Are you debating whether your student should take a car to college? It makes sense for trips to the grocery store and visits back home, but cars can be expensive to keep and maintain. College is already a time when your parental wallet is getting a workout. To help you decide if you should send your student off to college with their own set of wheels, consider some of the following drawbacks and benefits of bringing a car to campus.

The Drawbacks

Before you buy one of those big red bows to put on a new car for your child, it's important to add up the costs.

According to, an 18-year-old driver pays an average of $3,148 for insurance. In addition, AAA estimates that in 2016 Americans spent the following:

  • $1,268 on fuel
  • $792 on maintenance
  • $687 on things like licenses, taxes and registration

That doesn't even take into account the cost of parking on campus. Parking can be anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per year and other parking costs will vary depending on the school's location.

The cost of the car itself might also be prohibitive. While the average new car price in 2016 was about $34,000, expect to pay around $20,000 for a compact car. If you buy used, you might be able to get a good deal, but you'll likely pay more in maintenance for an older car. Consumer Reports found that the cost of maintenance increased from 1 percent of the total cost of ownership in the car's first year, to 4 percent when the car was five years old, to 6 percent for cars that were eight years old.

With the costs of college likely putting a strain on everyone's budget, the expense of a car could become more than you and your child can handle.

There are also other potential drawbacks of sending your child off with a car:

  • Accidents
  • Speeding tickets
  • Theft
  • Damage

The Benefits

Cars might be expensive, but there are conveniences to having one at school. Campus stores often charge a premium for dorm-room staples like chips, popcorn, candy and cereal bars, so having a car could help save your child money on groceries.

A car may also lead to savings on bus, plane or train tickets to go home on the weekends or holidays, which could likewise translate into more frequent visits. Having a car might even help your child land a part-time job off-campus or allow them explore their new community more fully, both resulting in a fuller college experience.

And then there are the ways that a car could keep them safe. With a vehicle on hand, you'll take comfort knowing your child won't get stuck waiting alone late at night for a ride or walking home when there's no other option.

The Alternatives

Depending on where your son or daughter is attending school, they might be able to take advantage of bus or subway systems, removing the need for a car altogether. Even if their college town lacks solid public transit infrastructure, they might find a bike or skateboard makes it easy to get around and allows them to avoid traffic or sometimes painful searches for parking.

If your child has a friend bringing a car or becomes friends with someone who has a car, they can also likely get many of the same benefits of owning a car for the cost of a few dollars in gas money. When it comes to holidays and weekends home, they could carpool with friends or students who live in the same area. Most colleges have online or physical message boards to help students find shared rides. If that doesn't pan out, taking a bus, train or plane home for the holidays can still be affordable, sometimes even cheaper, depending on the distance and availability of deals.

There are also a number of carshare services that maintain cars on college campuses for students to easily rent by the hour or day for short trips. These are membership-based services that allow students the use of cars conveniently located on campus and around town for reasonable rates.

The Rules

Some schools discourage students from bringing their cars with them to college, some don't allow it and others make it really expensive as a deterrent.

At schools like California Polytechnic State University, the limited on-campus parking spots are needed for commuting students, so freshmen who live on campus aren't allowed to have a car. Other schools like the University of Washington, allow cars but strongly discourage them and make parking expensive by charging around $1,000 per year. Many schools are actively encouraging cycling by creating bike lanes and providing free bike giveaways or discounted bikes for students if they forego cars. Others offer discounts on bus passes to reduce car use.

The Bottom Line

While you might think that owning a car will make life easier for your college student and increase the chances you'll see them more often, it could actually add stress to both your lives because of the high expense and safety concerns.

And while allowing your child to bring a car to school may encourage your dream of regular weekend visits, college is a busy time. There are classes to attend, exams to study for, term papers to write, club activities and friends to see. Frequent visits home could be distracting, so you may only see your child during the holidays or when they run out of clean clothes — and change for the laundry machine — even if they do have a car.

So, before your child brings a car to college, take a moment (or two) to carefully weigh the pros and cons. It might be that the shiny Schwinn in the shop down the street begins to look more appealing.

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