Growing up, it was always a given that I would go to college. However, I'm not sure that there was ever a lot of thought put into just how exactly we were going to pay for my education. I guess you could say it was the elephant in the room, always lurking but never mentioned...
My parents didn't actively save for college, and there was no such thing as a 529 college savings plan or Upromise at that time. Things were further complicated when my stepfather had a stroke the summer before my junior year of high school. Anything extra went toward paying medical bills and to offset his lost wages while recovering.
Taking Matters Into My Own Hands
When I learned about a special plan offered through a branch of The Ohio State University, I decided to take matters into my own hands. During my senior year of high school, I could apply to take college courses for both college and high school credit. The program was state funded, right down to my textbooks and any other necessary supplies, and I took full advantage of it.
I took all of the courses that I could at OSU, along with AP History and Newspaper in the afternoons at my high school. When I graduated from high school, I had already completed enough college coursework to enroll as a sophomore at the school of my choice -- all FREE of charge!
I decided to stay at my local OSU branch for another year to save money, and then my junior year I enrolled at Ashland University, a private Ohio university, to complete my education. I sought out any financial aid I could find, and I was rewarded with numerous academic and art scholarships. But it wasn't nearly enough, so I took a job working third shift to contribute more... and it still wasn't enough.
Hard Work Pays Off
In May of 1997, I was the first in my family to graduate from college -- with a whopping $20k in student loans! That's a heavy burden to carry at barely 21 years old. I took advantage of the deferment plan a few times, and my mom and dad worked out an arrangement to split the debt three ways.
While that arrangement didn't quite end up being executed to plan (I estimate that I paid around 2/3 of the total when all was said and done), over time the total balance due decreased, albeit slowly.
It took 13 years to pay off my student loans, but I can't even put into words the satisfaction I felt writing out that final payment in January 2010. It was such an amazing feeling!
Upromise recently launched its "Financial Elephant in the Room Campaign" aimed at encouraging an open and honest conversation among families to address common financial worries and face them head on. According to a recent survey by Sallie Mae, one of the most common financial "elephants" is that families struggle to save for college.
Is this a conversation that you've had as a family, yet?
Why We're Not Saving College
Given my experience and the fact that we have five children who will all be entering college within a 6-year period, you'd probably guess that my husband and I would have savings accounts set up for each of them and that we'd be diligently saving for their college educations. So does it surprise you to learn that we don't, and we have no plans to? Coincidentally, we do have a free to join Upromise account, but beyond that, we're not actively saving...
You see, I learned a lot from my experience. Unlike many of my peers who viewed college as one big party, I was personally invested in my education and saw it as a privilege. Many of my friends whose parents were footing the bill had an air of entitlement about them, and I can tell you that many of them weren't there to receive their diplomas with me on graduation day, having either dropped out or not completed the required number of credits.
And that's not to say that we don't have a savings account, because we do. It's just not specifically earmarked for education. Our expectation is that all five of our children will be actively involved in paying for their college educations -- or whatever it is they decide to pursue after high school. The educational landscape is changing daily, and with the sheer amount of free resources online now, who knows what higher education will look like six years down the road when my oldest graduates from high school?
Regardless, we want them to have that personal accountability and to feel like they're investing in themselves, and we talk about our expectations often around the dinner table. There is no elephant in the room in our household -- we've been open and honest from day one. That's not to say that we won't assist them at all, because we will, but want them to learn the value of hard work and to value themselves starting now.
Of course, the decision on whether or not to save for college is highly personal. It's a decision that affects the entire family, and it's important to consider how saving for college will impact your family down the road. As such, I'd encourage you to start having a thoughtful and open discourse on it with your children from an early age. Don't let it become your "elephant in the room!"
If you're not familiar with Upromise, I want to introduce you to this great way to save a little extra. Upromise by Sallie Mae is a cash back rewards program. When you shop through Upromise, you'll receive a small percentage back (up to 5% back on eligible purchases) as a deposit into your Upromise account. However, instead of just receiving actual cash back, members can allocate their cash back earnings in several ways to help plan, save and pay for college.
Upromise members can:
- Transfer earnings to eligible 529 plans or high-yield savings accounts
- Apply earnings to eligible student loan repayment
- Request a check for cash for books and other expenses
- Split up earnings across multiple beneficiaries
If you haven't already registered for a Upromise account, I highly recommend it! It's a simple and easy way to save for college without drastically changing your spending habits, and you can even set it up so that family and friends can make contributions.
Join the #MyFinancialElephant Discussion
Upromise would love to hear your perspective on saving for college, as would I -- even if you vehemently disagree with our decisions. Share your financial "elephant in the room" with us on Facebook at bit.ly/UpromiseElephant, or on Twitter @Upromise, using the #MyFinancialElephant hashtag!
So let's hear it -- are you saving to foot the bill for college, or do you expect your children to actively contribute financially (some or all) to their higher education? And is this a topic that you discuss with your kids regularly?
This post is brought to you by Upromise. All opinions are 100% mine.