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How not to waste $100,000
College is killing you. Here's how to make sure you and your kids don't squander your bucks.
August 16, 2005: 6:47 AM EDT
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money Senior Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Last time you checked, colleges weren't offering refunds for kids who gorge on gut courses, or spend more time making Jell-O shots than trying to make the dean's list.

Nor were they giving money-back guarantees for philosophy majors too busy pondering Plato to come up with a post-graduation game plan.

You know college is as much about socializing, experimentation and making dumb mistakes as it is about academia. But if you're paying for part or all of your child's expenses, you want some assurance your money wouldn't be better spent poured down a drain.

"It's a very natural set of worries for parents," said Kristine Dillon, once dean of academic services at Tufts University and now president of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education.

To make sure your hard-earned savings don't go to waste, here are four strategies education experts recommend.

Don't be a major pain. You may want your child to be pre-med or take top honors as an econ geek. But when it comes to picking a major, the decision really should be your child's, said Richard M. Flaherty, president of College Parents of America. Just as in picking a college, he said, "They need to have a vested interest."

That's because insisting your child major in a given subject can backfire...badly. "That level of pressure doesn't work very well for a lot of students," Dillon said. They may end up getting bad grades in a major of your choice. They may not develop the skills necessary to make smart decisions for themselves as adults. Or their stress levels may soar, affecting their ability to take advantage of all that college has to offer.

Plus, while you may think a particular major -- say, computer science -- will bear fruit a few years from now, skills needs can change so rapidly that the degree may not be nearly as valuable after graduation, Flaherty noted.

Ultimately, the specific major chosen is less important than what that major does for a student. If you see a spark in your kids and they clearly enjoy their studies, "your money is well spent," said Dr. Kate Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin.

And take heart. One's major often has little to do with one's ultimate career choice. Brooks knows of many philosophy majors who became successful attorneys, architects, environmental planners, surgeons, bank executives and librarians.

Play diplomat. Okay, but let's say your kids' choice of ancient Greek or music appreciation still makes your teeth grind. You can do two things: ask questions and strike a compromise.

First, find out why a particular subject interests them. If they're passionate about it, there's a good chance they'll do well.

Next, find out if they want to make a career of it. But remember, Brooks said, the question is not, "What are you going to do with that?" but "What do you think you want to do?"

If they're not planning to make a career of it, you might suggest some of the skills and information that would serve them well in a job. And then suggest they augment their major with a minor or perhaps do a double major to develop some of those skills -- say, in music and business, said Martin Wilder, vice president for enrollment at Mary Washington College.

Be clear about expectations. If you're worried that your children are gutting their way to graduation or simply not doing well for reasons having nothing to do with intellect or ability, "it's reasonable to say that's not acceptable," Dillon said.

And it's good to be explicit about what you expect. Your college kids are adults, and they need to recognize the value of what you're providing and understand that their experience is costing you real money that shouldn't be frittered away.

Since you have some measure of financial control over them, the temptation may be to issue ultimatums. Do so sparingly. Withdrawing support "is a very crude weapon and has to be used very carefully," said Lewis Mandell, a financial literacy expert and college professor. Like a weapon of mass destruction, "it's an all or nothing thing," he said. You risk your relationship with the child at least for awhile and you risk the possibility that they will drop out.

Encourage Jr. to go long. Typically students wait until senior year before locating the career center. Big mistake, say experts.

"Encourage the student to think long-term," Wilder said. "The time to visit the placement office is freshman or sophomore year."

The career office can help a student figure out which types of jobs best fit their skills and aptitudes and offer "shadow" opportunities in which a student can explore different career paths by spending time with someone in a given field.

And it's a rich source for internships. "Students with some kind of relevant work experience are much more marketable than those without," said Mimi Collins, a spokesperson for the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Plus, internships offer not only experience but may put your child at the head of the line when it comes time for hiring. Said Collins, "In tough times, employers look at their own interns first."

Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at  Top of page