Happy mature woman and yong daughter with laptop at table at home

Explain to your parents that you won't necessarily pay the college sticker price. (iStockPhoto)

Students cranking out term papers on typewriters. Making new friends without friending them first on Facebook. Ordering pizza on the library pay phone. 

Sound familiar? Mom and Dad have probably given you the spiel on how college has changed since they were students. But when it comes to how families pay for college, they may not understand just how much the landscape has shifted.

[Find out which ranked schools are the most and least expensive.]

If your parents have latched on to outdated ideas about college funding or start every college cost conversation with "back in my day," it’s time to enroll them in Paying for College 101. No typewriter required.

Lesson 1: I can’t cover tuition with a part-time job. Your parents may have paid tuition bills with a weekend job at the local mall. Good luck trying that today.

It’s nearly impossible to make an entry-level paycheck cover tuition nowadays, says Randy Olson, a computer science graduate research assistant at Michigan State University, who creates and analyzes​ visual representations of data on his blog. He recently crunched the numbers for both Michigan State and all public universities in the U.S.

He found that a student in 1979 needed to work 182 hours at minimum wage per year to pay for one year of in-state tuition and fees at a public university. That translates to less than 10 weeks at a part-time job, says Olson, which could be finished fairly quickly, perhaps earning minimum wage during a summer scooping ice cream on the boardwalk. On the other hand, a student in 2013 had to work 991 hours at minimum wage to cover one year of in-state tuition and fees. That would require working a full-time minimum-wage job for about half the year – no easy task for a full-time student.

"It’s not nearly as easy to work your way through college as it used to be – stop telling us to do it just because you did a couple of decades ago," Olson said in an email.

A similar study with data from Pennsylvania State University found the same trend. 

"To work enough to equal tuition, especially considering the price of private schools, is incredibly difficult," says Jamie Dickenson, a certified educational planner in West Virginia.

That doesn't mean that a part-time job is useless. Working through college can still cut into student loans, help pay the bills and earn you valuable work experience. But tell Mom and Dad to let go of the idea that you'll knock out your tuition bill each semester with a paycheck from Wendy’s, even if they did.

[Chip away at the cost of college with these 10 tools and resources.]

Lesson 2: It’s fine for me to take out some student loans. In 1992, full-time students received an average $2,270 in federal student loans in 2012 dollars, according to the College Board "Trends in Higher Education" report. In 2012-2013, the average was $6,370. 

Mom and Dad may have managed to graduate without much debt, if any. But "you can’t expect students and parents to pay the same way they did a generation ago," says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. 

Taking on a reasonable amount in federal loans – the rule of thumb is no more than your expected first year’s salary – is manageable for most students because the payoff of a college degree is so great, says Draeger.

Mom and Dad can rest a little easier knowing that federal loans come with protections, such as income-based repayment, extended repayment plans and eventual forgiveness for certain kinds of borrowers, including public service workers.

Lesson 3: I probably won't pay the sticker price. Parents may look at a pricey school, such as Columbia University, which charged $51,008 in tuition and fees ​for the 2014-2015 school year, and write it off as unaffordable.

"I think a lot of parents think that sticker price is what they'd pay," says Draeger. "But very few people are paying the list price at a college or university."

[Explore the Best Value Schools rankings list.]

Colleges typically cut into tuition and fees with need-based and merit-based aid to attract students. In fact, the tuition discount rate, the amount universities cover for students by providing grants and other aid, was expected to reach nearly 47 percent for the 2013-2014 school year at private universities, higher than it has ever been, according to the most recent survey from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

If your parents went to school in 1990, the rate was about 26 percent, according to another NACUBO study, making the sticker price resemble out-of-pocket costs more closely.

To demystify the cost of college for you and your parents, try looking at schools’ net price calculators, which can typically be found on the financial aid page of a school's website, for a rough estimate of what you’ll pay.

That's a wrap on Paying for College 101, Mom and Dad.​ Class dismissed. 

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News  Paying for College  center.

Tags: paying for college, student loans, tuition, students, parenting, education, colleges

Susannah Snider Staff Writer

Susannah Snider is the Personal Finance editor at U.S. News. She previously covered paying for college and graduate school. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at ssnider@usnews.com.


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