What Did We Learn in College?

Fall term is in the books and we’ve learned quite a bit about college! Having the kids home for the holidays meant not just lots of fun family time but also an opportunity to catch up with their friends and hear about their college experiences. Now that they’re back in school, I’ve had a chance to digest some of the stories. Some things we’ve learned:

College is harder than high school! Surprisingly, it was the kids in liberal arts programs—not those on STEM tracks—who consistently said that college is harder than high school. Most who felt that way pointed to the heavy reading load, which is a huge change from most high school English classes.

College is easier than high school! Those who had taken a lot of IB classes felt very well-prepared for college. Most said that their high school writing class was harder than the same college class, in terms of both work load and grading. We heard that from kids who attended several different high schools and are now at various colleges. (I would assume the same for AP classes; however, all the students who mentioned this had taken IB.)

Meal plans tend to end up providing more than you need, but they still save you money. One reason is that meal plans aren’t subject to sales tax, whereas paying cash for your meals in the dining halls usually means you do pay sales tax. We signed Alex up for the middle meal plan option, which equates to about 2 meals per day, and he finished the semester with about $600 in unspent funds. (Fortunately this carries over to subsequent school years, which seems to be typical at most schools that have value-based plans.) Between the free pizza that’s offered just about everywhere to get kids to participate in activities and never eating breakfast on campus, it’s pretty easy for students to get by with minimal meal plans. Something to remember when you sign up: typically you’re allowed to upgrade if you haven’t signed up for enough, but not to downgrade if you’re not using what you signed up for, so make sure to be clear on the meal plan terms including whether you can carry over a balance into the next school year.

You have to opt-in to a social life. Every school is different in this regard, in terms of both what activities are available and how students participate in them. You may need to sign up or you might just need to show up, but even in situations where everyone who shows up gets to play, you still have to show up. Why does this matter? Because not finding “your people” is a pretty common reason why students end up transferring, and transferring can be costly. Chances are good that whatever your thing is, you can find a group that does it. Alternatively, academic residential communities, Greek life and on-campus jobs can all help students to engage.

Trying to be a “cool” roommate can be very costly. Students whose roommates engage in criminal or self-destructive behavior can pay the price, too, especially if they don’t report it to one of available resources. One student was evicted and permanently barred from university housing because his roommate had drugs in the room. He hadn’t reported the roommate’s drug use on the assumption that everyone knew; however, when the drug-using roommate was evicted he did not claim all of the drugs as his own, leaving the onus on the non-user to prove his innocence. In another situation, a student’s self-destructive behavior eventually spilled over into behavior that was harmful to her roommate. However, because the roommate had never discussed the situation with anyone, resolving it took quite a bit more time than might have been the case had she brought the issues to her RA immediately.

There are lots of opportunities to cut your college costs, many of which you won’t find out about until you get to school. At my son’s school, students who work in the dining halls get discounted meals. At my daughter’s, students who volunteer to organize the dorm’s weekly study break get a discount on their housing costs. We heard of numerous other insider tips from friends, so you should ask around at your school.

What Year? (2020 Edition)

It’s hard keeping track of what matters when in the prior-prior year world of the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Here is a table summarizing tax year and asset dates for the next few college years:

School Year 2020-2021 2021-2022 2022-2023 2023-2024 2024-2025 2025-2026 2026-2027
FAFSA/ PROFILE Income Tax Year 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
Assets As Of Oct* 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025
AOTC Tax Year** 2020, 2021 2021, 2022 2022, 2023 2023, 2024 2024, 2025 2025, 2026 2026, 2027

To summarize based on where you are in high school: Continue reading What Year? (2020 Edition)

Thinking of Transferring? Think Fast

If your student came home for the holidays unenthusiastic about their school and considering transferring, your first impulse might be to tell them to tough it out for the year and reconsider come summer. While that’s probably good parenting advice, it might not be good financial advice. In fact, students who are thinking of transferring are usually best off making the decision sooner rather than later.

Why? Because most schools offer substantially larger financial aid packages to incoming freshmen than to transfer students, and only those with less than a set number of post-high school credits qualify as incoming freshmen. Furthermore, once students have accumulated a certain number of college credits, their transfer application is based on their college GPA, not high school. A student who did well in high school but then underperformed in college will probably want their high school GPA to be the basis of an admissions decision.

The differences can be huge. For example, the highest merit award for incoming freshmen at the University of Oregon is $15,000 annually (a student receiving the Summit and Presidential award), and those scholarships renew automatically for four years. Transfer students, on the other hand, are eligible for a maximum of $3,000 in merit aid and must reapply every year. Similarly, the University of Florida offers up to $10,000 in merit aid to freshmen; as for transfer students, “While the Office of Admissions does not offer scholarship opportunities for transfer students, there are two scholarships offered by the Office of Undergraduate Affairs dedicated to Florida College Transfers.” These are a maximum of $4,000 and offered to a total of 12 students, with only two receiving the maximum $4,000 award.

If your student is thinking of transferring, they should research transfer vs freshman requirements and financial aid eligibility at the school they’d like to transfer to ASAP because this is one instance where a quick decision is often the best decision.

Establishing Credit for Your Student

It’s probably a good thing that today’s students, unlike their parents, are more likely to be handed a free t-shirt than a new credit card as they walk across campus. For students graduating in the 1980s and 1990s, credit card debt was a more likely millstone than student loans. Rules that went into effect in 2010 drastically reduced students’ access to credit cards. Continue reading Establishing Credit for Your Student

Cost of Attendance: What’s Included?

Among the apples-to-grapefruit aspects of planning for college costs is the substantial differences in what’s included in Cost of Attendance at different schools. All schools will quote costs for tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and personal expenses. But often, those are just a starting point. Continue reading Cost of Attendance: What’s Included?

Retirement Contributions and College

Perhaps the most frequently asked question we get is how to balance saving for retirement and college. And I can’t answer that in a blog post because the right way to balance depends on your specific circumstances. We have told clients to pause retirement savings to meet college years cash flow needs, we have told clients to stop funding college and focus exclusively on retirement, and everything in between. What I can do is help you to understand how retirement savings impact college. Continue reading Retirement Contributions and College

2020 Rhodes Scholars

What do Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, University of Connecticut, University of Oklahoma, Ohio State, Washington & Lee, Notre Dame and Michigan State have in common? Each had a student selected as one of this year’s Rhodes Scholars. The Rhodes Scholarship is arguably the most prestigious and competitive scholarship available to American students, and the size and diversity of the applicant pool– over 2,900 students endorsed by 298 different colleges and universities– speaks to the academic and leadership excellence of the 32 selected students.

It’s also testimony to the fact that you do not need to attend an expensive or reach school to compete at this level: 1/4 of these scholars attend public universities that admit more than 50% of applicants, according to College Navigator.