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Kids and College: A Question of Money

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 10, 2009

I received a number of Sound Off! comments on my In Depth Analysis about choosing a college for your children (see Sending Your Kid to College: My Top Ten Tips). Some of them raise important questions that merit a follow-up. For example, Gairdog asks, “What about us poor slobs with big families but not much money?” This is a concern as legitimate as it is serious, so today let me take up the question of costs.

I addressed this question only marginally in the original essay. I noted that if there were a good reason to send your child to a college that was seriously deficient morally and spiritually, it might be wise to have him go to a local school for the first year or so, as a commuting student. I also suggested that parents should look for schools with a strong group of Catholic faculty, a good Newman Center, or the active involvement of FOCUS. Such attributes are not at all confined to private schools, so this widens the scope. But there are also at least three other important points to be made about cost.

First, the question of cost must be placed in the context of the Church’s fundamental teaching about marriage. The primary responsibility of a married couple with respect to their children is to provide for their material support and Christian education. As Pope Pius XI taught in his encyclical On Christian Education, “It must be borne in mind also that the obligation of the family to bring up children includes not only religious and moral education, but physical and civic education as well, principally in so far as it touches upon religion and morality” (#36). Therefore, just as a husband and wife would sacrifice many other goods to ensure that their children’s material needs were met, so too must they sacrifice many other goods to ensure that they receive a serious and effective Christian education.

Now I grant that there will always be families who cannot place their kids in outstanding Catholic private schools even prior to college (either through a lack of availability or a lack of funds), and that many of these will also be unable to educate their children at home (for reasons of ability, temperament or time). Further, what is true at the lower levels is far more likely to be true at the college level. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that the parents’ responsibility for the Christian education of their children is a weighty one which supersedes nearly all other goals; I stress that responsibility here as a warning to those who have not made sufficient sacrifices in this regard.

Second, if the right school is available, there are often ways to enroll your children without paying full tuition. Below the college level, many private schools offer parents ways to reduce costs through either financial aid or time volunteered in various services to the school. At college, scholarships, financial aid, and work-study programs are frequently available. These should be thoroughly explored.

Third, if in the context of a willingness to sacrifice and a careful exploration of options, it still proves impossible to utilize the school you want, then it is extremely important to remember a fundamental truth: Spiritually, it is one sort of thing to send your kid into a weak or dangerous environment because your priorities are poor; but it is quite another sort of thing to do this because there is no other realistic choice. The former smacks of presumption, and for this you and your children will both pay the price. In addition, if presumption is at work, you will have already communicated to your children in countless ways that a proper Catholic formation rates fairly low on your scale of values.

But the latter circumstance, being a necessity discerned through careful investigation and prayer, sends a completely different message both to your children and to Our Lord Himself. Again, you will have already communicated in countless ways how highly you value a good Catholic formation. The financial problem will be as clear to your older children as it is to you. If you do the best you can and continue to pray, you may reliably expect the extra grace necessary to see your children through.

What you must avoid at all costs is the sin of presumption, the complacent sense that God will take care of things when you haven’t made a sincere, tough-minded, long-term effort to be faithful to His will. Where such an effort exists, kids get that. It makes a huge difference to them psychologically; it also ensures that all those past sacrifices you have made to ensure a thoroughly Catholic upbringing will now be abundantly blessed.


Previously in this series: Sending Your Kid to College: My Top Ten Tips
Next in this series: Starting Life in Debt: The Graduate’s Dilemma

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Steve214 - Dec. 12, 2009 9:19 AM ET USA

    I haven't found State schools to be cheaper than great Catholic schools. True, Notre Dame is MUCH more expensive--and for financial aid, they refuse to take into account the money that you have paid out for 12 years of primary/secondary Catholic education (thus being unable to save for college)...but they aren't really all that Catholic anymore. But there are small Catholic colleges that are VERY reasonable--and will help you if you need it.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Dec. 11, 2009 7:40 PM ET USA

    An additional point or two, if I may: no one absolutely has to start college immediately after graduating from high school. Get a job, stay at home, and save up! Often, this gives an advantage, in that many young folks don't know what major to pursue fresh out of high school. There is also the alternative of doing a year or two at a two-year college, in order to afford to attend a Catholic university for the final years. Or, work and attend part-time. Also, the 'net has lots of scholarship/grant resources.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Dec. 10, 2009 8:44 PM ET USA

    Here in New Zealand, all Universities are State Universities. When our children got to University age, we were completely unable to help financially, other than by keeping them living at home (which we did). At that they had to incur significant debt for University education. I know the US situation is different. Still, when I became University age (I grew up in California), there was no family money and I was dependent on loans, scholarships, and jobs, and the State University.

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