How to manage financial stress when sending a child to college



Throughout the year, Dr. Marni Axelrad talks to families about how to manage the financial stress of sending a child to college. But this year, she understands these families’ emotions even more as she prepares to send her own high school senior off into the real world.  Dr. Axelrad, a psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, helps parents address the stress of college finances with specific tools and strategies.

Why financing college is so stressful

  “We all have basic needs that must be met, like food, clothing and shelter,” Dr. Axelrad said. “So when we think about something extra, like college, it’s a potential threat to those basic needs.”  

“Psychologically, the not knowing is what’s harmful,” she explained. “How much will it cost? Will they finish? Will their degree pay off? What kind of limits am I going to have to put on my child? Do I need to limit how much food they will eat? These thoughts are extreme stressors for parents.”

Secondly, Dr. Axelrad said the expense of college has skyrocketed so much that parents are often borrowing large amounts of money just to make tuition payments. “College students were once able to qualify for more loans on their own, but a lot of rules around student debt have changed. So now, it might be up to parents to take on that debt themselves.”

And finally, Dr. Axelrad, noted that reducing financial stress can be much tougher than other kinds of stress. “There are a few really good ways to manage stress, in general. But when it comes to finances, deep breathing or exercise isn’t going to solve the problem. This kind of stress requires a bigger solution.” 



So, what is the solution?

Start Early. Talk Often.

  Dr. Axelrad recommends that as early as possible (and no later than freshman year of high school) parents begin to take a serious look at their finances regarding college funding and support. 
Students’ grade point averages begin calculating in the ninth grade and that number is what will determine their eligibility for academic scholarships and even some student loans. 
“Have the conversations early with your child — not only about what schools they can get into — but where you can afford to send them. Don’t apply to schools that you can’t afford,” said Dr. Axelrad, who had the very same conversation with her high school senior. 
“If necessary, consider the option of going to the local community college for a couple of years, and then transferring to a larger school later on. You can also insist that your child work while in school. These are both good options to save and make money.”



Additional doctor’s advice:

  • Be real about all of the expenses that come with your student going to a particular school. Consider additional costs beyond tuition, books and lodging. What does it take to visit your child or bring them home? Is it a drive away? A flight away? Make sure all of the additional expenses are considered.

  • Get financial counseling and advice. Financial advisors offer consultations that parents can take advantage of. Several free social media groups provide “Paying for College 101” classes. Join one of these groups!

  • Get all college scholarship applications in before the summer of senior year. If you apply in August, you are likely to know the decision by October. This way some of the college paperwork is complete, freeing up time for students to enjoy their senior year.



Money isn’t everything

Acknowledging and addressing the financial stress around college admission is extremely important. However, it isn’t the only concern that families have during this time in life. 
If parents can address the financial stress, they have the capacity to help their children deal with the other stressors that are present.
“Your student may be fearing the unknown, the loss of close friendships, a change in their family dynamics, and so on,” Dr. Axelrad said. “The main idea is to not let the stress of college finances overshadow an already complex and important life experience.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Since its inception in 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month has been a cornerstone of addressing the challenges faced by millions of Americans living with mental health conditions. Long-term stress is a known factor in increasing the risk of developing mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.