College  |  March 19, 2019  |  Jen Ryan

How and when to have the college talk with your kids

What you’ll learn
  • When experts recommend talking to your kids about college
  • How real parents started the college conversation with their kids
  • Tips for talking to your own kids!

Sitting down your son and daughter to talk about college and its costs can be intimidating: Where do you start? When’s the right time?

One way to make it easier: Treat it like an ongoing conversation. Here’s how.

Start early

“Introduce the idea of college to students at the elementary school level,” says Elaine Griffin Rubin, a communication specialist at Edvisors, which helps families plan and pay for college. “Let them know what it is, what it can do for them.”

To give your kids a taste of college, bring them to a local campus for a game, a play, or another event. That’s what Laura Wessels, a senior director at Sallie Mae, did with her son Ian, who’s now a college senior.

“Ian went to reunions with me and his dad. He knew what college was, what it looked like, and that it was our dream for him to go to college,” says Laura.

You can also bring college into any school-focused conversations you have with your kids (including if they ask, “Do I have to go to school?”).

“College has always been talked about as being part of my sons’ education . . . elementary, high school, and college,” says Irena Bosworth, director at Sallie Mae, and mom to Max, 12, and Jake, 8. “They both already have their dream schools picked out, Northeastern and Duke.”

Elementary school is also a good time to introduce your kids to money basics, which can help them understand college costs later.

“Show kids how money works. You have to earn money, save money,” says Elaine.

To do so, keep things simple. Give your kids an allowance for doing chores around the house. If they get money for a birthday or holiday, encourage them to save it—maybe even for college.

“Whenever my sons receive large sums of money, they know it’s going in the bank for ‘college’ and not for Xbox games,” says Irena.

Get real with your teens

“Once they get older, like middle school, kids have an understanding of money. It’s a good time to start having realistic discussions,” says Elaine.

Let your kids know that you’re saving for college (if you are). Share whether you plan to contribute money for college or whether you expect your kids to use college scholarships and student loans.

Although many parents think it’s their job to worry about the money piece of college, you want your kids to be an active part of the process, especially if there’s a chance they’ll need to pay back student loans after school. Ask your kids what they want their role to be in saving and paying for college. Consider sitting down with them and using a free College Planning Calculator to put together a plan to pay for college.

As your kids get closer to college, dive deeper into their financial options. Research from How America Saves for College 2018 shows that 77% of parents say minimizing costs is important. If that’s true for your family, don’t be afraid to share with your kids how they could do that, whether by attending a state school, commuting to college, or finding scholarships.

Remember, honesty’s still the best policy

If you haven’t already talked to your kids yet and they’re in high school, there’s still time.

“I would never say that it’s too late, except once you’ve signed an acceptance letter,” says Elaine.

The most important thing? Be honest.

Let your kids know where your family’s plan to pay for college stands. College is an investment, but with open dialogue, it’s one your family can make happen—together.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.