Keep it simple. But not too simple…

My wife loves REAL SIMPLE magazine. Their tagline is: Life Made Easier. I think of it as the “EASY Button” of magazines. You’ll commonly see headlines like, “How Lemons Can Simultaneously Clean Your Shower and Shape Your Abs,” or “6 Ways to Get More Sleep without Sleeping.” Typically, I will flip one open, read the first paragraph, skim the second, glance at the picture of some helpful graphic or perfectly trimmed flower in an artisan glass, before I start thinking of the irony that these come so frequently they’re cluttering what is clearly supposed to be a straight-lined house (see page 28).

Unfortunately, in the admission process, especially due to the generalized media coverage surrounding our field, there are many “REAL SIMPLE-fied” subjects. Here are a few tips to help you avoid the temptation to start showering with lemons:

  • Don’t let the “sticker price” keep you from applying to a particular school. As of 2011, all colleges and universities receiving federal funds must post an online net price calculator to provide prospective students and their families estimated net price information based on your individual circumstances. While I’ve literally NEVER heard a family say, “Wow. We are getting that much in aid! That seems too generous,” most families report that the net price calculator serves as a helpful catalyst to gauge likely cost and discuss the reality of attending a particular college. Also, check out online message boards, and talk to friends from your community about their experience at certain schools. Many schools will “discount” or reduce a percentage of attendance in order to meet enrollment goals. You’ll especially see this happen at private schools in the mid to upper tier. As long as your family discusses what the ultimate package/cost of attendance will need to be for it to be affordable, don’t let the broadly published total keep you from applying.
  • Don’t believe the rankings hype. If you have been admitted to two schools and there is a significant disparity (a number for you to define) in ultimate costs, do not choose the one ranked higher based solely on that factor. Look at the current NCAA Basketball rankings. Can you really make a compelling argument that the team ranked number six is significantly better than number twelve? Would you put money on them finishing higher in final polling or that they’ll advance further in the tournament? Let’s say you had to put down $500 to align with number six and only $100 to ride the tide with number twelve? Both schools will prepare you well, they’ll support you academically and socially, and they’ll be broadly known to give you every opportunity during and after your college experience. Just as much as you expect a holistic admission process as an applicant, your selection of a school should incorporate far more than a number on a page (particularly a hotly contested and arguably arbitrary one). NACAC provides a healthy lens to view rankings through here.
  • Think more broadly than quantifiable ROI (return on investment). Thankfully, since about 2009, our nation has been more conscious of discussing ROI. The right questions are being asked about the value of a college degree and the employability of a particular major based on supply and demand. However, the metrics used for determining value and ROI, while helpful, only look at dollars invested vs. dollars earned in starting or mid- career situations. Is this college a place where you will be challenged in what you know, what you believe, how you live now, and how you will live in the future? Are the connections you make—both among classmates, professors, and alumni—the kind of people that you want to surround yourself with and be associated with in both the long and short term?

I know it’s a lot easier to throw in five ingredients that simultaneously make a gourmet meal AND leave your hair well-conditioned for life, but adding nuance to some of these otherwise overly simplified aspects of the admission process means you are doing your job and allocating due weight to the importance of this decision.

The Money Blog

I think one of the toughest parts about the admission process, especially for talented students, is the pure number of college options you have. In the United States there are more than 2,400 four-year colleges, and more US students are going abroad to study than ever before. And in the middle of all of that, everybody is sending you glossy, shiny brochures of happy, smiling students underneath trees with professors blissfully learning in the sunshine. One day it’s the snow covered mountains of Vermont or Colorado, and the next day you’re picturing yourself strolling the beach after class in California or Miami. (Talk about FOMO!)

Adjusting to Choice

Having taught, employed, and regularly observed college freshmen over the years, I’ve found the variety of choices is one of the biggest adjustments to campus life. So I completely get it. High school was a constant cacophony of bells ringing, whistles blowing, horns honking. Start, stop. Begin, end. Go to school, practice or rehearse or work, study, sleep. Rinse and repeat. The big question is what are you doing with your discretionary 37 minutes each day?

