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My oldest nephews (twins!) are graduating from high school next Sunday, and I’ve been reliving the ups and downs of being the parent of soon-to-be college students via conversations with my brother.  The college visits, application essays, and difficult decision of which college to chose are all behind them, and they are off to Ohio Wesleyan in August.  But the financial challenges of college are still ahead.

There have been many articles written lately questioning the value of a college education, highlighting the number of people who graduate and aren’t employed.  The level of student loan debt is high enough to raise the concern that it may replace mortgage debt as the next personal finance crisis.  

The cost of college is one of the biggest expenses for families, and one that is difficult for people to face, so some cope by ignoring it.  I am frequently asked to share the best ways to pay for college, only to find out the person asking has a high school senior headed off to school, and they have no plan in place other than to borrow money. 

There are fundamental things that can be done to prepare financially for college: start saving when your child is born, use tax-advantaged plans like 529 accounts to accumulate savings, and be sure to invest for growth using low-cost, diversified mutual funds.  But there are other things that can be done to improve the odds that you and your child will have less debt when they graduate. 

Based on the experience of friends and family, one of the biggest reasons for accumulating large amounts of college debt is extra time spent in college, usually because the student has no idea what they want to do.  Some spend the first few years in one major, then switch one, two or three times before settling.  After graduation, others discover their major has little value to employers, which means they have to go back to school to get a second degree or minor. 

If a young person doesn’t know what they want to do, consider investing in a program that allows them to get a better understanding of their own interests and capabilities before they chose a college or a major.  Strengths Finder, What Color is Your Parachute, and other resources are available that can help them get a much clearer idea of what they might enjoy doing and where their interests lie.  We can provide connections to career coaches who also work with students.  While it is understandable that most young people don’t know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, they should at least have an understanding of what they enjoy before piling up thousands of dollars in debt trying out majors.   

If they don’t know what they want to do, or they aren’t ready for the discipline of college, they may also consider taking a year off to work.  My father attended Marshall University, and then decided to get a job when his heart wasn’t in it.  After working in a bank for a year, he was ready to recommit himself to school and eventually obtained his masters degree in education administration from Xavier.  It can save their grade point average and avoids wasted tuition and fees.

If they aren’t sure, but they don’t want to lose time, they might consider going to a college branch (Miami University Hamilton or West Chester, for example) or a community college to complete basic education requirements or try out classes.  Transferring credits between schools is much easier in Ohio now that everyone is on semesters, and employers focus on your final degree, not the fact you completed part of your education elsewhere.   

If your child is still in high school, and they are sure they want to go to college, encourage them to take advanced placement classes, or participate in high school programs to earn college credit.  Our daughter and son took advantage of AP classes and were able to test out of classes that saved them nearly a year’s worth of time and tuition.  I attended classes at Ohio University while in high school, which allowed me to become a co-op student, working to pay my tuition while at Ohio State. 

Which brings me to my final point.  Make sure your child is a partner in their own education.  Even a part-time job can provide an opportunity to accumulate some significant savings.  Offer to match what they have accumulated, perhaps dollar for dollar, for incentive.     

It’s a fact of life that we appreciate the things we work for, and sometimes take things given to us for granted.  If a young person has no responsibility for funding their own education, the reality of the debt that’s piling up or the importance of a class they’re taking may fade.  College isn’t all work and no play, but young adults shouldn’t be left with a hangover of student debt when they graduate.   If they are harder on themselves now, life will be infinitely easier on them in the future.