Why it doesn’t matter where my kids go to college (and why you shouldn’t give a crap either)


I wrote last week about the issue of parents prioritizing college savings over that for their own retirements – an problem exacerbated among professional single parents like myself, as 47 percent of single moms surveyed prioritize college savings over retirement, compared to just 26 percent of other modern families who say the same.

It’s hard to fault parents for getting into a tizzy over college decisions. In the decade between the 2000-2001 and 2010-2011 academic years, the average cost of colleges overall rose 70 percent to $18,497, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. Consider the jaw-dropping $61,000-per-year price tag at Sarah Lawrence, or even $23,000 for in-state students at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, my alma mater. To pay for these crazy fees, 7 out of 10 students in the class of 2012 graduated with student loans. On average, students left school with an average loan of $29,400 — a sum increasingly hard for students to manage, as the rate of delinquencies nearly doubling to 11.5 percent over the past decade, according to the Fed.

Those kinds of very real financial pressures face parents of college-bound students every time we scan the media — as do headlines screaming about unemployment rates for young adults and the high and steady rate of millennials who just will not move out of their childhood bedrooms. The logical response is to save up for college and put the screws to our kids to increase the likelihood they get accepted into top schools. The assumption is that better the school, the better the chance of professional success and financial earnings, and the greater the ROI on the high cost of the very best schools. 

But that assumption is wrong (I’ll get to that in a moment), and the entire academic paradigm in this country has been turned on its head. As I struggle through 1st grade daily homework with my daughter, and the social pressure to engage my preschool-aged son in a half-dozen extracurricular activities, I am committing to long-view. And that view is neutral on where my kids go to college. In fact, since I foresee a limited college savings fund, I will encourage my kids to seek out state, two-year or technical schools, depending on their interests and aptitude. I am also open to the idea that they forego college all together, instead invest those funds in starting a business or real estate.

In my latest for Forbes, I tell you why.

9 Reasons I Don’t Care Where My Kids Go To College

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

7 thoughts on “Why it doesn’t matter where my kids go to college (and why you shouldn’t give a crap either)

  1. Too many parents, married or divorced, get too worried about saving for their kid’s college. College is for the kid’s future, not the parents, and in my view the parents don’t owe their kids a college education. It’s the kid’s future, so let the kid figure it out on their own path to becoming an adult.

    Here’s an idea: teach your kids how to WORK – unlike many helicopter parents who “protect” their kids from hard work and struggle – when the kids are young. Set the expectation they can get a job and WORK their own way paying for their own college, emphasizing not taking out a pile of loans to pay for it.

    All my siblings, save one, paid for college by working themselves through full-time while going to school full-time. It can be done. And even with all that work, my college years were still the best years of my life. Meanwhile, I learned how to deal in the work environment, developed a good work ethic, and had a steady work history when I left college that helped me land my first decent paying post-college job.

    And with all the spoiled college brats whose parents did pay for college while the kids sat on their arse, your hard-working kid will look like a jewel in the job market once they graduate.

  2. Really bad idea to forego college altogether. Take a look at the statistics about earning potential for college grads verses non college grads. Unless your kid is inventing the new Facebook or Snapchat, not going to college is a bad idea! Unless you – wealthy single mommy are going to support them!

  3. I think the key is to teach your kids to be happy and healthy, and also teach them to think for themselves. And, teach them to earn, save, and value their time, money, and themselves.
    Saving money in designated pots is what investment firms want – because they are making money off of your money and want you to invest long term for their own security, not yours (did you watch your earnings in 2007 – 10?). They want you to think that your money should be held in special silos… And that you should be penalized (a LOT) for early withdrawal – but that sort of investing is truly only for the super wealthy, or super lucky. It’s not really what every one needs.
    Most investment plans, like retirement or college savings, play on your hopes and dreams – and incentivize your leaving your money in an investors hand so they can count on it for a long time. if all goes well you make some money and they make a lot of money…off of your money. However, if you have a major crisis and need to take it out early, they charge you – a lot – so much that you lose all of your earnings!. Crises. Unplanned horrors facing you and your family can cost you everything – and you get punished for having invested in your future, or your kid’s, back when they were small and life was simple, yes, simple.

    I am a single mom, I am just about to start getting child support after 7 yrs divorced because my brilliant A student super amazing popular girl had a psychotic break and almost died. As her full time caregiver, as well as mommy to a wonderful younger boy, I lost my substantial savings, my job, and my house, but I got to save my kid. Now we know it was due to PTSD and sexual trauma, but before we figured all that out we (me, her estranged dad, my parents and ex husbands parents) spent a ton (over $200k out of pocket) of money for treatment.
    Turns out, the first question the people who help you figure out how to save your kids life ask: do you have college or retirement funds? Because college funds (or retirement funds, or both) and losing your investment earnings and paying a steep penalty for early withdrawal on top of that don’t mean sh*t when your kids life is on the line. (The penalties are what irked me the most. Really? I’m not being punished enough for you, Vanguard?)

    So in hindsight, learning to invest for myself was a much better plan in the long run. Luckily I did some of both.
    And college is not my worry now, my goal for my still-straight A smart personable girl? Graduate high school with a diploma. The goal for my smart and personable and solid boy? Happy and healthy. Yes, our college funds are still there for kind of a dumb reason – another story for another time – but that could change. But my kids are still here, they both love to work, are good at school, and love to save money for things or trips, they know who they can count on in life, and they know how to eat well and exercise (despite the frozen pizza in my freezer and our newfound love of certain tv shows on Netflix)), so that’s cool! And – my list of things I don’t give a sh*t about has grown exponentially.

    1. I like you:) Well said. And best of luck to you and your family. This single parenting stuff isn’t easy, and I admire you for your very realistic and important goals.

  4. I’m in complete agreement with you on this. My husband and I went to a large state school in the midwest and emerged with excellent degrees and $0 in debt or student loans. We both have good jobs on the east coast admit plenty of Ivy League co-workers who are struggling under their incredible student loan debt. No one cares where our degrees are from and we’ve been able to focus all of our funds on savings & investments–not on paying down debt for overpriced degrees.

  5. No prospective or actual employer ever seemed to care that I attended State U. Expectations re. college have gotten ridiculous. A mom in my neighborhood has a daughter who earned a full scholarship to a respectable school. But mommy was pissed. Why? Because her daughter wasn’t admitted to Notre Dame. Some people just have to look a gift horse in the mouth…

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