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Mark Zaifman's thoughts on money, global economic trends and politics

The Best Way to Save Money on College Costs

Mark Zaifman   |    Thu, May 10, 2012 @ 02:42 PM

cutting college costs

One of my clients recently let me know that she and her husband were taking their kids on another international trip - this time to enroll them in college. I sent her the link to Maya Frost's blog about studying abroad. Maya's book The New Global Student, will give you creative ways to cut college costs while at the same time scratching your wanderlust itch.

The following article written by Maya Frost, appeared in the Spiritus newsletter in Jan 2010.


The Best Ways to Cut College Costs Now

by Maya Frost, January 2010

I often receive questions from parents regarding how to save for college, but lately, I’ve been getting emails from financial advisors.  They are looking for tips to pass along to their clients who are overwhelmed by the cost of educating their kids and ask me, "What’s the best way for families to save for college now?"

Unfortunately, this is an Old School question that, though still relevant, does not lead to the solutions that are helping savvy families give their kids a great education without spending a fortune.

Things are changing, and I wanted to find a financial advisor who is embracing a more progressive and holistic approach to finances in general.  I was especially delighted to connect with Mark Zaifman of Spiritus Financial.  I'd learned about Mark through Vicki Robin and her best-selling book, "Your Money or Your Life" which was published in the nineties and just re-issued with an updated edition.  My husband and I read this book years ago and it profoundly influenced our perspective on money and time and planted the seed for our big decision:  selling everything we owned in 2005 and leaving our suburban American lifestyle behind in order to move abroad with four teenage daughters.

The book offers steps to follow in order to gain a better understanding of our relationship with money and how it influences our lives. We benefited from the advice and played with ways to save even more.  In fact, we managed to save enough each month on our same mid-five figure annual income that we paid for four nearly-simultaneous college educations while living the life of our dreams abroad!

But as much as I am a fan of Your Money or Your Life, it doesn't really address what is often the most expensive period of life for adults--paying for their kids' education. Many families that pride themselves on remaining debt-free while their kids are young see no other option than to bite the bullet and take out loans in order to pay for college for their kids.

While ushering our girls through high school and into college in nontraditional ways, my husband and I stumbled upon some stunningly advantageous options that any U.S. student anywhere can leverage to leapfrog over those test-dazed classmates.  The new breed of global American students is gliding into the global economy at 19 or 20 with a red-hot U.S. or Canadian college diploma, sizzling 21st-century skills (including fluency in at least one foreign language), a blazing sense of direction, and NO DEBT.  Wanting to help other families find ways to completely avoid the angst and expense of the college prep process and discover the full range of accessible and affordable education opportunities, I wrote a book on the subject - The New Global Student:  Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education was published in May by Random House/Crown.

Parents need to understand that it may be a lot smarter to save on college than to save for college.  With tuition and other costs rising, portfolios shrinking and home values stagnating, a savings plan is helpful but certainly no guarantee of affordability. Families are beginning to look at the true value of education rather than simply scrimping and paying for what they’re told is best for their kids.

Times are changing—and our strategies for educating our children (and paying for that education) must change, as well. The traditional four-by-four model (4 years of high school followed by 4 years of college) is outdated.  That’s good news for both students who are rolling their eyes at the idea of spending five or six years in college and parents who are having heart palpitations thinking about paying for it.

The key to the Bold School approach—and the best way to reduce college costs—is to look for ways to blend and balance learning opportunities beginning in high school.  Through dual enrollment programs, IB diplomas or AP tests, many students are earning college credit while in high school.  Others are picking a more personalized path, getting a GED at 15 or 16 in order to enroll in college early or getting an associate’s degree by the time they receive their high school diploma.  Some are taking college courses, either online or in person, during their summers in high school and transferring to a four-year university at 18 as a junior. 

And it’s not just a matter of racing ahead to finish early—these students are using their time for meaningful experiences, such as spending a significant period of time abroad before the age of 18 (as exchange students or through extensive study/volunteer opportunities) in order to hardwire their brains for flexibility and language learning and develop a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. 

What they have in common is a clearer idea of their interests because they have been exposed to more options early on and have built momentum in their learning. 

