Parents Talk Back

Parents Talk Back: No one owes you a college education

March 17, 2014 

If the case of the New Jersey 18-year-old who moved out and sued her parents for living expenses – and her college fund – has any child confused, here’s some clarification on parental responsibility:

No one owes you an iPhone.

No one owes you a car when you turn 16.

No one owes you a wedding.

No one owes you a ticket to the college of your dreams.

And no one has an obligation to pay your bills once you move out.

Many parents choose to pay for many of these expenses out of love. If they cannot afford to pay for any of the above, they do not love you any less. That said, parents do have a responsibility to children for their education, but it may be different than the child’s expectations.

We all know someone, perhaps ourselves, who managed to graduate college with little to no financial support from their parents. But the system of getting financial aid has changed. Costs are astronomically greater than when most of us attended school, and a college degree is much more important than it used to be.

Now, a student under age 25 cannot apply for financial aid or be eligible for loans or grants unless the parents fill out the application and share their financial information. Even if the parents decide not to pay a dime toward college, the student is still considered a dependent. The parents’ resources (income and assets) are still taken into account when determining how much a student receives in grants and loans.

The government, colleges and universities have all decided that the primary responsibility for paying for higher education rests on parents. This hurts students whose parents choose not to contribute.

The only recourse for a child in this situation is to file for legal emancipation, which can take a year or two to get through the financial aid process.

Can we expect a teenager to pay for his or her own college education, without any assistance, through working low-paying jobs?

In this year’s survey of college costs, the College Board reports that a “moderate” budget for an in-state public college – covering tuition, room, board and other expenses – averaged $22,826 per academic year. A moderate budget for a private college averaged $44,750.

We have determined that 18-year-olds are adult enough to vote and fight in our wars, but we have made it nearly impossible for them to pay for higher education on their own.

Suing your parents for tuition money, like Rachel Canning did, is an unprecedented way of trying to close that gap. Upon first reading the reports, it’s easy to dismiss Canning as a spoiled brat. She doesn’t want to follow her parents’ rules, yet she wants them to keep paying her bills.

If she wants to move out and have the freedom to live by her own rules, there’s a cost. There’s a consequence for actions, meaning you’ve picked a boyfriend over your college fund.

A young woman who is an honors student, cheerleader and athlete at a private school obviously had some parental care and attention to bring her to that point. If her parents say their expectations were for her to show some respect, meet curfew and ditch a boyfriend they considered a bad influence, most people find that reasonable.

(Note: Canning returned home last week, though the lawsuit hasn’t officially been withdrawn.)

Apart from this case, there’s a larger question: If a student has the ability and desire to go to college, and the parents have resources to help pay for that, are they obligated to contribute?

Parents decide to bring a child into this world. We should be prepared to help them succeed. So, yes, we ought to fill out the financial aid forms and make some personal sacrifices to help our children, who should be taught this is a gift, not an entitlement.

The financial aid process needs to be reformed to recognize that not all students receive money from their parents after they turn 18. If a student is willing to work, there should be a place for them to learn.

As someone who financed the vast majority of my own higher education, I believe my parents gave me more important gifts than a blank check for college tuition.

In addition to food and shelter until they turn 18, this is what parents, in fact, owe their children: love, compassion, encouragement, boundaries, and the faith and training that they can be self-sufficient when they leave our care.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age.

On Twitter: @AishaS.

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