graduate high school if college will be what it is today. Part of me believes there will be much cheaper or free self taught options as the college tuition bubble has to burst at some point. I also agree with the unrealistic expectations that we can put on kids. Therefore, while we have accounts set up for both kids we don’t put too much money in either one. About $100 per kid per month, which if tuition continues to rise at the same rate will be good for books and a few meals.

    1. > Part of me believes there will be much cheaper or free self taught options

      There already are and there have always been; it’s just that an education has become “gamified” to the point where it’s more about the–well, OK, this isn’t the best analogy, but in many ways a college degree has become an over-glorified merit badge for acquiring knowledge that was already worth acquiring for its own sake. You don’t have to join the Boy Scouts to make Eagle, so to speak.

  11. My parents refused to pay for college when I graduated from HS in 1970. I went to college in 1977. We were poor and I got TAP and Pell grants . I had two kids at the time. I had the third kid my last semester. it took me 10 years to graduate. Now in my sixties, I admit I am still envious of my peers whose family paid for college.
    My children had TAP , Pell, and scholarships . I was still poor at the time but helped them and encourage them . My granddaughter is in college now. I do the same for her as my kids.

    1. >I am still envious of my peers whose family paid for college.

      Interesting comment, and I’d very much enjoy your perspective. You’re saying that in general, I think, but what specifically is it about their experience that you’re envious of?

  12. I think people have to do what’s in their heart. You also have to ask yourself some questions. Like can you afford it? What values or lessons are you trying to teach?

    I do not think you owe your kids anything other than being a helping hand and guide until they are old enough and have the reasonable means and skills to support themselves. I say if they need help, then help them. But do not overindulge and spoil. That is always a recipe for disaster.

    My love has no conditions, but my money does. Kids need to work for what they want.

    The only way to enjoy anything in this life is to earn it first. – Ginger Rogers


  13. I go with the “pay it forward” plan. My parents paid for my education, I am endeavoring to do the same since I can afford to (we max our retirement accounts and put a healthy chunk into post tax). I have a plan under 529 contributions plus a transfer of Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits (60% of college for 2 years for each, plus some stipends. My retirement accounts are well funded (and I still have a pension on top of that, maybe 2) so its the least I could do

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