Parents Should Help Pay for College

Moms and dads, consider helping out your kids with their school expenses. Here's why.

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Most parents want to help their children out with college costs. But today, I want to focus on the moms and dads who possess the ability to pay at least part of the tab but have no interest in breaking open their checkbooks.

[Read about how the government overestimates your ability to pay for college.]

Some of these parents believe their children should shoulder the entire obligation because they had to pay for their own schooling decades earlier. Some believe that requiring their children to foot the bill will build character. Others simply don't want to reduce their lifestyle.

[Learn why saving for college won't kill your financial aid chances.]

I periodically get E-mails from teenagers who are stressing out because of their parents' decision to sit out this obligation. Many of these teenagers are from affluent families; I'm not talking about moms and dads who are barely scraping by.

One of the E-mails came from a high school student in Maryland whose parents earn about $130,000 a year and had saved just $8,000 for her and her twin brother's college costs. The twins were going to have to pay the rest of the tab.

These students are at a real disadvantage because financial aid formulas are primarily based on the parents' income and assets. So students who face this financial burden on their own aren't going to get a break unless they can qualify as "independent students."

[Read about the 5 big financial aid lies.]

Some parents hope their teenagers can be declared independent students so they can qualify for need-based financial aid. But earning that designation will be impossible for most teenagers.

Just how difficult is it? If you're curious, I've included the questions that the federal government asks to determine if an undergraduate is eligible for financial aid as an independent student.

You have to answer "yes" to at least one question to be considered an independent student:

1. Are you at least 24 years old?

2. As of today, are you married?

3. At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, will you be working on a master's or doctorate program (such as an MA, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, EdD, or graduate certificate, etc.)?

4. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces for purposes other than training?

5. Are you a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces?

6. Do you have children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011?

7. Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2011?

8. At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care or were you a dependent or ward of the court?

9. Are you, or were you an emancipated minor as determined by a court in your state of legal residence?

10. Are you, or were you in legal guardianship as determined by a court in your state of legal residence?

11. At any time on or after July 1, 2009, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?

12. At any time on or after July 1, 2009, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?

13. At any time on or after July 1, 2009, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

When students are declared independent, they often can qualify for more financial aid, including federal Pell Grants, state aid, and assistance directly from the colleges themselves. This is possible because the parents' income and assets wouldn't be considered in financial aid formulas.

Certainly students need to contribute to their college education no matter how much their parents make. It is, however, unfathomable that some students are taking on debt of $50,000 or more for a college education.

If you're a parent contemplating making your child pay for college on his or her own, please give it more thought.