Consider reading parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series first:

  1. Batting 1-1 With Three More Pitches Coming (Feb 2016)
  2. Lessons Learned on our Family’s College Journey (April 2016)
  3. Tips for Parents Paying for College (April 2016)

This past week the first half of our family’s fall payment for tuition, fees, room and board at the Colorado School of Mines for our oldest son was deducted from our bank account. The past six months have been filled with a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty for me on the subjects of college and family finances, so this week’s bank draft was psychologically huge. While I’ve had a fairly high degree of confidence that our combination of scholarships, 529 funds, new college loans and personal savings were going to allow us to make financial ends meet, this is our first experience with “paying for college” for our own children. We’re a family of faith, but that does not mean this journey has been easy or devoid of doubts and even fears. I remain convinced that navigating the minefield of college financial options is one of the biggest challenges families and parents face today in 2016. While we’re doing our best to make wise and responsible choices for our kids and collective futures, we’re also very much figuring this out as we go. It’s a big journey with lots of excitement but also plenty of danger.

This post is my fourth in a series focused on lessons learned as a father and parent of three children bound for college. The post from February 2016, “Batting 1-1 With Three More Pitches Coming,” was the first in the series.  7 lessons were included in the second post, and the third focused on “Tips for Parents Paying for College.” We certainly don’t “have all the answers,” but we continue to seek them on multiple fronts of the complex puzzle which is the college search, admissions, payment and student support process. If the ideas in this series are helpful to you, please let me know via a blog comment or reach out on Twitter.

Draw Your Family Financial Lines in Advance

In April when I wrote my second post in this series, Alex and I had just returned from a second in-person visit to The College of Wooster in Ohio. Of the five colleges to which he applied and four to which he was accepted, Wooster offered Alex the biggest scholarship. ($25K per year at a school which costs $57K per year.)

Wooster is an amazing school. It’s a small, liberal arts college with a big emphasis on mentored undergraduate research, and it could be an idyllic school for some students for many reasons.  Alex (at that point) thought he wanted to study engineering or chemistry, but Wooster doesn’t offer any engineering programs. They do have a 3-2 pre-engineering program where you can attend for 3 years studying sciences, and then go for a 2 year Masters program in Engineering at a cooperating university. Since one of the most unique and touted features of a Wooster education is the opportunity to complete a mentored undergraduate research project, however, we learned that many of the students who start off on the 3-2 program actually opt to stay for the 4th year and complete their research project.

Visiting Wooster with Alex in April of his senior year in high school was, like our visits in October to the Olin College of Engineering and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), emotionally powerful and exciting. The visit to Wooster was most memorable for me, however, because of an experience with financial sticker shock. After dropping off Alex to spend the evening and night in the dorms with current Wooster students, I walked through campus back to our rental car from a parent reception. I clearly remember standing where I took this photo in the center of campus, and feeling pretty overwhelmed at the exciting prospects of Alex possibly being able to start school there in the fall. What an amazing school! What an idyllic setting… Who could say what wonderful doors would be opened to Alex if he attended and graduated from Wooster?

As I contemplated these exciting possibilities, however, I was also overwhelmed by the financial implications of this path. While Alex had been offered a $25K per year scholarship to attend Wooster, that would pay for slightly less than HALF of the cost of annual attendance. Even with the generous help of my parents who setup a 529 account for Alex many years ago, I had no idea how we could afford those college costs without taking on an absolute mountain of student loan debt. As I mentioned in my second post in this series, one of our goals as parents of college-bound kids is to try and help them get through their undergraduate studies with as little debt as possible. I didn’t see how this would be possible for us at Wooster, or how it could be a responsible choice.

The next day, Alex and I visited the Wooster financial aid office, where I hoped I might get some helpful guidance as I faced this decision.

The financial aid representative was kind and helpful, but he didn’t provide what I naively hoped he would. He didn’t say, “Given your financial resources and situation, Wooster is (or isn’t) a responsible and good choice for your son and family.” What he did say, and probably had to say, was something to the effect of: “These decisions vary by family and by circumstances. You have to make the best decision for your situation.”

