Husband vs. Wife: Paying For College

Lori and Marek Fuchs have never fought in their 16 years of marriage—except over money. In this column, Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs, a real-life married couple with three kids (ages 12, 7 and 5), articulate their very different approaches to personal finance.

This round, he says colleges will come to their senses and lower tuition at some point, meaning they won't have to save as much. She says, let's prepare for the worst.

Mr. Fuchs: It’s not even September and I already know what I’m going to go as this Halloween

Mrs. Fuchs: Not Alan Greenspan again? 

Mr. Fuchs: Nah, he’s been out of office, so the kids wouldn’t take to him like they used to.  I’m going to dress up as something even scarier this year: a future college bill. 

Mrs. Fuchs: How will you pull that one off?

Mr. Fuchs: Well, that’s the hard part. With the school year starting, lots of people are suffering from college costs on the brain.  Either you are paying them, or you are dreading the day. But while we’ve quibbled over whether we should be saving for college or retirement, we’ve never dealt with this bottomless question: just how much is college going to cost when, a dozen years out, our kindergartner is ready to pack his steamer trunk and beer bong? 

Mrs. Fuchs: Come on, don’t say that.

Mr. Fuchs: Whatever. The point is, you can try any sort of college cost calculator to see what a school might run you today. But how much will college run by the time we are footing the bills? Estimates vary widely, but how are they made? Do they assume that colleges will continue the sort of bigger, better gym and dormitory arms race that mimicked the housing bubble? At the tail end of the economic expansion, we got scary headlines, like this one from The New York Times: “College Costs Rising at Double the Inflation Rate."  Now that the gild has come off the economic lily, might good sense prevail in the halls of higher learning?  If so, how much should we expect to pay? What’s the answer? And when am I going to stop asking questions and answer them?

Mrs. Fuchs: OK, you’ve finally done it. You’ve gotten me so anxious I can hardly think. That’s probably what happens to lots of us. We get so overwhelmed we can’t even process the numbers, so we don’t do anything at all. 

Mr. Fuchs: And when you do muster the courage to process the numbers, it seems impossible. Do you believe alarmist headlines? Or do you go forward, hoping for the best? I say colleges can’t keep up with the excess. We can assume the arms race of college campus improvements will end and costs will fall more in line with inflation. 

Mrs. Fuchs: Well, after the initial panic, denial and other various psychological defenses, I think that the only rational thing to do is to dig in and try to convince your child to take up a trade ... only kidding. I think then you just have to do the math and make a plan. Start putting away as much as you can based on a worst-case scenario – that college costs will be at the upper limits of the predictions. 

Mr. Fuchs: Isn’t that too doomsday? Things change. People—and institutions—learn. Look at all the kids going to state schools now.   Every other article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is about how state schools are struggling to even make room for the influx. The numbers are staggering. Private institutions will adjust and bring down the costs. They have to. 

Mrs. Fuchs: I certainly hope you are right, but hoping you are right sometimes gets us into fixes.  It is a long time until our youngest goes to college and it’s awfully hard to predict what will be going on in the world or the economy at that point.  Should I spell out the various doomsday scenarios that come to mind? Crazy inflation in the economy at large or another boom period causing colleges to add spas to individual dorm rooms ...

Mr. Fuchs: If they do that, we’re opting for home college schooling.

Mrs. Fuchs: Deal. But until that point, we shoot for two times the rate of inflation to be safe.

Mr. Fuchs: OK, I guess.  No matter how we get there—savings, loans, scholarships, making the kids pay or a good old-fashioned bank robbery, we’ll have twice the rate of inflation as the goal. Worst comes to worst, we’ll have money left over for graduate school.  Thankfully, they have your brains, Dr. Fuchs. 

Mrs. Fuchs: Great. We have a plan.

Mr. Fuchs: And we’ll also check their luggage for bongs. 

Mrs. Fuchs: You mean beer bongs.

Mr. Fuchs: Right.

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