An Open Letter to Parents

Dear Parents of Prospective College Students (and that means anyone with children under age 18),

Both of my parents were the first in their families to go to college.  My mother was the only child of Italian immigrants who believed deeply in the value of education for their daughter.  My father was a beneficiary of the GI Bill.  A generation later they sent my three brothers and me off to college.  We were not wealthy, so they did it the hard way – by saving and sacrificing and encouraging us to pursue our educational dreams. I had only a vague idea then about the sacrifices they made for us.

I think about that a lot now as my wife and I begin to send our own four children, ages 11 to 19, off to college.  Last fall, we moved in our first college student, the beginning of a postsecondary parade that will not end until 2027.  The total cost of their collegiate education could come to as much as $1 million.  That is a daunting figure by any definition.  Why does college cost so much?  The answer is not particularly complicated, though it requires families to make a careful judgment about what matters to them.  Students today expect a wide range of exceptional options, including small classes taught by professors, the best technological resources, sophisticated residential programming, vast and varied experiential learning opportunities, top athletic and recreational programs and facilities, and counseling and health services that previous generations could only dream of. These represent only some of the commitments we make to our students, and each comes with a price tag. In the end, though, families should judge a college in relation to the values it espouses, the experiences it provides and the outcomes it promises to deliver. 

The question about how to pay for college is more complicated.  The headlines today are not encouraging, mostly suggesting fear.  How might families think about and prepare for their children’s college expenses?  My approach is decidedly old school.

  • Save.  Easy advice to give, but often difficult to follow.  Saving something, anything, while your children are young is the best strategy.  The habit is at least as important as the amount.  My wife and I decided early on that it was best to begin with the end in mind.  Fix on a range of college costs in today’s dollars and begin a savings plan that helps you meet some percentage of those costs.  That approach creates both a discipline for saving and a reasonable goal you can measure over time.  Saving early and as often as possible will put you and your kids in a better position to pay for college later and may reduce the amount you or they have to borrow.
  • Sacrifice.  Spending decisions today have consequences for tomorrow.  Old wisdom but still useful wisdom.  Careful consideration of wants versus needs today will buy more educational opportunities, and more peace of mind about how to pay for those opportunities, tomorrow.
  • Study.  Teenagers throughout the ages have had to listen to their parents lecture about the importance of doing well in school.  And they just as frequently have responded with rolling eyes.  It turns out that’s good advice. Good grades and good academic choices can open a world of college choices. That doesn’t mean straight A’s or perfect SAT scores, but rather that you should encourage your children to develop good academic habits, preferably when they are young and learning is new and fun.  So, eat your peas and carrots and study hard.  It will be good for you in the end.

College costs are on everyone’s mind.  Colleges understand that.  For their part, colleges and universities must continue to take steps to ensure that families can afford to attend.  For parents, saving and good choices are very important.  From the vantage point of a college professional and father, planning for those choices is best begun in the birthing center rather than the high school guidance counseling center.

Good luck and best wishes.  In addition to the love and guidance you provide to your children, this is one of the best gifts you will ever provide for them.


Jon McGee is the vice president for planning and public affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. He is the author of Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace of Higher Education.

The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series