Parent Trap

A parent's view of the financial difficulties of sending a child through college or university
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Do you pay off your credit card bill each month? Prefer to avoid bank overdrafts wherever possible? We always tried to. That was until four years ago when our son, Stephen, started university. Our experience shows that your aversion to running into debt will be severely tested if you are about to become the parents of a university/college student.

Stephen has just completed his history degree living away at Lancaster University. Our friends' son, Paul Goodrum, took a year out after school and is now part-way through business studies at Staffordshire University, living at home. Stephen and Paul started just in time to benefit from the remains of Local Education Authority (LEA) grant support, and tuition fees had not yet made their appearance. Both Paul's family and ourselves hoped to prevent our respective sons from starting their careers, as many students do, with large debts to banks and the Student Loans Company.

My wife Joyce and I had both been through university in the Sixties with "proper" grants. Traditional sources of extra income were vacation jobs. Term-time employment was unusual and frowned upon by academics as being inconsistent with degree studies.

Joyce wanted Stephen to gain maximum benefit from all aspects of university life - academic, social and sport. Our strategy was that Stephen used savings from summer jobs to pay his own autumn term accommodation costs. We paid the rest and paid £200 per month cost-of-living money. I was made redundant during Steve's second year and my income fell.

For Steve this was offset by an increased LEA grant from which he paid more towards his accommodation. He was well aware of the cost, as without our subsidy he would have had to take a job and sacrificed his time for sport - his passion. Luckily, he thoroughly enjoyed his course, meaning he didn't feel any undue pressure to perform well enough to justify our financial outlay.

Living at home has its own costs for students though, as the experience of Paul's family showed. My friend Dave paid Paul's £600 annual travel bill from home to university and kept him free of charge at home in his first year while he was earning a reasonable salary and Paul's grant was nil. But Dave then also had to take redundancy. Paul's grant went up and he began to pay towards the cost of his keep at home.

Paul reckoned his year out helped, giving him useful business experience which helped him build up some savings. He also took part-time work during term-time. He wanted to show that he could cope financially without relying too much on his parents, but the downside was that he did not have the time to play football at university as he would have liked.

Paul did not fancy the loan system, though he has taken out an interest-free bank overdraft. Stephen did take out his loan and left it in a savings account. Both will be reasonably solvent at the end of their courses.

You and your son/daughter will have to fund more than we did. Abolition of grants and the introduction of fees mean that families must now plan ahead together and continually review their financial strategies - agreeing the management of loans and overdrafts, the amount of term-time employment and the extent of parental support.

The trick is to become the safety net in case of problems. In the first year we offered financial support, and since my redundancy it was more home comforts and encouragement. We did not want him to take so much paid work that his course work suffered but neither did we want to be paying out excessive beer money.