Talk to your family about money

Why I do what I do

Last weekend I was fortunate to be one of the presenters at a college access workshop presented by Wonderworks, an enrichment program sponsored by Rice and the University of Houston. The pre-written text of my talk, called “Temporary Insanity: College Admission, American Style” is below. I welcome your comments and questions!

If I have time, I’ll explain what I do. The short version is that I write about college admissions, and you can read it all for free on applywithsanity.com whenever you like. I also take on individual consulting clients, but not a lot—I’m currently working with eight rising seniors.

But today I think it’s more important to talk about how I got here, why I do what I do. I’m still relatively new to this space—I’ve only been doing this for three years. Before that I was a high school teacher for 17 years.

My last nine years as a classroom teacher, I pretty much had my dream job. I taught AP Literature and AP Art History at a small magnet high school for gifted and talented students.  All my students were smart (not always perfect students, but always smart). All my students were college bound. My students, from all over the city, had a variety of backgrounds. It was, honestly, beautiful.

Because most of my students were seniors, I tried to be helpful with college admissions. I assigned a Common Application essay the first week of school to make sure everyone had a chance for professional feedback (and because it made me popular with parents). I had lots of one-on-one conversations with students about college, and I had lots of classroom discussions about the process. I started devoting more and more time and attention to college admissions because I saw how incredibly stressful and chaotic—overwhelming, sometimes—the whole process was to so many of my students. And these were some of the most prepared and best trained in Houston! Apply with Sanity gets its name from the insanity that I saw every year, especially in the spring.

When I was applying to college, slightly before the World Wide Web and long before College Confidential, I followed the pattern of a lot of my friends: I applied to four schools. I applied to my top two choices. I applied to the University of Texas, because it was cheaper and the application—which were all filled out by hand—only took about ten minutes. (It was also less impossible to get accepted to UT Austin in those days.) Then I took all the other schools that I’d heard of and thought were interesting that were far away and I’d never visited…and I picked one of them, almost randomly. There wasn’t the time or money or energy to apply to 20 colleges.

Things are different today. The internet makes information about any of the thousands of colleges readily available. The Common Application, Coalition Application, and Apply Texas can make it almost as easy to apply to 20 colleges as 2. Fee waivers sometimes make it as free to apply to 20 as 2. But I’m not here today to blame the internet or “kids these days.” When it comes to the insanity I saw, there was more than that.

Working with seniors going to college, I noticed several troubling patterns:

1. They didn’t have a plan. They had deadlines, and the vague and unhelpful goal of “getting into the best school they could.” But no real plan for how to get there. Sometimes they applied to schools they had little interest in, because they liked the representative who came to talk about the college or because a friend said it was a good school. The Common Application—especially with fee waivers—can make this way too easy. Sometimes they didn’t apply to schools they were really interested in that would have been good matches, just because they hadn’t managed their time well and missed a deadline. The most common way to alleviate these problems was just to apply to lots of schools. Cast a wide net and see what comes up. This approach often made the spring semester much more stressful than the fall. It turns out that getting 6 not-so-great acceptances isn’t better than getting one from a school that’s actually the right fit.

2. They wrote horrible essays. Ok, maybe not horrible. But mediocre, boring essays, which is not what college-bound gifted and talented students ought to be writing. And for admission at a selective university, a horrible essay and a mediocre essay are pretty much the same thing. The weird thing is that the college application essays, where you get to talk about yourself and your own experiences, were generally worse than their other writing the rest of the year. I really believe the problems with essays exemplify much larger issues.

Students were too focused on the prompt itself. They weren’t comfortable with an open-ended, “so tell me about yourself” prompt. They were more used to essay prompts with a clear objective. The personal writing prompts on college applications are open-ended, and people stuck in the “am I worthy” mindset don’t do well with open-ended prompts. So instead they wrote bland essays that answered the prompts in literal ways rather than taking the time—and the risk involved—to really divulge much of themselves.

Related to that is that too many college-bound high school students haven’t always given a lot of thought into who they are and what their aspirations are. Who they are is a top student. What they aspire to is to go to a good college. Outside of that, though, can be a problem. I read a book by a zen meditation teacher who said that one of the most difficult and liberating experiences you can have is to ask yourself earnestly and honestly “who am I?” and to answer earnestly and honestly “I don’t know.” That’s a great experience to have before college admissions season…or after. But to have that kind of crisis in the middle of admissions season makes for mediocre essays and a rough senior year.

