Opinion: Paying For College Is Parents' Responsibility

By Justin Draeger, NASFAA President and CEO 

Bankrate asked: "Should students be asked to pay for their college education? Should parents be expected to foot the bill?" NASFAA President Justin Draeger penned the following viewpoint. 

Parents who can help pay for college should. It's not only their parental responsibility, the philosophy of the U.S. higher education system depends on it.

Let's imagine two hypothetical students, Carla and Tim. Carla comes from a two-parent household that brings in $150,000 per year. Tim lives with just his mother, who earns $30,000 annually. Both Tim and Carla have part-time jobs earning $12,000 per year. If we only considered Tim's and Carla's income without looking at their family situation they would appear equally needy, when nothing could be further from the truth.

That's why the higher education financing system, constrained by limited federal-aid dollars, is structured to rely on families as the foremost funders of a student's education. With unlimited financial-aid resources, parents would not need to contribute to college costs. But that has never represented reality.

The federal financial-aid system isn't designed for children to fly solo financially. Generally, students aren't considered independent from their parents for financial-aid purposes until they're 24 years old or have an event that signals adulthood, such as military service or a marriage.

Of course, whether parents should help pay for college is entirely different from whether they can pay for college -- and financial aid exists for those families who truly don't have the financial resources to pay.

There are a number of steps parents can take to ensure they are taking full advantage of all available funding avenues:

Apply early. Many states and colleges use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine eligibility for nonfederal student-aid funds that may have early deadlines or limited funding. Completing your taxes earlier will help you get a jump on filing the FAFSA, but you don't need to have your taxes complete in order to apply. You can use data from your previous year's tax returns to estimate figures needed to complete the FAFSA.

Avoid common FAFSA errors. Common FAFSA mistakes, like entering the wrong federal income tax amount paid or listing adjusted gross income as equal to total income from working, can slow down the processing of your aid application, giving you less time to review funding options. See our FAFSA Tips and Common Mistakes to Avoid guide for a more comprehensive list.

Look into state and regional college tuition discounts. Many states have programs that allow residents to attend college in another state without having to pay out-of-state tuition. Check with your state, or with universities that you're interested in, about available tuition exchange or reciprocity programs, and ask about how to sign up. Read more about it on NASFAA's website.

Take advantage of tax breaks. Tax credits directly reduce the amount of tax you are liable for, and tax deductions reduce the amount of income on which you pay taxes. Review our annual guide to federal tax breaks for higher education for an overview of all the options that may be available to you.

Help your student find and apply for state aid and outside scholarships. Many organizations offer grant or scholarship funds based on financial need, academic merit and other criteria such as ethnic background, residency or employment affiliation.

Additionally, almost every state education agency has at least one grant or scholarship available to residents, and many have a long list of student-aid programs. NASFAA's State Financial Aid Programs page offers an interactive state map where you can click on your state to find out what financial-aid programs may be available. Do some searching to see what is available and speak to financial-aid professionals at your student's school or prospective school to better understand how these funds will affect your student's aid package or reduce the total you will need to pay out of pocket.

Touch base with the financial-aid office. Your college's or prospective college's financial-aid administrator can provide information on the types of financial aid available to you, financial-aid application deadlines, and how to accurately complete the FAFSA and other forms. Financial-aid professionals can also speak with you about how much aid you are qualified to receive and when you can expect to receive it, ways to make smart borrowing decisions, and how to request an appeal of financial-aid decisions.

Research clearly demonstrates that a college education dramatically expands students' earnings and learning potential over their lifetime, and most parents are likely to support that benefit for their students.

Given the multitude of ways that parents can help with funding, it is not far-fetched to expect those who are able to contribute to this meteoric rise in their child's earning potential to contribute.

NASFAA President Justin Draeger penned this article for Bankrate.com. 


Publication Date: 6/1/2015

Michelle M | 6/1/2015 12:23:53 PM

I think Mr. Draeger's comments make sense, but my experience tells me that in the two cases used to demonstrate the point, it is the parent making $30 K who is far more likely to contribute to her child's education directly than the parents making $150 K. Why? The parent living at or just above the poverty line doesn't necessarily have the same disposable income that the other parents do and that they have used for the areas they consider "important", new cars, credit cards. mortgages, cell phones. I would love to see financial aid professionals take up the torch for much younger students and their parents to have them begin to look at their priorities.to use their income for. If the parent has $100 to take the family out to dinner or order in weekly, perhaps looking at putting that money in a college savings account is something we need to be suggesting long before little Tommy hits high school. We need a rearrangement of our priorities as consumers. We no longer save for those rainy days, disposable income is disposed of for short-term wants rather than long-term goals. Sadly, we have become a nation of spenders. We also need to begin a discussion on choosing majors and colleges and why the "big name" may not be the best value. Students and parents seem to base their decision on what colleges to look at and attend based on the name and reputation, overall, of the school, not on whether or not it turns out the best educated graduates in their field. This is another process that needs to start long before junior year of high school and should be based on academics rather than the sport our student wants to play. We should be teaching that the "total college experience" is more than living in a dorm.

Raymond G | 6/1/2015 10:57:01 AM

I think it depends on the situation. Unfortunately, parents aren't legally required to provide information to their children to apply for financial. These students then usually have to wait or take out private or unsub loans until the arbitrary age of 24 years. Also, some "dependent" students work or make more than their parents (again who won't provide tax information). There are 30, 40 and 50 years olds still living with their parents while there are 18 - 24 year olds that are not, especially in the community college sector which is often an aferthought in legislation creation. However, I wouldn't recommend making this a professional judgement decision since everyone will say they can't get their parent information. It should still be extenuating circumstances. I think attempts should be made to make the FSA definition of "independent" closer to the traditional sense.

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