One of the easiest ways to ensure that your son or daughter gets the most value out of their time in college is to compress it rather than extend it.  The average college student now takes more than five years to graduate and students no longer expect to graduate within four years.  As some college students have been known to say, graduating after four years is “like leaving the party at 10:30 p.m.”  But that’s a very expensive party and families need to understand that they do have options for reducing the length and cost of college while still giving students that full “college experience.”

Colleges contribute to the added length by not counseling students on how they can finish earlier and by making courses critical for graduation scarce, necessitating an extra semester or two to finish up.  In addition, many counselors, worried that students won’t be able to juggle their social life and their classes successfully, advise students to take a minimal load of courses each semester.  This may be helpful for some students, but for many, it establishes a pattern early on of spending more time on recreation than on studying, and reduces their expectations regarding the course load they can handle.  The truth is that most students find that they budget their time, get more accomplished, and get better grades when they have a full load rather than a lighter schedule.

Here’s what we can do to save money on college, help our kids develop a clear idea of their interests and enable them to graduate early while having transformational experiences along the way:

  • Shift from achievements to interests.   The focus during the high school years should be on developing interests and enthusiasm for learning rather than gaining a particular set of academic achievements.  This is crucial.  By the age of 16, students need to know how to find, understand and synthesis content.  They must be able to develop ideas of their own and research the heck out of them.  Students who spend years languishing in high school when they could be blasting forward are wasting the most critical period of their adolescent brain development. Kids should be on fire during these years, and as parents, it’s our job to help them come alive rather than simply plod along on a prescribed path.  A 17-year-old who can’t wait to learn more about his favorite subjects is going to be more successful in college and life in general than the 17-year-old who does what he is told in order to pass the test.  Make this shift in your focus, and your student will be one of those who dives into higher education with great enthusiasm—and graduates early.
  • Break free of four-by-four thinking.   The key is to look for ways to blend high school and college, getting credit along the way for a variety of learning opportunities and experiences that help our kids figure out what they’re good at, what interests them, and how they want to spend their time.  Students have a tremendous amount of freedom regarding how, where and what they study during the high school years and beyond.  But too often, we simply enroll them in a decent school and tell them to just take tough courses and graduate with good grades.  We need to question why we think the education we received twenty or more years ago is enough for our kids today, and stop assuming that any given school will have it covered. Remember how motivated you were to expose your son or daughter to a range of rich experiences when they were five years old?  What would happen if we took that same approach with our fifteen-year-olds instead of assuming that AP classes, sports practice and a part-time job could maximize their potential?
  • Release the idea that getting into a top school is a prerequisite for success.  There are new cracks in those ivy-covered walls.  The recession has shown that even those with the most sought-after degrees are not guaranteed a job upon graduation. Those who are resourceful enough to have designed their own best education in a variety of settings will be in a far better position to find work they love than those who are relying on the name on that college diploma or their connections to get their foot in the door.  Young adults who are not hampered by enormous student debt are free to take jobs that truly appeal to them rather than whatever pays the bills, and this leads to greater enthusiasm for work, more willingness to explore options and more excitement about their possibilities.  We need our kids to want to work diligently because they love what they do —that’s the winning combination that will lead to personal fulfillment and success.
  • Recognize that those who graduate early because they know what they love to do are also saving thousands of dollars.   They are not spending five or six years going to the same university—thanks to blending high school, college and study abroad, they may spend less than two years as full-time college students at their final degree-granting institution. By 19 or 20, they’ve got hip-deep experience, a college degree without debt, and tremendous enthusiasm about the next stage of their lives.  And when someone suggests that they might have “missed out” on that extra time in high school and college, they simply laugh—they know they’ve packed far more excitement and learning into their personalized education than their peers on the just-tell-me-when-I’m-done track.

I know that families are struggling to pay for college. I don’t have all the answers, and I think parents should run from anyone who claims they do.  But the fact remains that simply saving for college is no longer a proactive approach.  Selecting a smart blend of education options is more strategic and far more likely to give students the kind of education that is both personally enriching and professionally beneficial without breaking the bank.

Bottom line: be flexible and aware in order to see and seize the best opportunities available—and keep the focus on real value and sustainable growth.  That holds true for both finances and education.


Maya Frost is the author of The New Global Student:  Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education.


Image credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/sudhamshu/