3. They hadn’t discussed money with their parents. At all. I’m no longer at that high school, but I go back every year and do a workshop with them. Every year I ask the seniors “how many of you have an idea of what is affordable to your family, in dollar terms. How many of you have had that talk?” At most, a third raise their hands. Imagine making any other purchase this way. Imagine shopping for a car, or a home, or even a family vacation without having a firm idea of what your budget is. Imagine being asked to choose your top six choices for a car first, then finding out how much they cost, and lastly being told how much money you have to spend.

Part of this is built into the system. Everybody can see what the published price of a school is, and everyone knows that financial aid is available. But nobody knows what their financial aid offer will be until they’ve already applied and are accepted. There’s not a lot we can do about this.

Part of this is the student’s fault. Students are often scared to ask. Students have to be prepared to ask hard questions like “what’s our final number? What’s the most you’ll be able to pay to help? What’s the most that I should feel ok borrowing? Can you tell me how you arrived at those numbers? Can you walk me through your taxes?” These are incredibly difficult and scary questions to ask, but asking them can make a lot of the process much less difficult and scary. You have to start early, because it’s going to take several conversations before you get where you need to be.

Part of this—most of it, I think—is on parents. Parents can help by giving honest estimates of what’s affordable and providing evidence to make their child feel comfortable that it’s accurate. The two extremes are common from parents, and they’re the worst. If all a parent says is “we’ll take care of it, don’t worry,” that kid is going to worry. They either don’t believe that you actually have a few extra hundred thousand dollars sitting around, or they can’t believe you’ve been holding back all their life. If all a parent says is “we can’t afford it, you have to get scholarships,” students don’t always know what that means. “What happens if the FAFSA says that you should pay more than nothing? Will that mean I’m not going to college? Does ‘we can’t afford it’ mean that my family is much worse off financially than I thought, and I’m being selfish even thinking about college? Does it mean that my family isn’t as willing to sacrifice for me as I thought?” The repercussions can be much wider and deeper than we think. I’m a parent, too, so I understand how weird this can feel. But we have to do it. We’re going to have that discussion sooner or later, when it’s time to actually choose a school and pay, so it’s better to have it sooner.

Those are the main causes of the insanity of the process. Going into a major life decision with no plan, no idea if you can afford it, and a mindset that’s completely opposite of what it should be? And then punting on arguably the most important part of the application, the essay where you get to show your humanity? That will make you crazy, at least temporarily.

The good news is that most students make it out…fine. The spring, when you have your choices and their costs laid out for you, is difficult. Students often feel a mix of elation and defeat, even when they’re going off to college in the fall. A number of my students switched colleges after their first year, but few dropped out. It will be fine.

Apply with Sanity is based on the idea that, with some planning and fore-thought, we can do a lot better that fine. Thank you.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Angela Elisabeth.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.

Summer homework

Summer homework

A few years ago The Atlantic published this article by Joe Pinsker titled "Rich Kids Study English." It's a really fascinating piece that I hope you'll take the time to read, but here's the main idea: "the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward 'useful' majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts." Hence the title. Pinsker looks at several explanations and unanswered questions about this connection with having wealthier parents and choosing lower-paying career paths. "It’s speculative," he says, "but richer students might be going on to take lower-paying jobs because they have the knowledge that their parents’ money will arrive eventually."

While the premise makes sense--if your family has more money and support then you can afford not to worry about paychecks as much when choosing your college classes--it's not the full picture.

Thinking about scholarships, part one

Thinking about scholarships, part one

The whole college admissions process—choosing which colleges to apply to, completing the applications, waiting for responses, and making your final choice—is often overwhelming. Figuring out how to pay for college is even more overwhelming. We’re aware that there are scholarships available, but we don’t always know how to find them, how to evaluate them, how to apply for them, and even if they’re actually worth it. There’s a lot of complexity, and each individual’s situation is different, so it’s difficult to make a few simple rules for everyone to follow.

Results from my student survey

Results from my student survey

Last week I spent two days talking to seniors at Carnegie Vanguard High School during their English class. We talked about what colleges are looking for in applicants, how the different parts of an application work together, and how colleges actually process all those applications. The students also had tons of really great questions.

But first, I had some questions for them. Before our talk, I asked them to fill out a quick questionnaire. Here are the questions I asked and some comments on their responses. If you’re working with college-bound students—either in a school setting, as a parent, or because you are a college-bound student yourself—this may be useful for you.

Some fun financial exercises

Some fun financial exercises

Everyone knows that college is expensive. There are plenty of universities whose full published price is higher than the median family income in America. The numbers can be so big that they're hard to imagine and even harder to make realistic decisions about. So here's an exercise I do with most of my consulting clients. You can do this at home with your family.

