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September 20, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 86

How Do I Pay For College Without Going Broke? Special Guest: Author Ron Lieber

Episode 86

College can be incredibly expensive, so how should parents think about covering the cost? What do we say to our kids about what we can, or are willing, to pay? How do you make the most of 529 plans? Dr. Lisa and Reena tackle these questions and more with special guest Ron Lieber, author of The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make.

September 20, 2022 | 45 min

Transcript | How Do I Pay For College Without Going Broke? Special Guest: Author Ron Lieber

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 86: How Do I Pay For College Without Going Broke?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.

 

REENA: Alright, I was very emotional for you. I am dying to know how did college drop-off go?

 

LISA: It went well, Reena, it went well. And I will tell you like, I got the saddest the last night we were home before we took her. I’d sort of been holding it together pretty well and we had a long to-do list, and the night before we left to drive her to college we went to dinner with my in-laws and my husband’s sister and that was the last thing on the to-do list before taking my kid to college. And as soon as we came home from that I just got this huge wave of sadness. I think all of the to-dos had held that at bay for a while, and I got sad and weepy, and I was weepy as I like kissed her goodnight, you know, the last night sleeping in her bed under these particular conditions. And then we were okay. Like we got up, we got in the car, we dropped her off. She seems to be doing great, texting is fabulous. It lets us stay in touch without overwhelming her. You know, can give us a quick touch, a quick hit. I sent her darling photos of her little sister; she always responds to those. So if I really need to know that she’s alive I’ll send her a cute picture of her sister. So, so far, so good. 

 

REENA: Aww. Well, my eyes are watering just thinking about it, I’m so emotional when people, it’s like a new stage of life. But it seems like this was such a special year because I think a lot of parents are happy to see their kids finally be able to get off into the world in a way that you probably couldn’t have imagined.

 

LISA: Yeah, and I was really grateful for her on the timing, just in terms of where COVID is, it made me that much sadder for kids in the last couple of cohorts to be able to do a normal drop-off with her. 

 

REENA: Right, what a big deal. Well you know what else makes me cry, is the idea of paying for college.

 

LISA: You said it. 

 

REENA: So I am so excited to welcome our next guest who’s a friend of the podcast. We’ve got Ron Lieber, who’s the author of “The Price you Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make.” Ron has been the Your Money columnist for the New York Times since 2008, he’s written a personal finance column for the Wall Street Journal, and is also the author of “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money,” that was an instant New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller when it was released back in 2015. Ron, welcome. 

 

RON: Thank you for having me. 

 

LISA: We’re absolutely delighted, your work on families and finances and money is really quite unparalleled and we’re just honored to have you join us. 

 

RON: It’s a pleasure. 

 

REENA: So Ron I want to start off and ask you a little bit about where do you even start? That’s one of the questions that we were asked was, how do you start filling out scholarship applications, are there any good websites, is it one-stop shopping for forms and grants, where does a parent begin?

 

RON: Well I think it starts with the parents, if there are two, and that includes a situation if there are stepparents involved, if there’s a divorce, or if you’re parenting solo, either way, you know it starts with a conversation either with your spouse or your ex, or an internal conversation or one with a close friend about exactly what it is that you are able to do here and what you are willing to do. Because sometimes there’s a pretty big gap between those things, and that’s okay, right? You don’t need to apologize to anyone, but you need to be prepared to explain what you’re willing and able to pay or to borrow to your child. Often parents, when there are two, are actually in conflict about that, and they haven’t been able to, or just taken the time to successfully articulate to one another what it is they think they ought to pay for all of this and why. And you had better be on the same page about this before it starts because you don’t want your child, or children if you’ve got multiple at the same time, to get the wrong idea about what is in the realm of the possible, financially, and that’s before you even get into the odds of getting in someplace in the first place, or getting a decent financial aid package. 

 

LISA: I love that. You know, so there’s this huge, broad framing about the adults in the picture coming together and figuring out what are we looking at here? What is available for us, what is possible for us, what are we willing to do? And I also love that idea of the adults getting on the same page before bringing the young person in, because clinically I’ve certainly seen plenty of situations where the kid gets caught between adults who are not in agreement, which is, as if the college process weren’t hard enough already. 

 

REENA: Yes.

 

LISA: It’s really tough. Okay, so let’s say this has happened. Lots of good thinking has happened, and the family is thinking, well, we know what we’re willing to do. We’d love to see what money is out there. So we’ll come back to the question of financial aid, but just in terms of scholarships, like is it really true that there’s all this scholarship money laying around that no one’s using? If so, how do you find it, like where should parents even start on that one?

