Pippa is a junior in high school so she is naturally thinking about her life after graduation. As her parents, we aren’t exactly casual observers.
She is closing in on adulthood, so increasingly we want her to make the important decisions about her future.
And as her parents, we are beyond the point where we are going to make her do anything. Ours is more of a sales role now. We have things we think she should do, but it’s up to us to convince her of it, and up to her to agree or to go in a different direction.
Nora is from a long line of educators and she works in a school, so naturally she wants Pippa to go to college. So do I.
But what type of college is up to her. Nora would be thrilled if she went to plumbing school. “I really think trades are an under-considered career choice,” she says. “They are in high demand, pay well, and you can’t outsource the repair of a burst pipe to China.”
She’s even subtly mentioned the possibility of taking a gap year, or a one year break between high school and college. It’s popular in the UK and if done well, it can be a great opportunity to be immersed in an Israeli kibbutz, or work an Everest base camp, or teach English in Slovenia.
Normally I wouldn’t endorse such a notion because too many gap years turn into gap decades and gap lives, but Pippa is 9 out of 10 on the responsible scale, so I don’t picture that happening.
Clueless in Baltimore
Picking a college is hard enough if you know what you want to study, but Pippa doesn’t have that privilege. I don’t blame her – I didn’t know what I wanted to do in high school either. Nor in college for that matter.
So we search for college types. Small. Coed. Liberal Arts. Strong STEM Program. Competitive. Far enough away that we can’t visit, but close enough that she can come home for Spring Break if she wants to.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it too. Small competitive liberal arts schools are expensive!
That’s true – the top 30 colleges in the US are all over $60k per year when you include room and board. The most expensive is Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, which is $70k.
Here are a few things we are doing to minimize cost:
1. Apply to Oodles of Schools Regardless of Cost
This seems counter-intuitive, but some of the most expensive schools can be the cheapest. Hardly anyone pays full ticket price, unless your surname is Buffett or Walton.
And sometimes they don’t either. The most elite schools care deeply about diversity and will offer huge scholarships to ensure it. This means ethnic diversity (worth bubkiss to us), but also economic diversity (probs more bubkiss) and diversity of talent (a tiny glint of hope – Pippa is a good student).
Also on the likely-to-apply list are schools that actually are affordable, even at full cost, like Maryland schools charging in-state tuition. The University of Maryland System’s ‘Honors College’ – St. Mary’s College of Maryland – is $27k, inclusive of room and board.
Pippa might also apply to a Christian college or two. She has visited Messiah and Wheaton Colleges. These aren’t as expensive as the elites – they run about $45k total – but also don’t have massive endowments and aren’t as likely to offer as much aid as a Williams or an Amherst.
Then there’s the Middle East. Yes, I said Middle East. A handful of big name U.S. schools have set up shop in Abu Dhabi (NYU) and Doha (Cornell) and Dubai (Michigan State) and they are desperate for American students.
We know a Maryland student who landed a 4-year free ride at one of these schools, just for being a strong student. How did this girl know she would be happy going to college in the ‘cradle of civilization’ on the other side of the world? When she was weighing her options, NYU Abu Dhabi flew her there for free.
It’s inexpensive to apply to lots of colleges and the common app makes it easy, so it’s worth knocking on a lot of doors. You never know who will value you most, and deliver the best package.
2. Look for Scholarships Like an Owl Looks for Mice
Since Nora works in a school, she hears about some scholarships that aren’t what you might call mainstream. You know, like the Waukesha County Dairy Board’s Milk Queen scholarship. I just made that up, but I didn’t have to – there are plenty of under-the-radar opportunities out there.
The key is to find the ideal combination of size and obscurity and barrier to entry. If the scholarship is too large and it’s promoted too well and it’s too easy to apply, too many students throw their hat in the ring and the chance of winning approaches zero. The ideal scenario is a 4-year full-ride scholarship that no one has heard of and the application requires 5 in-depth essays and a large-scale weaving of a year’s worth of your belly button lint.
Nora came close – she came home with an application for The Coolidge Scholarship, which covers a student’s tuition, room, board, and expenses for four years of undergraduate study at any accredited college or university in the U.S.
There are only 2-3 recipients each year, but one requirement of application is to read The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. That’s the type of barrier to entry I’m talking about! If you are a teenager that can make it all the way through this tome without falling out of bed, then that’s an accomplishment in itself.
Pippa applied to Coolidge and is still waiting to hear back. I’m not holding my breath, but I feel much better about her chances than if she bought a mega millions ticket.
3. Faithfully Fund 529 Plan
We contribute $250 a month to Pippa’s tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan, and another $250 to Grey’s. We started way too late so there isn’t much in each fund, but better late than never.
And with the new tax law now allowing up to $10,000 of 529 funds to be used annually for private school financing from elementary through high school, there is more reason than ever to participate.
4. Scrimp on Standardized Test Prep
After the high school transcript, test scores are the most important component of a college application. Except for the small number of schools where admissions is test optional.
Like most things, there is a balance here in prepping Pippa to take the SAT and ACT – we want to scrimp on cost while not crimping her chances of doing well.
SAT prep tutoring can easy cost $100 an hour, with a class from Princeton Review or Kaplan running into the thousands of dollars.
For me, assuming you have a strong school background, nothing beats practice. I remember when my mom and I used to sit side by side in the dining room, doing one practice test after another.
I do the same with Pippa, utilizing both workbooks (cheap) and Khan Academy (free). My participation keeps her motivated and competitively engaged. In the math sections, she smokes me, as I’ve forgotten all of the advanced formulas and concepts. In reading comprehension and grammar, I generally hold my own. As you can see, she’s not the only one who is competitive.
Here’s where we aren’t minimizing costs:
1. Pippa’s High School Education
You can read more about how we’ve spent over $250k on tuition for Pippa and her brother Grey. It’s not just about a bullet-proof transcript – it’s about developing a well-rounded child in a nurturing environment, and giving them a leg up on life, regardless of what they do after high school.
2. Visiting Colleges
You can look at viewbooks and websites until you are blue in the face, but it’s all meaningless until you step foot on campus and talk to real students (and not just the ones quoted in the marketing fliers).
During spring break two weeks ago, Pippa and I drove to the midwest to visit 5 colleges in 6 days. It was a brutal drive, but it gave her a much better feel for these schools. And it gave both of us indelible memories.
The search for deep dish pizza in Chicago, and finding an out-of-the-way joint that offers exotic slices by the pound.
Pippa navigating through a driving snowstorm in St. Paul on a learner’s permit, not fully aware of the peril she was in (until we started to see cars abandoned in ditches).
Pippa discovering a shower gel in a tiny house Airbnb that felt like “the elixir of 1,000 moons,” then being disappointed to learn it was lifted from a resort, and not commercially available.
Pippa embracing the cold – and her inner unicorn – in Northfield, MN, the home of St. Olaf College, Carleton College, and a huge Malt-O-Meal factory.
And of course, searching for dirt-cheap hotels, and finding one (Econo Lodge) that didn’t bother supplying a shower curtain, and another (America’s Best Value Inn) that had more mysterious stains than a toddler’s clothes after a wild birthday pizza party. I didn’t remove my shoes until I was in bed that night.
We might splurge on the number of college tours, but we wouldn’t think to skip the dive hotels.
After all, we need to get Pippa ready for freshman dorm life, where I wouldn’t let my bare feet touch the floors either.