The Fagan family. Photo by Chris Kaiser.
For a lot of parents, watching their child get his college diploma represents a lifelong dream. For David Fagan, a marketing executive in Orange County, not so much.
Fagan has eight children, the oldest of which is a senior in high school, but the author of the upcoming book Guerilla Parenting says if any of his kids want to go to college, they’re going to have to pay for it themselves. “There was a point in time when college was the main goal, it was the American dream,” Fagan tells Yahoo Parenting. “The reason was that it led to being financially secure and self-reliant. But things have gone so far out of skew that we’ve stopped chasing self-reliance and instead chase college for college’s sake. Kids go to school and hope they’ll figure out their future, and we end up with a whole generation of kids laying on parents’ couches with degrees that are unusable, and $100,000 of student loans.”
So instead of college, Fagan’s goal is teach his kids to be financially independent, and that means working for whatever they want — even an education. “So many parents say, ‘I just want my kids to be happy.’ But my parenting style isn’t ‘how can I make my kid happy?’ It’s ‘how can I make my kid self-reliant?’ Long-lasting happiness comes from knowing what you want and not having to rely on others.”
For Fagan’s children, those lessons start as early as one or two years old, he says. “If one of my kids tells me, at a restaurant, ‘I want a burger,’ I say ‘Okay, you’ve decided what you want. Now you need to ask for it. You have to get out of your comfort zone and talk to an adult and go after what you want.’”
Not that he makes them pay for everything, Fagan says. He provides his children with their needs — he’s not making his kids work for food, he says— and if the family goes to the movies, he’ll buy the tickets. “But if my daughter want to go to the movies with her friends, she knows she needs to figure out how to pay for that,” Fagan says. (To help make that possible, he’ll pay the kids to do chores around the house or for starting little businesses.)
When it comes to college, Fagan says it’s not for everyone, so people who want to go — like his 18-year-old daughter — need to understand the costs, and that the end goal is to leave school being even more capable of being financially secure. “Huge organizations are pushing college educations down our throat without anything to back it up,” he says. “No one is stopping to challenge the system and say ‘Why?’ What I’m putting out there is maybe it’s more valuable to put $10,000 into a business than it is to put $200,000 into a college education.”
Not so fast, says Dr. Tahira Hira, a consultant in financial education and former member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy. She tells Yahoo Parenting that parents shouldn’t underestimate the value of a college degree. In 2012, for example, the median earnings for young adults ages 25 to 34 with a college degree was $46,900, while the earnings for a young adult with only a high school diploma was $30,000.
“I’m not saying everyone should cover college 100 percent for their kids, and plenty of parents can’t afford that,” she says. “But I think there is a more reasonable conversation to have than a statement of ‘you’re out there on your own.’” Hira says parents whose kids want to go to college should feel lucky, and should think about helping in some regard. “Maybe you contribute some financially, and then you talk to your child about earning scholarships or getting loans. Or maybe, if you can’t afford to help financially, you take some part in helping them work for the money. It’s about showing that you are there to help. ”
Hira agrees with Fagan that conversations about money management should start early. “The minute the child says, ‘I want that,’ they’re giving parents an opportunity to teach about working for what you want, why we can’t always have everything you want and why we don’t always have what other people have,’” she says. “I just think there is some balance between doing everything for your child and doing nothing for your child.”
Fagan says he helps his kids when they earn it. When one of his daughters wanted to go to Peru last year, she worked hard to raise the money, but fell short. “I saw the work she put in, so I lent her the money and she went on the trip, and when she returned she kept working to pay me back,” he says. “But sometimes when they can’t afford something and they have to miss out on an experience they wanted, that’s when something clicks. Then they’re motivated.”
Does that mean his kids should miss out on higher education if they want it? “I don’t think I’m denying them a lot of opportunities,” he says. “I’m just going about it differently. Kids don’t know what they’re capable of — like raising the money for school — until they have to learn what they’re capable of.”