Here’s what I realized and have taken my time in stating in this post: You have to draw your own financial lines when it comes to what amount of student loan debt and college costs you’re willing to bear as a family. No college admissions officer is going to look you in the eye and say, “Given your situation, our college would financially extend you too far and be an irresponsible choice.” Whether your child has been admitted to a college or not, admissions folks understandably hope you can find a way to make the finances work. We didn’t have, and perhaps still don’t completely have, “financial boundaries” for ourselves and our kids when it comes to paying for college costs. We have some, and they are much more well defined than they were in April, but it’s safe to say they’re still somewhat fuzzy. Ideally, I think it would be a great idea for families to establish and define “financial boundary lines” in advance of late-spring college visits. It might even be good to establish those well before your child’s senior year begins. I’ve talked with several parents who have multiple children and have drawn up these kinds of boundaries almost like a contract with their kids.

Alex and I left Wooster in April impressed and positive about the college. I was convinced, however, that we (as a family) couldn’t afford Wooster and it wouldn’t be a financially responsible choice, no matter how exciting it looked and “felt” during our second visit. At that stage, Air Force ROTC was still a possibility for funding help for Alex at either OU, RPI or Mines, and I was holding out some hope on that front. It turned out the US Air Force didn’t offer Alex an ROTC scholarship, but by the time we got that final news we’d already decided to rule out Wooster as a college choice. Alex’s desire to focus on engineering was also a factor, but the financial aspects and looming debt prospects were primary in that decision.

Search for the Right College Fit

The college counselors at my school (where I’m now the director of technology) are fantastic for many reasons, and one of them is the way they focus on finding “the right college fit” for students. Maybe this is something all college counselors say and do, but it really is key in the entire college search and admissions process. As I’ve noted previously in this series, many times I think student college choices are highly influenced (even to a negative degree) by parental experiences and parental preferences. One of my biggest goals for our kids when it comes to college choices remains helping expand their horizons beyond my own knowledge and experiences, and beyond those of my wife and our extended family. There are so many college choices today! Finances are and should be a huge part of the college admissions puzzle, but not everything. Scholarships and financial aid might come from unexpected sources, so I think it’s good to encourage kids to dream big dreams AND consider they ways they need to work and apply themselves in high school for those big dreams to potentially become a reality.

While we just have one of our three children in college now, we already have a good sense of some of the individual constraints and qualities of each child which will shape their college choices. For Alexander, one of these was his desire to study engineering. For Sarah, her need for small class sizes and opportunity to form direct relationships with her teachers is critical. (We’re going to discourage her from attending large state schools for that reason.) “It’s all about the fit.”

I cringe when I hear parents at church or elsewhere say things like, “Our kids knew from birth they’d be going to [fill in the blank with a Division I football team university name].” My thought in those cases is: “No, they didn’t know that, but you thought you did.” Just as it’s a pedagogical crime to try and provide the same, standardized education to every student in our K-12 education system, it’s similarly immoral to try and impose a standard set of post-high school educational expectations on every child in a family or in a community. Some kids aren’t ready to go to college right after high school, and that’s OK. Some kids don’t want to go far from home. Some might not want to go at all. Every child is different, and every child deserves the opportunity to both discover and chart THEIR own destiny.

Limit Applications to 5 or 6 Colleges

I was very glad that Alex ended up applying to only five colleges. Some college counselors and admissions experts will recommend that students have at least 1 or 2 colleges in 3 different categories: Dream, Match, and Safety. We know some students who have applied to more than fifteen colleges. Not only can that be expensive, I also think it must be overwhelming. We live in a world filled with choices, but there IS such a thing as being “paralyzed by choices.” Some call this “analysis paralysis.” It’s real, and it’s not constructive (for most students, IMHO) to apply to a huge number of colleges.

Apply for Scholarships Early and Regularly

I wish we had more strongly encouraged Alex to apply for more scholarships throughout his senior year. Our family financial advisor encouraged us to encourage him to make scholarship applications a regular part of his work each week, treating it almost like “a job.” We didn’t heed this advice, but I wish we had. We’re going to do a more diligent job on this front with both our girls. Having now paid (almost completely) for a semester of college, I can definitely affirm the idea that EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS. Alex did earn a few outside scholarships, but he could and should have applied for many more. The Scholly app (free) is one of the easiest tools to use to find scholarships which “fit” your student. Don’t wait as a parent for your child to apply for scholarships, require them to apply consistently throughout their senior year just like you’ll make them bathe or take their dishes to the kitchen if they don’t do those things voluntarily.

