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Should You Pay College Tuition for a Struggling Adult Child?

When the answer is not found in a checkbook.

At the locker room of my gym, I at times overhear prideful guys share where their adult children get accepted to college, what they major in, and how successful their careers are. Don't get me wrong, I think it is great to feel good about your child's successes in life.

What I don't hear trumpeted out loud, however, are the situations about children struggling in college. There are probably lots of other parents who are not in a position to be so prideful about their child's trajectory during the college years. Whether these parents are also at gyms, but silent while trying to sweat off their anxieties, engaged in hobbies to distract themselves, out shopping to get a change of scenery, or toiling away at their jobs to tentatively muster up funds for that next possible tuition payment, they are likely struggling as well. So, if you are one of these parents, hopefully, you'll find a little comfort to reassure yourself that you are by no means alone in this.

In my coaching practice, I often hear from parents who are not able to brag about their child's successes. In fact, some feel embarrassed, or ashamed, or even guilty, though it may be irrational. They often ask for advice about a very important question: Should I pay/continue to pay tuition?

According to a November 2018 New York Times article, 30 percent of freshmen won’t return for their sophomore year! As that article points out, many adult children go away to college only to recognize—either because of their grades, their habits, their mental health or all of the above—that they’re not ready for college life.

Clearly, every situation is different. There are no simple answers. But how you respond to the following questions may help you better decide whether or not to keep writing out those tuition checks:

  • Is your child struggling due to an underlying disability, such as ADHD or learning issues? Or does she choose not put in sufficient effort (by attending classes, turning in projects, and studying for exams)?
  • Have untreated or under-treated mental health concerns, such as anxiety, depression, or addictions, played in a role in your adult child's college difficulties?
  • Does he ask for help and use the resources available at the college (learning/writing center, tutors, or counseling center)?
  • Is she being transparent with you about her struggles, or are you being left out of the loop for this vital information, only to be pulled backed in to pay tuition?
  • Does your adult child repeatedly blame others (e.g., "That professor really sucked!"), or does she keep trying despite the challenges she is experiencing?
  • Does he have some "skin in the game" in the form of loans, a summer job, or a scholarship, so that he bears some of the financial responsibilities for college or personal expenses as well?

A further thing to consider, depending on how you answered the above questions, is how will you feel once you send in that next tuition payment?

Will you feel good that you are doing this in the best interests of your child?

Or will you feel temporarily relieved by avoiding conflict, but inwardly you are concerned that this payment is going to be spent in vain, because your child may get on academic probation or already is?

If you are still conflicted about continuing to make tuition payments, please realize that you are having this internal conflict for a valid reason. This is a big decision with multiple implications. Asking yourself and your child these important questions may help you in a decision that you both can accept.


Stixrud, W. & Johnson, (November 2018), When a College Student Comes Home to Stay. The New York Times.