Why my kids won't get a free ride to university

In the wake of a new report about the cost of post-secondary education, Sandra talks about why it's important for kids to help pay their own way.

Photo: dhavatar/iStockphoto

Do you have $140,000?

I don’t, either. But according to a new report from the Bank of Montreal‘s Wealth Institute, if you have a child born this year, that’s how much it will cost to send her to university for an undergraduate degree.

While the report includes some very helpful reminders — that the sooner you start saving, the more compound interest will add to your hard-earned dollars; that the federal government’s Canada Education Savings Grant tops up your RESP savings by up to 20%; and that paying back student loans can take a long time — I also see it as a bit of a guilt trip. What parent would be heartless enough not to have socked away enough money to spare her child the drudgery of paying off a student loan? What parent wouldn’t give her child the option of going to university anywhere in the world she was accepted?

When I was growing up as one of four siblings, all of whom were honour-role students, no one assumed university was covered by the Bank of Dad. We all knew we’d have to work summer jobs to cover tuition. If we wanted to go to university outside of Toronto, we’d have to figure that out (i.e. earn a scholarship or get a loan). Dad covered transit fare and kicked in the cost of books. Otherwise, we were on their own.

Sound cold? I don’t think so. Because we had to work our way through school, my siblings and I appreciated being there. And we were certainly less likely to flake out, as that would have meant working to pay for additional years of undergrad angst. Sure, I might have enjoyed taking journalism at NYU, or at Carleton, where I was offered a partial scholarship; but I got a good education and made great contacts at Ryerson, plus saved a whack of money because I was able to live at home and commute to school daily.

Before you freak out over that $140K estimate, here are some doable steps you can take to ease the pain of post-secondary education costs:

  • Set up a family RESP and put away whatever you can, even if it’s a small amount: As the BMO report points out, the earlier you save, the easier it will be. But don’t guilt yourself out if you can’t afford thousands each year; save what you can. There’s no annual contribution limit, so if you find later on that you can afford to pile on the savings, you can do it, up to a total of $50,000 per child, without penalty. (You have until your child is 30 years old.) Plus, you’ll still qualify for the 20% Canada Education Savings Grant top-ups you missed in leaner years. Check out the Canada Revenue Agency’s RESP information pages for full details.
  • Let Junior know you expect him to help out and why: Even personal-finance experts I’ve interviewed over the years — and these are people with meaty, six-figure incomes — agree that kids should help cover their post-secondary education costs. Sure, summer jobs can be tough to come by, but any teenager can come up with a thousand or so a summer. Set a figure that’s realistic, and stick to it. This is a great way to teach your kid financial responsibility.
  • Be open-minded: My kids don’t need to go to an Ivy League university in order to be successful in life. In fact, they might not even need to go to university. The definition of post-secondary education is broad. Bronwyn is already talking about going to art school. If Isobel wants to become an electrician, I’ll applaud her choice. And, I’m not going to lie: If neither of them gets into Harvard, it’ll be a relief not to deal with the six-figure annual tuition fee.

How does your family currently handle post-secondary education tuition costs?

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