Leave The Door Open for Change

While it can be very exciting for your child to choose their college and perhaps even declare a major, it’s absolutely vital as a parent to leave the door open for them to change their mind and their pathway in life. I don’t know if the times I said things along these lines to Alex in the past year will stick in his mind or not, but I hope and pray they do. Examples include:

“If this works out at Mines and you love engineering that will be great, but if you decide it’s not for you or you want to go somewhere else that is fine too.”

And:

“We will love you and support you no matter what you decide to study or where you want to go to school.”

This latter statement does not mean that we have unlimited financial means or that we won’t help make college attendance decisions together based in-part on monetary circumstances, but I hope it means we are going to be totally open to the twists and turns which college and life inevitably puts in our pathways. I’ve heard several stories from friends and acquaintances about kids in college who were literally frozen with fear over the prospect of telling their parent they wanted to change their major, or change their college plans significantly from what they’d announced earlier.

As a college student myself, I was a “type A personality” and thought I’d plan out not only my entire undergraduate academic career but also my 20 year career as an Air Force officer. (That didn’t turn out as planned.) I’ve changed and relaxed immensely on this front as an adult, and as a parent I sincerely want to help my own children set high but also flexible goals. You may not necessarily go to Broadway, but your singing, acting and dancing skills can still open many amazing doors for you. You may not end up becoming an astronaut for NASA and going to Mars, but you can still use your skills to do amazing things and change the world for the better. And you MAY go to Broadway. Or you MAY go colonize Mars. Whatever happens, we need to be open to new possibilities and have faith that God will be faithful every step of the way. The words of Jeremiah 29:11 ring forth clearly on this topic:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Being open to change is not just an abstraction or something to share with our kids, it’s also an ideal to embrace as adults. We are living in times of rapid, discontinuous change. We all need to remain flexible, be open to change, and maintain a strong faith in God’s goodness and His plan to help us prosper as we seek to know and do his will.

Unsubsidized Versus Subsidized Loans

Six months ago, I didn’t have a very good understanding of student loan types and the process of applying for and receiving student loans. I have a much better idea and clearer picture now. The required reading resources on studentloans.gov are very helpful.

In the arena of financial aid and and loans, outright grants and aid (which aren’t loans) are the best of course, along with scholarships. When it comes to loans, subsidized loans are preferable because of lower interest rates, lower funding fees, and better terms. There is a cap on how much direct student debt an undergrad can assume each year. For this reason, we had to take both subsidized loans (in Alex’s name and ours) as well as unsubsidized loans (in just our names as parents). Qualification for subsidized loans (called a “parent-plus loan,” in our case) are based on your personal credit rating and financial situation.

Based on our limited experiences thus far, it DOES seem relatively easy to assume more student loan debt than is prudent or responsible. I plan to continuing to work on better educating myself about loan options. All the loans we’ve taken can be paid off early without penalty, and our plan / hope is to do that in all cases.

Save for Your Grandchildren

As a parent you should (and we should too) be saving monthly for our kids’ college educations. My wife and I have become convicted, however, to start saving for our grandchildren’s college expenses as soon as they are born. We’re not anticipating having any grandchildren really soon… but the experience of having our parents assist us with 529 savings plans has been a huge blessing. This is a blessing we want to continue to pay forward. You should consider this too.

Be Willing To Take Financial Risks

Given my previous comments and advice about debt and being overwhelmed with the prospects of paying thousands of dollars for a child’s college education, the title of this section may come as a surprise. Here’s the context of what I mean by “be willing to take financial risks.”

Just as every child is different and their “college fit” will be unique, every university is different and the opportunities it offers can be special. There are so many factors which combine in helping shape a family’s decision about college finances that it would be impossible to adequately highlight them here. In our case with Alex, however, we eventually reached the point where we decided the right path for us was to take some financial risks for this first year of college. Honestly, it felt a little bit like gambling, and it still does. But while I’m not wagering our savings at the casino down the road, it DOES feel like we’re doing the right thing in assuming these financial risks with Alex at the Colorado School of Mines this year. Here’s why.

