College Can Be Affordable

Readers share their strategies for putting their children through college without racking up a mountain of debt.

My column on cutting the cost of college drew some inspiring reader responses that span several generations. World War II veteran Thomas Barrow reminisced about how he earned his PhD in petroleum engineering by working his way through school and taking advantage of the GI Bill. “I earned all my tuition and education expenses,” writes Barrow. “College is expensive, but my PhD came cheaply to my family. It can be done!”

But can it be done nowadays, when college is even more expensive? Yes, says Rebecca Parker, a Michigan mother of three young adults, who writes that she was “heartened to read your sensible column on paying for college.” She also “had to laugh a bit to realize that our family has used most of the strategies you advocate.”

For instance, says Parker, “all three of our children received Advanced Placement credit, one took college-level math while still in high school, and one is working her way through community college while being employed nearly full-time. She has accumulated more than six years of retail food experience and office experience while she decides what her passion is.

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“Of the other two, the oldest graduated in four years with no debt; we paid tuition and she paid living expenses after her first year. She received an offer of 100% tuition from the University of Michigan to study for her master’s degree. She did take out a loan, which she is paying off at an accelerated rate.

“The third child graduated in 4½ years, also with no debt, but with over a year and a half of work experience in his field by taking fewer hours each term and taking classes year-round.

“Not only are we proud of their accomplishments, but we’re also proud of their common sense and financial savvy.”

Think the Parker kids are exceptions to the rule? Not necessarily. In a survey of high school students by the College Savings Foundation, three-fourths of 16- and 17-year-olds said that it was their responsibility to fund part or all of their higher education. Among those interviewed, 70% are talking to their parents about how much college costs, and a significant number of the students said they had already saved between $1,000 and $5,000.

As encouraging as the survey is, there are still big gaps in the students’ financial knowledge. Even though 66% of those responding anticipate borrowing for college, most of them haven’t researched student loans (start at, nor have they projected the total amount they will need to borrow or calculated the monthly loan-repayment amount (see the Student Loan Advisor calculator at

That kind of information is critical to helping kids avoid getting in over their heads. And parents can also take advantage of this teachable moment to be straight with their children about how much they are willing and able to pay for college. Don’t sell your kids short. They will rise to the occasion if they know the score.

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.