Then you land on a college campus and are no longer required to run four miles a day for the cross country team. They have food courts and gluten-free options. And your class of 350 is now a campus of 18,000. “And wait, what?! I only have to be in class 15 hours each week plus a lab? Yeaassss!!!”

In addition to all that, at any time of day or night you can find someone interested in hitting a tennis ball, heading to the library, catching a show, or shooting potatoes off the roof with a homemade contraption (just spit-balling hypotheticals here).  Figuring out how and with whom to spend time is an understandable challenge. Ultimately, you learn to make choices based on hours in the day and week and what you want your experience to look like.

Student Loans & Debt

Unfortunately, when it comes to student loans and debt, we don’t take a similar approach. Instead, discussions of affordability are largely framed by a college’s Return on Investment (ROI) or a family’s perceived tolerance for a particular debt load.

At this time of year, families are usually looking at Net Price Calculators or specific financial aid letters and asking the question,“can we afford this?”

To answer that question you need to go beyond the bottom line number and consider how you are willing to live during and after college.

  • Will you co-op or intern during your time in school?
  • Are you willing to pick up a campus job or one in the surrounding community?
  • Is undergraduate research a paid position, and how much can you earn?
  • Are you willing to put yourself on a budget each week or month during college, and how much is reasonable?

Last week we established that the average debt for a college graduate is approximately $30,000 (the average salary for a new graduate is $45,000). We also heard some good tips from Jeff Selingo and Rich DeMillo on not graduating college with more student loans than your starting salary.

This week I wanted to provide you with a sample budget from a recent Georgia Tech graduate. 

 George P. Burdell

  • Student loans:
    • $40,000 (5% interest rate)
  • Salary:
    • $50,000, entry level, with full benefits (medical/dental)
  • Housing (in-town Atlanta):
    • 2-Bedroom 1-Bath Apartment (shared w roommate)
  • Lifestyle:
    • Eats at restaurants and grocery shops, but eats/orders out more often.
    • Enjoys travel, games, movies and social time with friends
    • Single, No pets
  • Car: Used 2013 Honda Accord:
    • 30,000 miles · Automatic · 29 MPG
    • Bought at $23,000
    • Down payment of $8,000 (earned via college internship and supplemented by graduation gift)
    • Interest Rate: 3%
    • Loan Period: 48 months
    • Payment: $333/month
  • Estimated Annual Costs:
    • Medical: $300
    • Car Maintenance: $500
    • Emergencies: $250
    • Car Tax: $100
    • Holiday Events/Gifts: $350
    • Total: $1500 ($125/month)

Monthly Budget

Monthly take home pay: $2,900

Category Budgeted Amount
Monthly Bills
Car Insurance $180
Car Payment $350
Cell Phone $75
Housing $700
Utilities $150
Loan Debt $675
Necessities  
Groceries $200
Gasoline/Fuel $100
Annual Costs Fund $125
Non-Essentials  
TV (Netflix, Prime) $20
Restaurants/Dining $125
Entertainment/Travel $100
Discretionary Spending $100
Total Expenses: $2900

 

Student Loan Debt vs. Car Debt

Using this budget (which you’ll notice assumes no raises or bonuses), George can pay off his student loans in six years. This is where I completely take issue with people who equate student loan debt to buying a car. Not only does that car require gas, insurance, and routine maintenance, but all the while it’s depreciating in value. Often it’s not long after six years that you end up with another car payment because the one you worked so hard to pay off is now needing to be replaced. In contrast, the investment in your college education continually appreciates due to network of classmates and other alumni. More on that next week.

In the meantime, pick this budget apart. Add debt to the beginning assumption… decrease the salary… increase the amount you might spend in groceries or transportation costs… or lengthen the amount of time to pay off in order to distribute expenditures differently. Each of those choices is a reflection on your values, your priorities and your life goals and vision. Even if you change every row of George’s budget, you’re a lot further along in determining what you will choose to pay for, and how you can and cannot live. “Can we afford it?” is a very personal question rooted in choice. Hopefully this will provide you some of the tools and prompts necessary to answer that for yourself. Happy budgeting!