The Colorado School of Mines ranks #2 on the 2016 “Best Return on Investment” (ROI) colleges by bestcolleges.com. In our admissions process, we learned Mines ranks higher on ROI than MIT. Alex is a very responsible and dedicated student, who is serious about math, chemistry, and engineering. He was a class valedictorian, and earned his International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma with a special research project in chemistry focused on hydraulic fracturing. He’s an incredible person, and given all the circumstances, he’s someone we’re willing as a family to stake a large bet on. For most if not all parents, we strongly desire for our children to have more and better opportunities to succeed in life than we had or have. This is certainly true for Shelly and I. When you face college expenses, however, that desire to provide better opportunities for your child takes on a very specific financial value.

Thanks to the help of some church friends, we’ve identified some internships and scholarship programs through the Department of Defense and US military which could help pay for all of Alexander’s undergraduate expenses after his freshman year. We don’t know, of course, if those will pan out. We have made a commitment to him, however, that we will fund his freshman year at Mines. We’ve taken out some loans this fall to make that happen, and are in the process of refinancing our home with a cash-out VA loan to pay for his spring semester and possibly pay off the fall loans we’ve taken. Obviously we are unlikely to be able to exercise this home refinance option again when it comes to paying college costs for any of our kids. We’re taking a risk, and wagering a significant part of our family resources on Alex.

This decision was and is both complex and personal. Seeing Alex’s dedication and hard work throughout high school at Classen School of Advanced Studies, seeing him graduate as a valedictorian, and having taken him to a fair number of amazing schools around the United States during his college search process… there was no way either of us wanted to say to him: We know you worked really hard in high school, but now you have to go to our local community college because we can’t afford anything else. Alex got into the Colorado School of Mines, for goodness sake… that’s a very high bar and one many students don’t ascend.

I was incredibly blessed and fortunate to be able to attend and graduate from my dream school: The U.S. Air Force Academy. I want to be able to give my children that some opportunity, if it’s financially possible, to attend and succeed at their dream schools, whatever those may be.

I was strongly shaped by several movies as a kid growing up, and Star Wars (1977) and Top Gun (1986) were the two top contenders in this category. I graduated from high school in 1988. As I thought and have continued to think about this decision for us to take a financial gamble and send Alex to Mines at least for his freshman year, I keep thinking about the early scene in Top Gun when Stinger (James Tolkan) tells Maverick and Goose they’re headed to Top Gun.

“I gotta give you your dreamshot. I’m gonna send you up against the best. You two characters… are going to TOP GUN.”

Perhaps I am elevating the value and importance of Alex being able to attend Mines beyond what is reasonable… but in many ways, I DO see it as “a dream shot.” I don’t think Alex’s destiny on or off our planet is strictly limited or defined by the undergraduate college he attends… the work he does wherever he goes will strongly chart his professional career track. Having the chance to learn, grow, and be stretched at a top-notch university with top-notch peers is an incredible advantage, however. I know this from experience.

Sometimes, when it comes to college choices, I think as parents we need to be willing to literally put our money down and take a big risk on our kids. The bet may be ill advised, or it may be life changing. Time will tell.

Process and Celebrate as a Family

The last thought I’ll share regards the importance of processing and celebrating the transition to college together. Because of school schedules, I was unable to accompany Alex to Colorado to start school there. My wife was able to go, however, and I am so thankful that both my parents were able to go with them. This proved to be an extremely special and memorable time for all of them.

There are no guarantees in this life. Every heartbeat we have, every day, is a gift from the Lord and should not be taken for granted. As you are able, I encourage you to process and celebrate the transition from high school to college together with family. It’s a big change for moms and dads as well as students and siblings.

The prayers and support of our church family and circle of friends through this entire process have also been HUGE. I am so thankful for so many people, and the ways they have “poured into” our lives as a family.

I’m excited for what the future holds for Alex and for the rest of our family. We can’t wait for parent’s weekend! Whether Alex ends up staying at Mines for 4 years and graduating there or moving on somewhere else because our finances (or something else) dictate a change, we’re praying he’ll go far. The eagle has left the nest, and he’s on his way to the clouds!

Godspeed, Alexander Fryer! The prayers and best wishes of our family go with you!

 


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