How to Talk to Your Parents About Paying for College

Kat Tretina Published on September 30, 2019

paying for college

If you’re in high school, you probably can’t wait for college. Living in the dorms, being surrounded by people your own age, moving away from home for the first time — it’s an incredibly exciting time of your life.

But before you can leap in, you need to think about how you’re going to pay for school and if your family can afford to help you. If you’re in high school — even if you’re just a freshman or sophomore — it’s a good idea to talk to them about your options early on. If that sounds like a scary conversation, here’s how to prepare — and what to do if your parents won’t (or can’t) pay for college.

Do your homework first

Before you talk to your family, do some research on how much college costs, what your plans are, and what payment options are available.

Look up the cost of college

Look up the average cost of higher education so you’re prepared — and get ready for sticker shock. According to The College Board, a year’s tuition and room and board costs at a four-year university costs $21,370, including room and board. Opt for a private school, and that number jumps to $48,510.

To put that number in perspective, the average salary in the United States is $51,960. Few families can afford to cover the cost of college, unless they save for years ahead of time. Even then, most students have to borrow money in the form of student loans so they can finish their degrees.

Think about your goal schools

Now that you know how much college typically costs, look up the current tuition, fees, and room and board costs at the schools you want to attend. Costs can vary widely from school to school; where you go to college can affect the total cost of your degree.

For example, a year at the University of Pennsylvania costs a staggering $78,186. By contrast, a year at Penn State University costs just $31,864 for an in-state student.

You may find that your dream school costs double (or more!) what other colleges charge. That doesn’t mean you have to write them off; it just means you should be prepared with numbers when you talk to your parents.

Research scholarships, grants, and loans

The total price listed by colleges is rarely what students actually pay. Schools often offer students scholarships and grants that cover a portion of your bill. If you have good grades or excel in athletics, you could save a lot of money. Look at the school’s financial office to see what kind of grants and scholarships they offer.

If you need help paying for college, another option to consider is taking out student loans. With this approach, you borrow money from a lender — either the federal government or a private company — to cover the cost of your education. Once you graduate, you’ll repay the loans with interest.

How to start the conversation

Now that you’ve done some research, set up a time to talk to your parents. Talking about money may feel awkward, so don’t just spring it on them; you want them to be prepared to discuss your options. Just ask them if you can speak about your plans for college — after dinner can be a great time to sit down and review your goals and questions.

When you’re both ready, share the research you’ve done with your family on costs. Then, ask them the following questions:                     

  • Have you thought about how to pay for my college education? Your parents may have saved money for school. Or, they may tell you that they can’t afford to cover the cost, and you’ll have to pay for it yourself.
  • Is any money set aside for college? If they have saved money, it’s totally okay to ask them how much there is! That number will help you determine how much more you need to pay for school.
  • What schools are you willing to pay for? If your parents set aside money, ask them if there are any restrictions on where you can go to school. For example, they may say that they have enough to cover the cost of a public school. If you decide to go to a private school, you may have to cover the difference through scholarships or by taking out student loans.
  • What expenses are you willing to cover? If your parents haven’t saved money, they still may be able to help you with the cost. Perhaps you can live at home and commute to school so you can save money on room and board. Or, they may be willing to pay for your textbooks.
  • Are you willing to take out student loans for me? If your parents don’t have enough money saved to pay for your education, they may be able to take out student loans in their own names. If they take out private student loans or Parent PLUS Loans, they’re responsible for repaying them — not you — so that can be a huge help.
  • Can you help me fill out the FAFSA? Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an essential first step in qualifying for federal student aid, including grants and loans. You’ll need to have information about their tax returns and savings, so you’ll need your parents’ help.

Next steps

After sitting down with your parents, you’ll have a better idea of what your financial picture looks like. You may find out that your parents will cover 100 percent of your college education — that’s amazing!

But for many people, your parents simply won’t be able to pay for it. If that’s the case, there are still many options available to you:

  • You can qualify for grants and scholarships: As a senior in high school, fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible to get all the aid you’re entitled to receive. You can also apply for scholarships through FastWeb and Scholarships.com.
  • You can work part-time: As a high-school student, consider getting a part-time job on the weekends and during the summer. Keep up that habit while you’re in college to earn money to pay for school.
  • Take out student loans: If you still need help paying for college, you can take out federal or private student loans to cover the gap.

If you think you’ll need to take out private student loans, it’s a good idea to comparison shop so you get the lowest rates. You can use Purefy’s Compare Rates tool to get several different offers at once, helping you find the best deal.