 

RON: Yeah. So here;s my feeling about that. You know, some of those websites that you see on banner ads all over the internet are kind of scammy, right? They take your money and you know, maybe they sent you a list but it’s places that don’t exist anymore, the information is outdated, or the odds are long, or the scholarship money has $500 here or $1000 there. Every couple years you’ll see some viral story of some teenager who spent three months applying for 500 scholarships and you know ended up with $72,000. So I’m not here to say that it doesn’t happen, I’m here to talk about odds of success and how much time you and your child really have to devote to this project, because my feeling about it is that shopping intelligently and asking for a better deal appropriately, when appropriate, which is two different things, you know, will often yield a five figure swing in your direction, sometimes many tens of thousands of dollars with a well placed, well articulated email that took you 15 minutes to write, but it might have taken you a couple years to understand enough about how the system works to be ready to write that email. So that’s kind of a long way of saying that you can absolutely find a way to pay less, but I’m not sure you should necessarily cast your entire lot with some random website that’s promising 17 scholarships. 

 

REENA: You know, Ron, if we’re really honest about it, college is big business, it is a big business, it’s not a charity, they want to make sure you’re going to come, you’re going to pay your tuition. We had a question from a parent saying, does it affect my child adversely if I genuinely have need? We can’t afford it, we’re going to need financial aid. Could that ever hurt you, by being that open and honest? I mean, you have to be transparent, you’re showing your finances.

 

RON: Sure, so it depends, right? There’s a category of schools that are need-blind, which means if you have financial need, if you fill out the FAFSA or the CSS Profile, which a couple 100 private colleges require you to fill out, and those formulas and spreadsheets spit out a number that say you can only afford to pay X which is less than the Y that your chosen university costs, then you have demonstrated need, right? And some schools will not even look at your need before deciding to admit you and then once you’re in, there are a smaller number that will meet your full demonstrated need. Now they might do it with all grants, or they might do it, you know, with some grants and a bunch of loans, but they will meet your need. And then there’s a whole bigger category of schools that are not need-blind, where your need may hurt you, you know, at the end of the process and then if they do let you in, they won’t meet your full needs. So they’ll do what’s known as gapping, right? So if you only afford to pay $52,000 and you get into a school with a list price of $72,000, they might give you only six or $8,000 and you’ve got 12 or $13,000 that you’ve got to just figure out, right? And they’re banking on the fact that you will, which gets into you know, the sort of deeply emotional part of all this, which that colleges are, in some senses, taking advantage of, because as you said in the question, they are businesses, and they are sort of pricing and discounting accordingly.

 

LISA: I’m going to come back to something you said earlier about the well placed email, or the well worded email. Can you unpack for us a little bit more what you’re talking about there?

 

RON: Sure. So I guess I would think about it this way. First of all, put yourself in the shoes of the vice president of enrollment, enrollment management is kind of what this is known as in the colleges these days. And if that sounds like something that might go on at an airline for instance, that’s because it is quite similar. They’re using a whole variety of historical data about people like you, people from your zip code, people from your school, people with your interests, people with your SAT score, people with your GPA, feeding that into a giant algorithm, and having the algorithm make the first guess as to what kind of discount, often in the form of so called merit aid, which is different from need-based aid, merit aid and this theory about what you’ve done, as opposed to what you have or what you don’t have. So they’re putting those prices and discounts out to you, right? So you sort of start with that understanding, like the airline managers, if school starts or if the plane takes off, and there are empty seats or empty beds, right, the dorms are not at full capacity, that vice president of enrollment is in real trouble, and if that happens a couple of years in a row, they get fired. So if it’s April 27, and you’re not coming in at the sort of level of heads and beds that you expect to, you’re under some pressure to get people to say yes, alright? So as an applicant, you are trying to put yourself in a position where you understand those pressures, and then are ready to write that note. And the note depends on whether you’re trying to get more need-based aid or trying to get more merit aid, and there’s kind of a minute or two of explanation on each of those, but it begins with understanding the position that the people in enrollment management are in, in any given year. 

 

REENA: So, Ron, how do you walk the line between the right college for your child and the right college for your bank account?

 

RON: Sure. Well it starts with that understanding, as a parent, of what you’re able and willing to pay, what you’re able and willing to borrow. So you sort of come up with a number and then you can do some research ahead of time by filling out something called a net price calculator, that’ll help you figure out, if you’re applying for need-based aid, what sort of price the college might ask of you if your kid were to get in. Merit aid is much less predictable, but you can use something that just about every college publishes called the common data set, which allows you to tease out what sorts of kids do get merit aid in any given year

 

REENA: At any given school?