Death, Taxes… and Debt?

death-and-taxes-w

Fairly soon after the celebrations of the New Year conclude and the college bowl games have blown the final whistle, I get a little depressed. It’s not because the weather is grey and cold, or because application review has me questioning if I’ll have any eyesight by the time I’m 60, but more so because I know tax season is rapidly nearing. I hate doing taxes. Collecting the items, filling in the boxes, fearing I’ll miss something and end up curled in a cell corner for evasion…you know the typical, reasonable trepidation.

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin said, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Has student loan debt now become the third inevitability? As tuition costs escalate nationally, 70% of students attending four-year colleges are now graduating with student loan debt. The average amount of that debt for those finishing in 2014 was approximately $29,000. More concerning is that the average debt at graduation has risen by more than twice the rate of inflation over the last decade—from $18,500 in 2004.

The Institute for College Access and Success sponsors a Project on Student Debt that provides excellent state by state information on load averages and percentage of students graduating with debt. On their site you can also download the full report that details trends and geographic distribution information, as well as strategies and recommendations for reducing debt burdens.

If seven of every ten students nationally are going to incur debt and less than 100 colleges and universities nationally meet 100% of demonstrated need, the question for most families and students is where is the line between reasonable and burdensome debt?

To answer this question I spoke with author, columnist, speaker and visiting scholar at Georgia Tech, Jeff Selingo and Rich DeMillo, Executive Director for the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech.

Next week we’ll explore this topic more fully and show a sample budget for a student graduating with $40,000 in student loans.

The Lies We Tell Ourselves, Part 3. Parents.

I slept on the couch last night…. but I relegated myself to it. Here’s how it went down:

My son had a Taekwondo test to get to the next belt level. When they do these evaluations, you are expected to be able to perform specific Poomsaes, which are alternating offensive and defensive forms– essentially choreographed movements. The further along you go in the study of Taekwondo the more complex they become.

Currently he’s trying to go to the green belt with blue stripe, which is halfway to becoming a black belt. My wife is incredibly diligent about working with him at home, especially as the test gets closer. At last night’s test there were about 20 other students testing for various belts. That meant there were easily 30 parents watching, taking video, and being generally supportive. At some points all students of a specific belt may be on the floor, but inevitably, each student has his or her own evaluation.

Fifty people looking on as you attempt to perform a complex set of motions is tough at any age. But at seven? Definitely not easy. He was doing well overall until a particular point in the Poomsae. Surprisingly, it was not the most complex section– he actually nailed that. The Master called out the command and my son just froze. You could literally see his brain working and his body trying to carry out the movement. He just could not make it happen. Fifty people. All of them wanted him to move, to just remember. It was simultaneously encouraging and maddening.

After we put the kids to bed and I was brushing my teeth, my wife came in and said, “I should have worked with him harder on that piece of it. I just thought he had it, so we practiced the tougher parts more.” Now what I should have said was nothing. But what I actually said was, “Are you going to make this about you?” I know, I know. Even as it came out of my mouth I knew I’d screwed up. She turned around, got into bed, put in some ear plugs and rolled over. Cold, right? But also totally appropriate.

(Not actually me)So I just grabbed my pillow and a blanket and headed downstairs. Self-imposed discomfort seemed like reasonable punishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I stand by my question 100%, but I’m the first to admit that the delivery was TERRIBLE. So fresh off of that lovely experience, today we look at “The Lies Parents Tell Themselves.”

Lie 1- I’m just helping. Does the Taekwondo story sound familiar? How about some of these: “I’m just helping my sophomore daughter when I go down to the high school to see if there is extra-credit work she could do, or if the Chair of the department could take another look at her last paper. She can’t make a C in this class, so WE need to rectify this immediately.”  Or “I’m just helping here. You see my son was deferred from your college. I know that you’ve received his transcript and supplement (because I made him give me his login info) and I see from your website that you don’t use an interview or additional letters of recommendation in the process, but I’m going to have two of my business associates email on his behalf anyway.” When does the “helping” stop? Colleges are now utilizing parent bouncers at registration; we’ve had parents ask if they can come to a job fair for their student who is in class at that time. “I just want to ask some questions and deliver her resume,” they say. Some of the nation’s accounting and investment firms now offer parent orientation as their 24 year olds enter the workplace. Is this really helping? Or  is it just controlling? At what point will “helping” prohibit your son or daughter from growing and maturing through life’s inevitable decisions, successes, failures, and freeze ups in front of 50 people?

