Care and Feeding

I Want to Pay for My Kids’ College, but I Also Want to Retire

I’ll be 68 when the youngest would graduate, and I want to enjoy a few years of good health before the inevitable decline that will set in during my seventies.

Father with his daughter, who's in a graduation cap and gown.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Comstock/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am in my mid-40s. As a bit of a later starter, I have three young children, the eldest of whom should enter college when I am 61, and the youngest who would presumably finish when I am 68. What I am trying to decide is how to balance the competing interests of my and my wife’s retirement versus paying for college for my children. As the primary earner in my family, my retirement date will have a major impact on how much we can contribute to our children’s education: something along the lines of in-state tuition if I were to retire at 61, and full rides at most private schools if I wait until the youngest is finished. I am struggling to come up with an ethical framework that helps me judge when enough is enough, and that I can move on and enjoy a few years of good health before the inevitable decline that will set in during my seventies.

For clarity’s sake, I will add that we expect little or no help from the grandparents; and not that it is likely to matter, but my parents were unable to contribute substantially to my own education.

—Work ’Til I Drop?

Dear W.T.I.D.,

As you well know, there are parents who put their children through college and there are those who do not. There is no universal rule saying that you must contribute to your kids’ post-secondary education at all, and though many of us want to at least help out with this tremendous expense, this seems to be less of an ethical concern than a logistical one.

It sounds to me like you don’t want to work until you are nearly in your 70s and that you’d prefer to have a few years planned in which you can, hopefully, experience life comfortably without the obligation of significant labor. Let that be that and plan accordingly: prepare your children for the process of applying for scholarships and keeping their grades up so that they can compete for merit awards. Explain to them what the college budget may look like and what their options are (i.e., attending locally or taking out their own loans to study out of state with some limited assistance from you). Talk about your own experiences with paying for college. Get them prepared to contribute to their own education now so that it won’t be a surprise later.


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