—“What should I have known then that I know now?”—
This was the tack I had to take when my good friend, a youth camp director, asked me to teach a breakout workshop for high schoolers about college finances. The campers, many of whom struggled to make sense of their options, had specifically requested the topic. As they all saw it, it only made sense to have a professional financial advisor dispense his wisdom. However, I found the task daunting. They had asked the wrong guy.
College-related finances was the one area of life in which I’d failed miserably.
You see, I had gone to college at seventeen, long on hormones and short on brains. When I drove away from home all those years ago I had no money and no real plans beyond arriving on campus… a campus I had not set foot on in a state I’d never seen. Once there I chose a major on a whim and stuck to it long after I lost interest in the careers it led to. I blindly signed whatever loan papers the advisors put in front of me, slaved away at a minimum wage job, and still barely managed to avoid the boot each semester for lack of money in my tuition account. Eventually I graduated “cumma sum lotta debta” and spent my first several years working my way up a career ladder alongside people who had spent far less on college–if they even had a degree—while suffering the consequences of high debt payments. Don’t get me wrong. I had a great experience all in all, but financially I couldn’t have done much worse.
Along the way I had seen many other decent and otherwise smart people kicked around by the college experience as well. Parents still paying their school bills as they sent their kids off to school. Successful professionals living like indentured servants. Dropouts ruing the day they enrolled. Baristas with advanced degrees. Friends denied mortgages, job offers, and security clearances because of Sallie Mae’s presence in their credit report. Others shocked (and jealous) that they earned less money as college graduates than their high school dropout friend earned as a plumber. Desk jockeys and cubicle rats sticking to jobs they hated because they had to justify the cost of the degree that got them there…
So initially I hemmed and hawed and volunteered to teach on other things I had better understandings of (anyone want to learn how to calculate the duration of a bond portfolio?). But the demand for any and every tidbit related to conquering tuition bills was fierce. These kids needed to know more than I did at their age. It made me think: as someone older and wiser, as a financial professional and graduate of the school of hard knocks, what would I do differently if I had the chance to go back – if I was in their shoes? How, just how, could they avoid the same sort of fates? I scoured my memory, made a few calls to college officials, and scanned for articles on the Internet well into the evening. The next morning I taught about all this newfound wisdom.
That little breakout session earned high praise and set me on fire to help as many young people as possible to avoid the unnecessary financial pain that has burdened so many others, including me. This has become a passion of mine with much of my free time spent researching, collaborating, picking apart success stories for nuggets of wisdom, presenting workshops to whomever will have me, and now penning a book.
All these years later I am quite convinced that despite relentless tuition increases it is still possible for just about any student to attend college without the incurrence of debt. It will take forethought, planning, and the application of several key tactics but with just a little extra effort you can enjoy a successful and affordable higher education experience.