Lie 2- Where my son or daughter goes to college is a reflection on my parenting achievement.

This is a tough one to admit, but is a very common, incredibly insidious lie. We have already established (hopefully) a few key things that refute this:

  1. Admission decisions are not character judgments
  2. Holistic admission by nature means that incredible students don’t always get in to certain elite schools
  3. Where you go to college does not dictate your future success or happiness

Who wouldn’t love to put a UCLA or Northwestern bumper sticker on the back of their car? But to look back over 18 years of raising a child: the lost sleep, the countless hours in carpool line, the nail biting at dance recitals or attending marathon swim meets (the worst by the way, the absolute worst), and then say a university brand represents your love, sacrifice, and influence? That’s ridiculous. It just is.Now go sleep on the couch! In your restlessness and discomfort get up around 4 a.m. and go to your daughter’s bedroom. Kiss her on the head. Whisper that wherever she gets in and chooses to go is going to be awesome, and that you’ll proudly wear the shirt and show up excited for Parents Weekend next fall.

A (Fox) Worthy Approach to Admission

Model Release-Not Needed

When asked to name some of the greatest minds in history, many would respond with Plato, DaVinci, Descartes, or Tesla. Certainly there would be controversy in assembling such a list, and ordering would be nearly impossible.. However, when it comes to establishing a clear front runner today, it’s much easier than looking back through history. Clearly, one man would rise to the top… Jeff Foxworthy (and you were worried this was going to be an idle diatribe about college rankings!).

I am confident we can all attest Foxworthy’s portfolio is impressive and wide-reaching, from The American Bible Challenge to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. What launched such success, brilliance, range and influence? Well, certainly his education at Georgia Tech did not hurt, but ultimately it was his astute ability to help others with effective, actionable self-realization. Foxworthy utilized extensive qualitative research to develop what is known in modern psychology as You might be a redneck. His approach was simple—systematically use “if – then” prompts to suggest indicators of this condition and help listeners self-diagnose.: If your family tree does not branch, then you might be a redneck. Valid and noted, sir.

I think many parents can use Jeff Foxworthy’s approach to take a pulse on how they’re doing. Ultimately, this litmus test comes down to pronouns.

  • If you’ve recently said, “We are taking the SAT next weekend” then you might be overly involved.
  • If you said to a friend in the bleachers last week, “Our first choice is Columbia” then you might be overly involved.
  • If, as your daughter was leaving for school the other day, you said, “Let’s ace that Calculus exam!” then you might be overly involved.

Shift from Parent to Partner

Listen, I get it. We’ve already established that “people love their kids” so your desire to help and see them thrive is absolutely commendable. But this spring is the right time to make an intentional shift from parent to partner. We talk a lot about this concept in our orientation and first-year programs. Stepping back (not away), changing pronouns, and providing opportunities to make practical, diurnal decisions before heading to college is critical.

If you have a high school senior, they are going to be on a campus somewhere in a few short months (grab some Kleenex, but keep reading). And once there, your student will face options and opportunities each day that you’ll never know about. Bolster your confidence in them now by stepping back and empowering them as they navigate this spring. If you have a junior or underclassmen, you can set a pattern now for your support and direction and control of the college admission process.

Going for a college visit soon? Let them find the hotel and make dinner reservations. Talk through the budget, the details on logistics, and what they’re wanting out of the trip beyond seeing the school.

Son was deferred by a college? He should be the one to reach out to his admission counselor or to verify that all necessary transcripts or supplements have been received.

Laundry/Credit Card bills? Who is taking care of those things? And who will during freshman year in college? Or who will when they’re 24? The time to provide opportunities to become more independent and more aware of limitations is now—while you are there to answer questions and give guidance.

I’m no Jeff Foxworthy but I am hoping you’ll take these prompts to heart, watch your pronouns, and seize the opportunity to start making that frightening yet crucial shift from parent to partner today.