Care and Feeding

Our Kids Are Furious With Us Over How We Paid for College

We thought we were doing what was best, but they can’t stop fighting about it.

Four adult children look upset on a sofa.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have four children, with a two- or three-year age difference between each of them. My wife and I are comfortably upper middle class: We both have professional careers, but definitely don’t make enough to pay for four full college tuitions at private universities. Our three older children got into a variety of public and private universities, some that offered merit-based financial aid and some that didn’t. We told our kids that we’d pay for half (at most) of private school tuition and that they could either get the rest via merit aid or student loans. All three picked schools they were a little less excited about than their first-choice schools, but that offered either full or half tuition scholarships based on merit. Then, by the time we got to our fourth child, “Lee,” we did the math and realized we had enough money to pay full tuition at a private school (the older three kids were at that point financially independent). Lee also had some different learning needs and scored much lower on the standardized tests that tend to gatekeep merit aid. But they got into a fairly good private college and we paid full price for their tuition.

Apparently, this has caused tremendous friction among our children. My wife’s approach to conversations with them about this (which one or another of them is constantly initiating) is always something like, “Tough! Life isn’t fair. We made the best decision we could with the information we had at the time.” This—unsurprisingly—hasn’t helped at all. I don’t think we need to apologize for our choices, but I also feel like “tough love” hasn’t helped the kids work this out. Do you have any advice? Did we do something wrong here?

—Dad in Delaware

Dear Dad in Delaware,

I don’t think you did anything “wrong,” though I do think it’s unfortunate that this whole business unspooled the way it did, I think it’s a terrible pity that your adult children can’t move on from it (more on that in a moment), and I am absolutely sure that your wife’s “tough” approach helps no one but her. Indeed, it  probably doesn’t help her all that much either, for as often as she reminds herself that life isn’t fair and that y’all did the best you could, it seems pretty clear to me that she is not at peace with how this played out. For sure your older children aren’t going to find this continued approach comforting, and Lee, if they feel guilty about getting more support—or aggrieved about their siblings’ inability to be glad for them—is also not going to be helped.

I have a few things to say on the various aspects of this situation. One is something that it’s too late to do anything about, but I’m hoping that other readers will benefit by: Do not assume that a private institution is by definition going to offer a “better” education or college experience than a public one, and don’t encourage your children to believe that. It’s not entirely clear from your letter where everyone ended up, but I’ll just note that sending some or all of your four kids to a good public university would likely have spared you some of this financial strain. That said, it’s also worth noting that these days, most elite private colleges and universities will make sure a family can afford to send their children there if the child is admitted; that is to say, if you have a kid whose application profile is such that they will gain admission to a very, very good private school with a very high price tag, and you don’t have enough money to pay that price tag, the school will make up the difference. Dartmouth, for instance, offers free tuition for families making less than $100,000 and offers aid on a sliding scale for all other families.

But because your children (and you) have all made their beds, college-wise, I’ll get to the relevant-to-you advice now. For starters, siblings who are aggrieved about unequal distribution of financial help are siblings who are otherwise aggrieved. I am 100 percent certain that when there are bad feelings among adult children about who-got-more-money—whether we’re talking about college tuition or gift-distribution/financial help from parents among siblings with unequal resources of their own, or the apportionment of their parents’ belongings after their death—it’s because they already feel insecure. Money is not just money—it’s a symbol. And when grown children believe that one child is more important to or more beloved by their parents than another (whether this belief is justified or not), they tend to focus on money, because that’s easier to complain about than love.

So, no, you don’t need to apologize for your choices around paying for college. But it might be wise to talk to your children about—and demonstrate to them, too, in ways having nothing to do with money—how much you love them. All of them. I wouldn’t even engage on the subject of Lee’s college expenses: That was between you (and your wife) and Lee, and has nothing, on the face of it, to do with Lee’s older siblings. Your kids already know that once you got to the youngest, you were able to make a different calculation. They know that Lee had challenges they didn’t have. You don’t need to say any of this again. Instead, try speaking to what’s beneath the surface of these complaints. And don’t just give lip service to their need to know that you love each of them just as much as you love Lee. Pay attention to each of them as individuals. Distribute your love and interest lavishly. If you have to say something when they bring up, yet again, this tiresome business of how much you spent on college for one kid, I suppose you could say, “Yes, it’s a pity there wasn’t more money to go around when you were younger,” but then switch to another subject. I’m sure they’re all as sick of this one as you are. Help them move on from it.

—Michelle

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