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Should your student have a car in college?

Here are 6 questions to ask

By Sarah Max

When Maggie Kern's oldest daughter, Zoe, headed to college in Tacoma, Wash., there seemed to be little need for a car. "It's easy to get around campus, and I got her a subscription to a car-share program to use a car when she needed it," says Maggie, who figured her daughter could make the 300-mile trip home to Oregon by hopping on a quick flight or taking the train and meeting her parents halfway.

Unfortunately, parents who are sending their students off to college this year may have greater health and safety concerns about public transportation and some modes of public transportation have also become less reliable.

Looking for more safe and secure ways to get to your destination is a top priority for both parents and students.

Along with pens, books, planners, and twin sized bedsheets, parents and students may be considering adding cars to their back to school shopping lists. Deciding whether your student should have a car at school is a difficult decision. It includes helping your student evaluate and manage their college expenses and making sure they can both navigate their campus efficiently at school and get home safely at the end of each semester.

Here are six questions to help you make the decision—and save money along the way:

1. What is the car's primary purpose?

Many students don't need a car at college, especially if they don’t have a reason to leave campus or if home is too far away to drive to over breaks. Transportation on college campuses has gotten significantly better now that college students have access to campus shuttles, bike-sharing, ridesharing and car-sharing programs that didn't exist decades ago. However, the recent focus on “social distancing” has raised awareness that vehicle-sharing programs run the risk of exposing students to viruses and other illnesses, given the number of students who sit in close proximity and use these services daily.

You’ll want to consider whether home is within a reasonable driving distance, or if your student needs to travel off-campus often for work. Be vigilant in scrutinizing vehicle-sharing services by assessing if they have updated and maintained their health and safety protocols in response to recent public health concerns. You’ll want to weigh the total costs (plus the pros and cons) of alternative transportation options against all the costs associated with owning, insuring and driving a car.

2. Does your student have a good track record?

Drivers under age 20 are almost three times more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than drivers age 20 and over—according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute. If your student already has a history of speeding tickets and fender-benders, factor that into your decision. This may be a pretty good indication not just of their driving, but also whether they'll make smart choices about when and how they'll use the car. 

quote

We found something basic but reliable, so we don't need to worry about our daughter's car breaking down, and she can have it after she graduates.

Maggie Kern, mother of a college student

3. Will you need to buy a car?

This is obviously a huge part of the decision. If your student already has a car available, the key financial considerations will be the cost of parking, fuel, maintenance and insurance. On the other hand, if you need to buy a car, the cost could be a major factor.

In the Kerns' case, the cost of alternative transportation meant that buying a car for Zoe made sense, from a long-term perspective. "We found something basic but reliable so we don't need to worry about her breaking down, and she can have it after she graduates," Maggie says.

4. How much is insurance?

Besides the cost of the car itself, insurance is typically the biggest expense to consider. Insurance premiums are higher for younger drivers and registering a car in a different city or state could bump up your premium.

Ask your auto insurance company about potential discounts for college students who earn good grades—that could reduce your premium significantly. Also consider defensive driving courses for your student because they can lead to lower insurance rates. You might qualify for discounts if your student already has a car, but chooses to leave it parked at home, rather than taking it to college.

5. What are the parking options—and costs?

Having a car may add an extra element of stress for students navigating college life in an unfamiliar city. It's worth checking ahead of time to find out if the university offers parking permits to undergraduates. If parking on campus isn't an option, look for secure and inexpensive long-term parking off-campus. Parking on public streets can be a hassle—frequently moving the vehicle can be time-consuming, and the cost of parking tickets can quickly add up.

6. Is your student committed to maintaining a car?

Ultimately, the truth is that having a car at college is still a privilege for most students regardless of uncertain events. Parents and students should commit to an agreement about what conditions are necessary to keep the car at school. That might mean maintaining excellent grades, covering some of the costs, or both.

The Kerns, for example, agreed to put $5,000 toward a down payment on Zoe's car and be guarantors on a loan—but Zoe is on the hook for half of the $225 monthly payment. That arrangement offers a double benefit. Zoe gets the car and, because the loan is in her name, she has the opportunity to establish good credit for life after college.

We’re confident you have all the tools you need to decide whether a car is the best way to give your student access to safe and secure transportation during college—after all, you’ve made it this far! 

JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. Member FDIC

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