[Editor's Note: The following guest post was submitted by Benjamin Rushing who blogs (? used to blog, we haven't actually been able to get a hold of him since this article was approved for publication and there haven't been any new posts published for months on his site) at ApprenticeMD.com about finances for medical students. My experience with education is that the vast majority of kids fall into one of two camps- one camp is going to do well even in a crummy public high school, community college, or state university. The other camp is going to do poorly even in fancy pants private K-12s and the best college their parents can buy their way into. There is really only a small percentage of students where throwing a lot of money at their education is going to make a big difference in outcome. The problem is none of us know if one of our kids is going to be in that little sliver of the population. Even in retrospect, it is hard to know. Further confusing the issue, many families, whether consciously or unconsciously, choose to spend a great deal of money on education in order to transmit values or display status rather than actually improve academic outcomes. In this post, Benjamin Rushing discusses his own personal educational experiences and speculates about the benefits of his parents' approach. My only caution is to avoid spending money you don't have on education that might not make a dramatic difference anyway. Value matters here, just like everywhere else. In the end, of course, the responsibility for education will fall on the student and there is little parents can really do about it. ApprenticeMD and I have no financial relationship.] 

In today’s world, financially responsible parents constantly worry about paying for their kids’ educations. Many parents will continue to throw money at 529 plans even after the needle passes into the six-figure range, while simultaneously funding an expensive, private high school education. If you are one of these parents, you may be wondering just how much it will cost to educate your children and what educational philosophy is the best investment. Unfortunately, there is no one answer, and even worse, there isn’t even a best answer. I admire all the parents out there that take such a proactive approach to their children’s education, and I hope to do the same one day. However, I can’t help but wonder if parents are taking too much responsibility for their kids’ schooling? Please allow me to share my story and what worked for my family.

My Story

I grew up in a poor, rural school system in Mississippi, and yes, I went to public school. Believe it or not, my entire county had one stoplight, and it didn’t even run 24/7. Most would say that I was educationally disadvantaged, and perhaps this was true. My high school did not produce Rhode Scholars or Nobel Prize Laureates. However, despite my humble background, I received merit-based scholarships to both undergraduate and medical school. No, I am not a genius, and I am not lucky.

My Parent's Educational Philosophy

College and educational success were highly valued in my home, so you may be surprised to learn that my parents didn’t dedicate a considerable portion of their income towards my education. My parents never opened a 529 account and never wrote a check to a private school. Even more interestingly, my family had plenty of money to max out a 529 and send me to the most expensive private school in the area. So why on earth did they not save money for my college expenses? Why didn’t they thrust me ahead of my peers with a fancy high school education? What were they thinking? My family developed a unique approach to education in that my parents saw themselves as the facilitators and me as the executor. They never wanted me to feel like I was invincible to the consequences of bad decisions, but they also wanted me to know that they supported me. I guess they wanted me to feel a healthy degree of responsibility concerning my education and knew that this would one day become an indispensable tool for my success.

Our Unspoken Deal

In many ways, I had an unspoken deal with my parents. They would completely support me in my academic pursuits, and in return, I was expected to perform well academically and take some degree of financial responsibility via scholarships. So what were the mechanics of this exciting arrangement? If I felt like I needed standardized test prep, my parents bought it. When I asked to go on expensive school trips, I went. If I wanted to spend the summer at an academic camp, my parents were glad to help. All throughout high school, my parents supported me in my academic pursuits. They continually looked for ways that they could advance my education and didn’t mind giving me their financial support. High school went well for me, and I received a full scholarship to my state school. But wait, the deal didn’t stop there. When I got to college, I began to pursue medical school and decided to be such a good candidate that I would get a scholarship to attend. Scholarships to medical school may sound crazy, but it happens! Better yet, my parents got on board with it. When the time came for the MCAT, my parents gladly purchased a multi-thousand dollar study package. Ironically, one of my friends whose parents had funded a 529 plan, remarked that his parents would never throw that kind of money at his education.

Full-Tuition Medical School Scholarship

Long story short, that study course helped me become a very competitive applicant, and I was offered a full tuition scholarship to medical school. I am currently a medical student who is not worried about paying tuition and enjoying every second of it. Additionally, my parents feel that they made a contribution that will help me avoid the consequences of long-term debt.

Having told my story, I would like to state that my parents didn’t owe me anything with regards to my education. They chose to help me because they love me, and I sincerely appreciate it. Every penny they invested in my education benefitted me and slowed their financial growth. I often refer to their contributions as investments, but they were actually gifts. Maybe my situation is unique, but I can’t help but notice that the financial expectations placed on children planning to attend college continue to decrease, especially in financially successful circles. If you are a parent, don’t bear the financial burden of your kids’ education alone. It’s fair to expect some form of contribution from your children. Moreover, taking responsibility for my education taught me A LOT. I learned how to handle pressure, the value of hard work, and countless other life lessons that are hard to learn any other way except through experience.

Additionally, your kids’ hard work may have significant financial consequences for you, the parent. Any form of education is expensive, and costs only seem to be rising. Scholarships free up money so that you can reach financial independence much more quickly. However, don’t be cheap with the small stuff. Some of my friends’ parents paid for senior trips, but would not help them buy books the next fall. Realize that your kids will perform best when they know you support them. Finally, take an active approach to your kids’ schooling. I know it’s hard to hear about geometry after a full day of work, but it’s essential. Make your kids know that you care about what happens at school and how they are doing.

how to pay for college

Benjamin Rushing, ApprenticeMD.com

At the end of the day, no form of education can guarantee success for your children. Parents like to think that paying private school tuition or moving into the swanky area with the great public schools is enough to lock in a solid, meaningful education. However, the success, expectations, and passions of your children stem much more from what you teach them and how you guide them. I know a lot of successful people from many different backgrounds. Interestingly, they all have one thing in common. Every one of them had a positive role model in their life that molded their character and taught them the importance behind academic success. Providing your children with support and encouragement really is the best educational gift you can give your children.

I am aware that different methods work for different people. My parents’ expectations worked beautifully for me and seem to be working in a similar manner for my sister. Regardless, this exact methodology may not work for your family, but maybe a few of the principles will. At any rate, I hope you enjoyed my story and can use some of what my family has learned.

Do you think parents take on too much responsibility for funding their children's education? What financial help do you think is fair to offer? How have you approached this issue with your kids? Comment below!