Is Graduating Debt-Free From College Even Possible?
Q: My husband and I are more concerned everyday about how we are going to help our children get through college without burying themselves in debt. It’s starting to be similar to the costs of buying a house! What can we do to help our kids graduate with as little debt as possible?
A: I share your concern! Forbes reports that the projected costs of a 4-year degree from an elite college can run as high as $334,000 … and that’s assuming the kids make it out in 4 years! Strategies exist for cutting those costs if you really work at it. Not long ago, my wife and I proudly watched one of our sons graduate from the University of Georgia – debt free. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is possible.
As I wrote in this column last week, before you make an investment in a college education, take some steps to be sure that you are in a field of study that is suited to your unique and God-given design. Too many students increase the costs of their educations by switching their majors and adding years to their schooling.Borderzine.com reports, "About 80 percent of students in the United States end up changing their major at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On average, college students change their major at least three times over the course of their college career."
Time is money, when it comes to a degree. And time spent effectively in the high school years, can save thousands of dollars in college tuition fees.
I strongly encourage parents to enroll their children in as many high school AP (Advanced Placement) classes as possible – classes that can also be counted for college credit. These classes, available at most high schools, often have more homework and a test you pay for at the conclusion (in the neighborhood of $100), but if the college your child attends accepts AP credits, you can save thousands per class and shorten your child’s time in college. Along these lines, get basic coursework out of the way at a local community college during summer breaks. Such classes provide real value, and allow your child to focus on the more specialized classes in their major when attending a more expensive school.
Once you’ve chosen a college, explore whether your child can also “CLEP” out of some classes by participating in the College Level Examination Program. This allows you to buy a study guide and to test out of some graduation requirements. Usually, this won’t work for classes in a major, but if your child dreams of never taking another math or science class, CLEP may make their dreams come true! You probably will pay a fee for the test, but again, it can save the time and money of an entire course of study.
While still in high school, your children need to understand that with their high school grades and ACT or SAT scores, they are building a case for scholarships. Encourage your students (when they complain of how bored they are in high school) with the fact that good grades can equal scholarships and grants -- money they don’t need to pay back. Good grades, literally, can become cash in the bank. In addition, each school usually has special scholarships and grants you should explore based on their chosen degree, so explore the website of their chosen school. I have always told my boys that good grades are the best paying job you can get in high school.
Another helpful way to save money is to put your children’s online, social media skills to work looking more broadly for scholarship monies and opportunities. The daughter of a friend of mine actually won scholarship money by writing an essay for a cement lobby she saw advertised online. She built her college bank account with a few well-chosen words on the construction industry. All kinds of retailers – from grocery stores to sports equipment – have money to give away. Go get it!
Still, I highly recommend that no matter what your major is in college, try to minor (or at least take some classes) related to money. Assuming that your child’s college education results in a job, I highly recommend that they include an economics or personal finance course in their schedules. Financial education is woefully inadequate in American high schools. The Council for Economic Education has found that only 17 states require some kind of personal finance instruction to graduate from high school, with only six of those actually requiring students to pass a test. Crown also has some helpful tools for building a functional budget. It’s never too soon to show your children how a paycheck must be broken down to cover obligations and invest in dreams.
And don’t forget that your children can go to work to get money for school, and may even consider joining the military to cover the costs. I know that I worked in college, learning the important skills of balancing work and study. Working students fare better in college than non-working students.
I hope what you’ve learned in this column so far is that there is a lot that our children can do to take control of their college costs and to invest in their own futures. This is not your burden alone. But if you are wondering about how parents can prepare, I recommend you consider a 529 savings plan or other tax savings options.
This is one of the best-kept secrets of college preparations. In fact, 72 percent of people told financial firm Edward Jones that they had no idea what kinds of plans these are. A 529 savings plan allows you to set aside monies, pre-tax, for your children’s future college expenses. But I would advise you to save in other kinds of financial products as well.
Take comfort in the fact that all of this takes some time. Proverbs 21:5 observes, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.”
When it comes to funding college, there is no silver bullet. Like buying your first home or setting up a business, it takes work, savings and effort.