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Carla Fried: Parents borrowing for college — good intention, risky reality

By Carla Fried, on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Despite repeated messages in recent years that every parent's primary obligation should be to save more for retirement, the "college at any cost" dynamic remains alarmingly entrenched in many American households

Through the end of September, the total tab for federal college loans taken by parents was $98 billion, a 44% increase in five years. During that stretch, the number of borrowers who took out federal parent PLUS loans grew from 3.1 million to 3.5 million.

And for many older borrowers, we're not talking small sums. The government reports that 870,000 borrowers who are at least 50 years old have remaining balances of $100,000 or more.

In a deep dive of its own database of student borrowers, Fidelity says that the aggregate value of college loans owed by baby boomers grew 33% last year, with the average balance hovering at $75,000 and the average monthly repayment tab above $700. (Some of that may be their own old school loans, but it stands to reason much of it is borrowing for their kids.)

Given that household budgets are pretty much a zero-sum game (what you spend on X is money you don't have to spend on Y), something has to give. And for many households, retirement savings draws the short end of the straw. The Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies says median retirement savings for boomers is less than $150,000. That's far short of what is needed when broken down into an annual withdrawal rate that could last 25 to 30 years of retirement.

Yet putting retirement ahead of the child's is no one's idea of easy. A do-anything-for-a-kid's-wellbeing mindset is all but hardwired into many parental brains. And if there's one thing behavioral finance has taught us the past few decades, it's that we are not hardwired to think about the future when making hard decisions today. Mix those together, and you have a potent cocktail that makes borrowing to send the kids to college seem to be the right (and righteous) move.

It's a dangerously short-sighted approach that can imperil the financial security of parents and, ultimately, their children. Before one dollar is borrowed for college, it's important to time-travel to when you are 65, 75, 85. Are you confident you will have the money you want to live without financial stress in retirement?

If you hesitated for even a nanosecond, any thought of taking out federal PLUS loans to help pay for a child's college costs should be reconsidered.

The dollar you don't borrow is a dollar you can be socking away for retirement. That's not shortchanging your kids. It's lowering the probability they will need to help support you in a few decades. That's the tradeoff here: If financing college impedes retirement savings, it ups the odds you may need to lean on your children down the line.


One example. The interest rate charged on a parent PLUS loan is set each year. For the current academic year, the fixed rate is 5.3% (and there's a stiff 4.228% origination fee.) Let's say you borrow $18,000 this year. Repaying the loan in 10 years (the standard) will require a $150 monthly payment. Not so bad, right? Well, that's just for the freshman year. What's your plan for the next three years?

Even if we assume that interest rates will not go up, and that you borrow the same sum for sophomore, junior and senior years (to be clear, borrowing tends to go up, not down), you're looking at a monthly tab starting in year four of $600 to cover all four loans. And that $600 will be owed for six years, after which the freshman year loan will be repaid, and you "only" have three PLUS loans left to repay.

Let's say that $600 monthly cost hits at age 56 and runs through age 61. If that requires reducing your retirement contributions by $600 a month, that works out to $43,200 for just those six years. Because you're near retirement, and because of today's low bond yields, let's plug in a somewhat conservative 4% annualized rate of return. That gets you to about $49,000 in foregone retirement savings for just those six years. If that money were left growing until you reach 75 it would be worth more than $88,000. (And that doesn't factor in the foregone savings from the three other loans you will still need to pay off after the freshman year loan is fully paid off.)

The far better strategy is to forgo borrowing for college, or keep it limited so you can continue to save for retirement.

That requires family resolve, starting early in high school, to hatch an affordable college game plan, by researching schools where your child will be such a catch that your household's net price will not require you to borrow (or borrow much). You can learn more here:

And for the record, your child should always borrow first. Federal student loans have a lower interest rate (2.75% this academic year), and chances are your child's initial post-school income will likely mean qualifying for the federal student loan interest deduction. If you want to help them repay those loans, that's your call. Though, again, only if it doesn't impede your retirement planning.

And given the high costs of a four-year college, it's never been more important to carefully consider, as a family, if starting at a community college might be a great strategy, or if your child is most interested in a career path that can be fulfilled with an associate's degree. Both of these options can greatly reduce your household's all-in costs for a post-secondary education. You can learn more at