Talking to Your Children About College Costs

Thinking back to my high school days, I knew I wanted to go to college after graduation. My considerations for college were location, campus life and what I wanted to study. Cost was not at the top of my list. Now that I’m a parent, that priority list has shifted, and I feel it is my job to educate my child about the cost. I realize there are other post-graduation alternatives such as community college or trade schools. For this article, my focus is on college.

According to a 2021 Fidelity Investments survey, 38% of high school students and 25% of parents believe the total cost of attendance for one year of college to be $5,000 or less.1 This number is far below the actual average costs. For the 2022-2023 year, the average cost for public, in-state school is $10,423, public, out-of-state is $22,953 and private school is $39,723 per year.2 A 2022 study by Fidelity reports that 45% of parents have not talked to their kids about saving or paying for college.3 This is a major life decision for our kids and as a parent, I think it is one of the most important conversations we can have with them. So where to start? Plan on having ongoing conversations with your kids instead of one big money talk that can turn overwhelming. The conversations will also depend on the child’s age. It is generally advised to start these conversations in middle school, or at least by the time they start high school.  Here are some talking points to get you started:

  1. Talk to your kids about what they envision for their college experience. There are lots of things to consider here including size, location, available majors, campus atmosphere, extracurricular activities, and housing options.
  2. Let your kids know how much you plan to contribute towards the cost. Do you plan to fully fund the cost up to a certain amount, or do you expect your child to pay a portion?
  3. Help your kids research the cost of college. Costs will vary depending on the type of college, location, and degree. In addition to tuition, there are also expenses for food, housing, books, and transportation to factor in. Each college is required to provide a Net Price Calculator on their website which factors these expenses in. The Department of Education offers a College Scorecard on their website, which includes links to these calculators and other resources about schools, fields of study and how to pay for college.
  4. Review other options for covering the costs including student loans, financial aid, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. Review the pros and cons of taking out loans so your child understands what repayment after college will cost. There are a number of student loan calculators online that can help with this. There are also Parent PLUS Loans where you as the parent take out the loan. These loans tend to have higher interest rates but more flexible repayment plans. These loans should be carefully considered as you will be on the hook for repayment.
  5. Talk with school counselors for guidance on financial aid and student loan borrowing. Consider hiring a college or post high school consultant.
  6. Once your kids have a better understanding of cost, funding options and what they want their college experience to look like, have them create a list of their top school choices based on those parameters.
  7. Keep the lines of communication open and encourage your child to ask questions as they come up.


Big Future is a great website for students and parents and includes resources for searching for colleges, the application process and college prep. There are also handy action plans for parents starting when the kids are in middle school all the way through 12th grade.

Remember that the college selection can be emotional. Your child may have a dream school picked based on where their friends are going, where they think would be cool to live or because it’s a family member’s alma mater. Having conversations early on about costs and resources will help your kids to be better prepared to make an informed decision.