 

RON: At any given school.  

 

REENA: Wow.

 

RON: So yeah, it’s literally a common form. It looks the same at every school, and you can just sort of dive in there to section H2A and see what sort of discount is offered to families who can afford to pay full price but may not want to. And you can figure out what percentage of those kids get aid, what the average amount is, you know, what a GPA looks like in the in the 90th percentile at that school, and you can begin to try to tease out what sort of discount they might offer and what your odds are of getting a bigger one. The schools with a couple of notable exceptions, don’t really want you trying to figure this out. It’s to their advantage for you to be unpleasantly surprised in some way, because remember on the front end, part of what they’re graded on by US News is how many people apply, and how many people they reject. Right, because the rejectivity of these schools is actually working in their favor, right? So they don’t want you necessarily to be discouraged by money. I actually feel like you should take your shot right? I don’t have a problem with kids applying for 10 or 12 or 14 schools if you’re really looking to sort of play them against each other financially, and you have some real constraints, right? Because hopefully they get into half, and, you know, you’ve got a bunch of numbers to look at and, you know, if money is a big part of driving the decision, or the main driver of the decision, you want to have some choices.

 

LISA: Alright, I have a question for you about 529s, we actually got a lot of questions from our listeners about 529s, but I just have to pause for a moment and say, you know, as you talk through all this, I find myself really feeling overwhelmed. Like it’s so complicated, right? And there’s so much detail. So Ron, for our listeners, this is in your book, right? A lot of the deep dives on any of these topics that you are giving us a broad overview, if people are feeling what I’m feeling, which is sort of like, holy moly, this is so much and so many complexities, your book, if they were inclined, would walk them through this all in quite a bit more detail. Is that right?

 

RON: Yeah, thank you for bringing it up. I mean the book is totally linear. And I gave a lot of thought for a lot of months about exactly what order it should be in, to make sure people understood how this worked, how to shop, what to be looking for, the things that might confuse them. Section two of the book is all about the things that will trip you up emotionally, because this is very much a psychological game that’s being played, with pricing and with you know, parental desire and and you know, kids’ ambition, or is it a parent’s ambition. You know the book was longer than I expected. And in fact, it wasn’t long enough. There was so much interest after the fact in the sort of merit aid concept that we’ve touched on that I’m building an interactive course just about that, right? The psychological game, the process, a much deeper dive into where you can find the good data, and just trying to hold people’s hands because people wanted more, and I mean, probably once a week during the spring, people who know me or my cell phone number, get me on the phone and send me the details of what they’re dealing with. And I sort of write them a script, and explain what’s going on, you know, it’s just 10 minutes of my time. And then they write the 15 minute email and $26,000 shows up.

 

REENA: Wow. 

 

ROB: $52,000 over four years. 

 

REENA: That’s amazing.

 

RON: You know, I think people don’t understand that it’s okay to ask for more. In fact, it’s essential when we’re talking about one of the most consequential decisions your family will ever make. So, Lisa, to address your point from a feelings perspective, because it was in fact a feelings question and not a finance question, I think a lot of people come to the book and come to the topic with anxiety. I’ve heard from a number of people, which didn’t actually surprise me, that you know, by the end of the first section of the book, they were angry. They were angry that the system has evolved the way that it has. But they felt settled as I walk them through very slowly in plain English from the perspective of a parent who’s living it. And the last chapter is titled “Hope.” And I’d like to think that by the time this is over, because by the time I was done reporting, I felt this way too, that people will feel some hope, that there really is a school out there for everybody, and a number of great ones don’t charge anything near the list price, including for people that are 1%, and oftentimes people just don’t understand that’s how it works and that’s how the game is played. And so I’m just trying to give people the tools that they need, not just to sort of navigate the process, but to calm the hell down. 

 

LISA: Okay Ron, so knowing that your book exists as a life raft out there, if anyone is feeling like they’re drowning in all of these details, back to the details. Talk to us about 529s, we got a lot of questions, here’s one we got. ‘I have four kids, the amount we have in our 529 is not nearly close enough to help put all four of these kids through college. How should I be thinking about this?’ 

 

REENA: Good question. 