Getting good advice from your family

Getting good advice from your family

I was a little surprised to read last week that the people who have the most influence on high school students' college decisions is their parents. (You can read the full Department of Education report here.) For an example of why I found that surprising, consider that a friend told me that the number one question his high schooler son asks him about college is "why do you keep talking to me about college?" But it also makes sense, because your parents have been talking to you about college, directly or indirectly, like it or not, a lot longer than anyone else has. Unless you're going to completely ignore your family and go straight to the second-largest influence, "myself," you can get the most wisdom from what your family says to you.

How would I change admissions?

How would I change admissions?

I spend my time reading and thinking about college admissions from a certain viewpoint--high school students. I rarely think about parents' perspectives or colleges' perspectives. I help out with the demand part of the equation. But what about the supply side? If I could advise colleges to make their search for top-notch students more efficient and effective, what would I tell them? How would I design the college admissions game?

If I could magically change the whole system, I would basically make it a two-cycle year.

What are scholarships good for?

What are scholarships good for?

Early this October, as I was sitting in on a meeting of College Possible coaches, the program coordinator specializing in scholarships brought up this amazing stat: When their students got some sort of scholarship, 93% graduated college within six years. When there was no scholarship, only 45% graduated in six years. This is based on College Possible Minnesota's 2008 cohort, meaning their participating students who graduated high school in 2008 and have been tracked since then. So even with all the coaching and support that all College Possible students receive, getting a scholarship more than doubles their odds of graduating. This doesn't just mean "full ride" scholarships that pay for all of college, but any type of scholarship that helps make college cheaper. 

Statistics rarely have stories or explanations, so it's up to us to brainstorm some reasons why getting even a small scholarship can increase your success so dramatically.

Another money question for you

Another money question for you

Imagine that I have three pieces of paper, and you can steal one of them from me without me knowing.

The first is a hundred dollar bill. You take it from me, you have an extra hundred bucks, game over.

The second is a lottery ticket with 50 numbers for the next Powerball drawing (they cost $2 each, so it costs $100 total). The jackpot is $100 million. If you take this, you'll probably get nothing. Or you may get a little bit of money. But you just might (a roughly 1 in 292 million chance) win a hundred million dollars. If you win the big jackpot, there's a risk that I will accuse you of stealing the ticket from me, but that would be very difficult to prove. And that would only be likely if you win the big one. You'd probably get away with it.

The third is a bank statement that includes my account number and password. If you steal this, you'll have access to (probably) more than $100 but (almost certainly) less than $100 million. But getting the money from me will take more work, and it also has an increased risk of me or my bank catching you. If you know the right...or in this case wrong...people, you could probably sell the data to someone else and let them deal with it.

Which would you choose? Why?

This one's for Houston

This one's for Houston

But maybe you're out of the most direct danger and wondering what this means for your financial aid. Maybe, on top of the distress of 20 trillion or so gallons of water being poured on our area and entire neighborhoods being destroyed, you've realized that what's going to help your family get through this is spending your college savings on something other than college.

Don't just get in to college, finish it.

Don't just get in to college, finish it.

But the advice, which is really good and worth your time, is aimed at students about to begin their first year of college. What can you do as a high school student to make sure you're ready for the transition and to stay in college until you've earned your degree?

A summer homework assignment

A summer homework assignment

Last week The Atlantic published this article by Joe Pinsker titled "Rich Kids Study English." It's a really fascinating piece that I hope you'll take the time to read, but here's the main idea: "the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward 'useful' majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts."

Thinking about supply and demand

Thinking about supply and demand

If you only read the major news headlines, you might think that there's too much demand for universities and not enough supply. The news is dominated by stories about the really, really low acceptance rates at places like Harvard and Stanford. But the reality is often the opposite: most colleges are trying to get people in, not keep them out.

Thinking about debt

Thinking about debt

As seniors work through their final weeks of deciding where they'll go to college before the May 1 deadline, I want to acknowledge that money probably plays a big role in the decision and write some posts about financial matters.

Last week I talked about Return on Investment, and this week I want to talk about student loans. No matter where you go to college and how good a financial aid package you get, there's a really strong chance you'll be taking out some loans.

Two approaches to getting waitlisted

Two approaches to getting waitlisted

You can't refuse to make other plans hoping that you'll hear back from the school that waitlisted you. Depending on the college and the year (even if you look up their statistics from last year, they may be wildly different this year), your chances of hearing good news later are either slim, very slim, or maddeningly slim. You have to move on. 

Somewhere in your mind, though, you'll keep wondering what to do if it turns out you actually are one of the rare few who gets a spot later. Let's go over two different approaches to dealing with that possibility so it doesn't add anxiety to all your days between now and September.