The College Conversation: Putting Together an Education Plan

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For many high school seniors and their parents, this fall marked the beginning of a serious discussion about what comes next: college. With many schools requiring applications before the holidays, big decisions had to be made.

Over the years, I've learned how differently two parents (when there are two parents in the picture) can feel about sending their children to college and figuring out how to pay for it. In more than one conversation, I've heard couples express their surprise when they discovered that they didn't agree when it came to their children and education.

Why the surprise?

They just assumed that they both felt the same way and talked around the issue for years instead of talking about it directly.

If you haven't had this conversation and put together an education plan for your children, take the time to do it now. We've heard story after story about the rising cost of college, and planning can make a massive difference. But long before you start doing the math, it's important to talk about three things to make sure everyone is in agreement.

1. Should they go?
Often we just assume that everyone should go to college, but that goal may be worth rethinking in some cases. There has been plenty written on the merits of trade school, starting a business or going straight into the work force. For some people, the best education may be real life.

I'm not advocating that your children skip college, but you do need to discuss all the options, and those options may vary by child. A good friend always said he believed his son would go to law school, but it became apparent later that it wasn't the best thing for him. The son went to work in a trade, but his two daughters did go.

2. When should they go?
My wife and I took extended breaks during our college years and believe we're better for it. In Europe, it's common for many graduating students to take a gap year before entering university.

This proactive break (I'm not encouraging your children to play video games for a year) has started gaining some traction in this country as parents ask themselves, "What's the rush?" Maybe there's an opportunity to work a bit or to volunteer for some extended service. I remember returning to school more committed and serious about college because of my experience.

3. Should you pay?
People avoid or skip this discussion completely, often because it's the one that triggers the strongest emotions. Some people want to pay for any school where their children win acceptance, regardless of cost. Other parents feel strongly that their children need to earn and pay for their own education. Often these feelings reflect personal experiences, and it's worth talking about all of them to make sure you understand what's at the root of your instinctive reactions.

You also need to consider how paying for education impacts other financial goals. Don't take the cost of college out of context as you measure where you're at now compared to where you want to be in the future.

Just like every financial goal, preparing to meet the costs of college takes time for most families. Your strategy may be different than your neighbor's, but you probably can't afford to wait. Eighteen years passes a lot faster than you think.

The article The College Conversation: Putting Together an Education Plan originally appeared on

A version of this post appeared previously at The New York Times.Carl Richards is a financial planner and the director of investor education for the BAM ALLIANCE, a community of more than 130 independent wealth management firms throughout the United States. Visit Behavior Gap for more of Carl's sketches and writings.The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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