At a recent holiday barbecue, a group of our friends had a “lively discussion” about college and what we expect for our kids. Collectively, our kiddos range in age from 7 to 14. Some of the main questions that came up:

Should we encourage our kids get a general liberal arts degree like history or English, if that moves them, or push them into something more practical, like accounting or computer science?

Is it money-smart to encourage our kids to go to community college or a cheap local school so they can live at home for their first two years? Would transferring into a bigger/more challenging school their junior year be OK, or will they miss out on having that quintessential four-year college experience?

Would we encourage our kids to pay for part of their college education, even if we could afford to pay for it ourselves? Does paying help kids feel like they have some “skin in the game”—in other words, give them a sense of accountability?

On the issue of how practical a degree should be: Most of our group fell into the camp of “a good education is its own reward.” However, a couple of us definitely leaned toward “It’d be nice to have a solid career track and some practical experience when you walk out of college.”

I can see both points of view. I studied communications, so I had some idea that I’d be working as a writer/ journalist/ public relations-type person. But I sure did envy the accounting majors who had recruiters coming to see them on campus, and often had job offers even before they got their diplomas. Overall, though, I’m still in favor of kids studying whatever seems like the best fit for their “career path guess.” And isn’t it really an educated guess? I mean, how many people know for sure what career path they’ll follow when they’re 18 years old?

It seems to me that college is a sorting ground: You take classes to help you decide what you enjoy and do well, and what areas of study are definitely not your cup of tea. My own bias is that if you end up finding that you’re passionate about history—even if you’re not going to teach or work at a historical society—chances are good that your history studies will somehow end up being meaningful in whatever work you do. You’ll understand historical trends, and you’ll know how to research and communicate well (as a result of the papers you write). Those aren’t bad skills to have in any job, right?

But my practical side says that if I were to do it again—and this is how I’ll counsel my own daughters—I’d take a few business courses, too. Maybe statistics and marketing. I could certainly use those skills while running my own writing business.

If your kid is paying for at least some of their college expenses—which I think they should—that will also encourage them to make their degree worthwhile. I was fortunate that my own parents paid for my tuition and room/board. However, I was expected to work during the summer to pay for books, clothes, gas/car insurance, entertainment and any extras.

And the deal was that my parents would have paid tuition and room/board for 4 years only. If I dinked around and took 5 years to graduate, that last year was on my dime. Graduate school would also have been my responsibility. I did think long and hard about it, and decided an advanced degree wasn’t really crucial in my line of work. But had someone else been paying, I might have gone to grad school, and it wouldn’t have been cheap.

Where do you stand on the concept of kids paying for part of their education, even if mom and dad can afford to pay every penny? Good life lesson or stingy parenting?

As for going to community college or a local school, then transferring—I honestly don’t know how I feel about that. I know many financial experts—including syndicated radio talk show host Clark Howard and Kiplinger’s Janet Bodnar—are heavily in favor of it.

I personally loved being at a small university for a full four years, getting to know my teachers and students really well. But I also agree that it sure would save some $$$ to have our daughters take most of their basic prerequisite classes at a cheaper school like a community college, then move on to a larger school.

If any of you transferred to a bigger college after two years, what do you say? Was it a tough transition or a smart move?

And where do you stand on the issue of your kid getting a “practical” degree like accounting, versus a more general degree like English? Are both equally worth the incredibly high price tag you’ll pay these days?