Parents with more than three or four children are frequently asked, often quite pointedly, how are you going to send them all to college? As the mother of nine, I have fielded my share of those questions over the years. Now that our six oldest children have graduated from high school, my perspective is quite a bit clearer. Our sixth is in her sophomore year at Indiana Purdue, Fort Wayne campus; the first five have already graduated college. Five of six have received Chancellor's scholarships, IPFW's top honor scholarship. My answer to, "How are you going to send them all to college?" is much more confident--Debt free!
Several years ago, as we began researching the funding of higher education for our older children, my husband Ron became convinced that the principles of debt-free living also apply to this area. As he puts it, choosing a college is a cost-benefit decision. He is very adverse to young adults graduating with significant debt. It's bad for their future family life because of the constant financial stress; or the wife needs to put off childbearing as she works; or young children are put into day care. How much better if each spouse enters marriage with an education and money in the bank!
Here are some thoughts for young people and their parents, if debt-free college appeals to you. I offer them as a former student who lived away from home; as a parent of adult, college age children; as a tenured (but part-time) faculty member of a state university for 30 years; and as the wife of a prudent financial manager-many of these views I've learned from him.
- Be sure that college really is the right choice. A trade through apprenticeship or trade school might be a far better choice for a young person with the appropriate aptitude or skills.
- Consider whether or not the "market value" of a degree from a selective, expensive, far- off college is actually worth it. While almost all of these schools have substantial aid packages available to good students, all too much of the aid is in the form of loans. Perhaps 80% of the value of an undergraduate degree to starting a career is in the degree itself, no matter what the school. The selective, expensive, far-away school may add another 20%. Consider giving up that 20% to stay out of debt.
- Work hard on your high school studies, with the goal of earning scholarship awards. Make the senior year the crowning effort of homeschooling, not a year of coasting along. Time spent studying in high school will pay off many times over with scholarship money. Time spent instead at a part-time job will never yield a fraction of the return that time spent studying will. And time spent studying in high school will be a significant factor in insuring that your scholarship gets renewed each year.
- Attend a school to which you can commute. Living at home is far cheaper than living in a dorm. Having lived in dorms with a 24-hour open house, we are aware that there is far more to be saved than mere money by living at home. Parents whose children live at home during their college years contribute substantially to their children's education, with little additional financial burden to themselves. Parents who are able to offer the use of a car to older children, as we have done, can further cut their children's expenses. To those who believe that going away to school is a "growing up" experience, we maintain that a dorm is a most unnatural environment for an able-bodied adult. It should be used only as it was in the past i.e. reserved for the educational opportunity that is far from home. A mission trip to a foreign country is one example of an opportunity for a young person to try his wings away from home in a situation that inherently will test and develop his maturity. The truth is, most young people of this culture are not equipped to leave home at age 18. Should a young person leave home before he has the means to support himself? We see age 21 or 22 as a time of far more maturity and readiness in this culture.
- Work summers and during the school year. As a rule of thumb, though, do not work more than 20 hours per week if you are enrolled in college full time; 15 hours a week is probably a prudent maximum for most.
- Plan to save money as you attend school. Invest it.
- Make it a firm goal to complete your undergraduate education in four years. The biggest hurdle to doing so is changing your major. If you are undecided about a major, declare general studies or liberal studies, and take solid courses in writing, speech, accounting, computing, and other areas according to your interests. Should you declare a more specific major, many credits will be applicable. Or, you may actually be able to attain your new goal while remaining in the general major, simply by having key major courses in your new area. A specific major when you are uncertain can cause a real setback if you change directions.
- Related to the above, test out of classes through "CLEP" tests. The College Level Examination Program is a national testing service. The student takes standardized tests over college subjects; if he achieves the level required for the college from which he wishes to graduate, these credits can be applied towards the degree. Before they entered IPFW, each of our two oldest children earned 18 credits through the CLEP tests in history, American and English literature, trigonometry, and so forth. Each test costs about $100; taking a three-college-credit course costs about $750 at IPFW (2013). Many schools also permit you to "challenge a course" that is, to take the tests only and obtain credit without cost.
- Make the most of your education. Even in typical secular schools, excellent, dedicated, gifted instructors are not hard to find. Here's how to find them: First, make it a habit to ask other students about their favorite class or instructor. Students are the best judges of who's good and who's not. It's the perfect conversation icebreaker as you meet other students in your classes: Are you taking any really great courses? Keep an informal file of names and impressions for future reference. Second, visit potential course instructors during their office hours. Ask about the course. Ask for a syllabus. Third, over-schedule and drop poor classes. Fourth, take the best instructors for elective courses, even if they teach courses that are out of your area of interest. You will not regret it.
- Join a Christian fellowship group. On a commuter campus, they are likely the most functional social group around. Off-campus, get involved in pro-life, church-related, or political activism. You don't need a dorm to find like-minded friends.
- Consider graduate school as a time to go to a school that is a good "fit." Many teaching and research assistantships are available in grad school; the financial structure is much more geared to students living independently of their parents.
- Ron and I will admit readily that the excellent Christian colleges attract us as we think about our children and their future. We admire and support those families and students who are seeing their way to them. For families like ours, however, in which the finances will not permit debt-free Christian education, we are very content that our children are able to attend college while living within their means. ___________________________________________________________________________
Two good pieces of advice we got long before the children went to college:
- A very good Christian college, or feet under the table every night! The second option is far cheaper!
- A young person will make far more money with scholarships than he or she will with high school employment. The best use of time for a college-bound high school student is studying, with just enough employment to gain skills and show future employers that you know how to hold a job.