 

RON: Sure. So let’s start by explaining briefly what these things are. So a 529 is a tax advantaged savings account, investment account, and you use it to pay for college and in many states you can now use it for K-12 private school. I’m not sure that’s such a great idea because the longer money has to grow and compound on itself the better off you are and so I’m not sure you want to be putting money in there when your kid is age two and then yanking it out when they’re five, much better to wait a little longer if you can, not everybody can do that. So, when I say tax advantage, often you get a tax break of some sort, from your state when you put the money in, or at least in the year when you put the money in. And then when it comes out, you don’t have to pay federal tax. No income tax, no capital gains tax on that money as long as you use it for any and all college expenses, including travel, including room and board, including computers. It’s a pretty generous definition. So you can see why it might be advantageous. You know, the more you save, and the more it grows, the more taxes you avoid, the more tax breaks you get on the way, and, you know, it can be better than just putting money aside on your own. So you have to be able to afford to do that in the first place. It’s a privilege to have that extra money. For people who are lucky enough to be able to do it. Great. It’s an incredible tool. To the parent who has four kids and doesn’t feel like they have anywhere near enough, I would encourage you to think about something that I’ve termed the McKinley rule, which is named after a financial planner in Wisconsin named Kevin McKinley who first explained it to me, although I think he’s not the only person who has talked about it this way for decades. Just think about it in terms of thirds, right? Save a third, right, so University of Wisconsin, probably costs $100,000 for four years. So Mr. McKinley, for his kid, I think he had more than one, but I remember interviewing his daughter at one point, so let’s just assume he has one, right? You want to save $33,000 over the course of 18 years. Now that starts to feel doable, right? Maybe it’s $1,000 a year, about 75 bucks a month, and that appreciates at 6% annually, and pretty soon you’re just about there. Then, the next $33,000, you pay out of current income. Now this is harder, right? If you have a six-figure income even, trying to come up with 8,000 spare dollars, after taxes, isn’t easy. So maybe you get a side job, if you can’t get a side job, you don’t take vacations for those four years, you eat rice and beans, you know, you change a couple of other habits and you try and make it work. And then you borrow a third. Maybe a parent borrows $17,000 and the kid borrows $16,000. Now in fact, the kid can borrow as much as, I think it’s $32-33,000 under the terms of the federal student loan program. So maybe you divide it differently, maybe the kid borrows everything,  and maybe the kid works during the summer, and during the school year. And you know, you’ve got another $20-25,000 in kid income to play with. And you know, you start to work the numbers that way, and pretty soon it starts to feel reasonable. Now it feels way less reasonable if that kid, for Madison, Wisconsin, actually wants to go to the University of Chicago, where the cost of attendance is now over $80,000 per year, not for four years, but per year. So you do that math, and you’ve effectively got to triple everything. That’s much harder. But you know, for a relatively affluent family, where the parent or the parents don’t have their own student loans that they’re still paying off, I know a lot of families where the parents are not done paying their own loans off by the time their first kid starts college, but if you’re relatively affluent, saving a third of the money on a salary that spirals into the six figures, it’s doable, with some sacrifice. And so, hopefully that helps people feel just a little bit better about this. 

 

REENA: I think that’s one of the things we’ve heard over and over again from the emails we got in our inbox, from people who knew you were coming. Parents are asking, I don’t think I’ll be able to put much towards my kid’s tuition, I’ve got my own loans, I’m watching millennials struggling with paying back, I don’t want to put this on my kids. What’s the advice that you have?

 

RON: Look, not everybody has to go to college. And, with each passing year, we hear about more efforts, small scale ones, but they exist, particularly at the tech companies, to bring people on and bring people in who do not have college degrees. So, you know, you can take your shot at a white collar job, and certainly blue collar jobs, without the degree. This isn’t a requirement. And there’s nothing wrong, for a child who’s just not sure, who may not be ready, to do something else for a year or two. To figure out what it is they like, and what it is they don’t like, and maybe pick up a couple years of more maturity and drive, and maybe some savings too. There is no sin, quite the opposite in fact, in sending your kid to a community college, for free, or a handful of thousand dollars a year, if you can afford to keep them home and family harmony will be preserved. And you can pick up all of the required credits for two years of college, in as little as two years, transfer to a branch of the state university, commute, or go off someplace else, maybe to the flagship state university, for fifty grand. And again, fifty grand, a kid can earn, let’s call it, $25,000 over the course of four years working during the school year and working during the summer. They can take out $25,000 of federal loans, and that’s not that big of a burden, right, because the federal loan program has what’s known as an income driven repayment program, programs actually, where the size of the payment is totally dependent on your income. So if you can’t get a job right away, you don’t have to pay very much of your loans or even anything at all. So I don’t want people to give up hope or feel despair or, worst of all, feel like they’ve failed as a parent because they haven’t been able to navigate this system. This is all really messy and expensive, and the fact that the United States of America and just about every state does not subsidize this the way that higher education is subsidized the way it is in most of the rest of the world, is not your fault. It’s not your fault. And if you’re inclined to beat yourself up about it or feel despairing or downcast, please just stop. Because you did not create this. 

