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When College and Retirement Collide

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Martie Gillen, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

My oldest child recently “graduated” from elementary school, in a ceremony that at first struck me as a bit silly. Of course, by the end it had me tearing up. (Didn’t I just send this tiny child to kindergarten?)

As she processed up the aisle to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, I couldn’t help but think forward to the day when she will actually graduate from high school. And when I think about high school graduation, I think about the cost of college. Now there’s a subject to bring a mom or dad to tears!

College and Retirement: On My Mind

In fact, I’d say paying for college is my top financial concern, ahead of any other money worries we have as a family. After all, over the past 30 years, the average published tuition price at private colleges has risen 146%. At public schools (for in-state students), it’s gone up 225%. While family “net price” will vary quite a bit depending on income bracket and choice of school, there’s no question that these costs are high and have far outstripped inflation.

But as much as I worry about my kids ending up with mountains of debt, I know my husband and I need to remember to take care of ourselves, too! It seems like I’m constantly hearing or reading about the vast sums of money we’ll need to put away for retirement before we stop working. So there’s another major financial preoccupation: retirement.

…And on Everyone Else’s Mind, Too

As it turns out, my concerns are completely typical—at least according to one recent survey. This April, the American Institute of CPAs polled over 1000 American adults and asked them what the best “indicator of financial success” today is. Close to 30% said “having enough money for a comfortable retirement,” while close to 25% cited “providing their children with a debt-free education.” Surprisingly, at least to me, only 11% mentioned owning their own home, and the same percentage listed being better off than their parents.

The Two Needs Conflict

What with college’s cost skyrocketing and the retirement landscape shifting, these results seem understandable. The problem comes in when the two needs conflict—as they so often do. Two other recent surveys suggest that parents are very willing to put their own retirement needs aside in favor of helping their children. In one, baby boomer parents who were providing financial assistance to adult children were found to be putting off retirement when compared to boomer parents whose children were financially independent. In another, about 50% of parents agreed that they’d put off their own retirement or draw on their retirement funds in order to help their kids get through college.

How can families successfully balance their retirement savings needs with the desire to save adequate money for their children’s college educations? It certainly isn’t easy, and it takes long-range planning. While everyone’s financial picture will be different, one good idea is to speak with a certified financial planner and figure out what will work best for you. To find a CFP in your area, visit and select Find a CFP Professional.

Further Reading

Your Financial Action Plan–from UF-IFAS EDIS


AICPA. (2015). New AICPA Survey Finds Comfortable Retirement Best Defines Financial Success for Americans. Retrieved from

College Board. (2015). Average Rates of Growth of Published Charges by Decade. Retrieved from

Squared Away. (2015). Kids’ College Trumps Parents’ Retirement. Retrieved from

Squared Away. (2015). Rewriting the American Dream. Retrieved from

Photo Credits: Sean Prior/Hemera/Thinkstock