 

REENA: That’s so good.

 

LISA: So grateful for you. Okay, so back to the 529s, I can dip my toe in and out of the details, and listen, but I keep reflecting on how overwhelming I find this, because I just feel like I cannot be the only parent who feels this when we get to this topic. Okay, so here’s a question we have from a listener. ‘What effect will the 529 have on financial aid? Will saving for my child’s college fund actually result in less financial aid?’

 

RON: Yeah, so it’s a great question. The way the system works is fairly counterintuitive, and more than once, I think, I’ve written a column in the New York Times that sort of directly answers the question, so maybe you all can toss it in the show notes, or a link to it. But the basic answer is that, not much. It doesn’t actually impact things as much as it might. The way the federal formula works, so this is when you’re filling out the FAFSA as opposed to the school’s form, is that so much of the amount of aid that you might qualify for is dependent on your income, as opposed to your assets. And if you’re applying to private college, and they’re using the CSS profile form, there they care, they often care fair a bit, about the equity in your home, if you’re a homeowner, but the 529 plans are really only supposed to be sort of taxed, or drawn on, at the rate of 5.6% a year, 6.2% a year. So you may think about this and be like a second, wait, six, six, six, six, that’s 24, what’s happening to the other 76? Right? But these formulas are built with the recognition that even in the 2%, sometimes in the 1%, they can’t afford to write $80,000 checks each year. So there’s an understanding that a lot of it is still going to need to come out of savings, so there’s just an assumption that of course you’re going to use that money, but you’re not penalized for it. It’s just not a big part of the formula. And I get why it’s sort of difficult to believe that, but I’ve been asking and reasking the question again and again over the years, and in fact, the reverse may be true. If you’re a family with an income decently well into the six figures, and you have no savings, and you’re applying for financial aid, I’ve talked to financial aid officers, usually off the record, because they don’t want to say this in public, and they’re sort of scratching their heads and looking at this and being like, these people have a cottage by a lake and they don’t have any college savings? They know, they have an encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds and hundreds of public schools, if you’re living in an affluent district, and you haven’t managed to save? They don’t know that much about you, but they make some assumptions, and maybe they don’t know that you’re supporting an elderly parent, and writing a $125,000 check each year for a nursing home. Maybe they don’t know that you had a terrible accident and didn’t work for eight years, you know, sometime in the recent past. If you are in that spot, tell them. That should be part of your application. But you know, they’re human, and they can’t help but make judgements. And so, you’re not going to be penalized for having saved. 

 

REENA: One of the other questions that we got, a couple times over, was should our kids take on some financial responsibility? Like is it better that they pay for something so they don’t realize, oh mom and dad just paid for my college tuition, isn’t that great, I don’t have to worry about that. What’s your take on that?

 

RON: Yeah, I think the answer to that question is yes. And my favorite story in this regard, these are actually a couple colleagues that both worked with me years ago at the New York Times, and they would sit each of their kids down, there were four of them, and they said, alright, it’s eighth grade, and we just want to let you know that you are going to be paying for the first semester of your college tuition. 

 

REENA: Wow. 

 

RON: And we don’t care how expensive it is. If you’re going to the University of Chicago at what’s now $80,000 a year, we don’t qualify for any financial aid, you’re paying. So you know, at the U of C today, that would probably be $30,000 in change. So you know, that’s a lot for an eighth grader to contemplate. But, these kids got the heads up at 13 or 14, and you know, they went and they scrubbed toilets in the public bathrooms at the beach, in Long Beach, New York, they hustled newspapers in morning, and they scooped ice cream in the afternoon, hopefully after washing their hands when they were done with the toilets, and then they lifeguarded for a pretty decent amount of money on those beaches, and they did it, every last one of them. And so the next question is often, well if they worked, that meant they weren’t doing internships in the summer, or they weren’t going on service trips, or they weren’t doing the stuff they need to do to stuff their college applications with impressive stuff. But I have news for you on that front too, college admissions officers are sick of your over-programmed children. They’ve had enough. 

 

LISA: Really?!

 

RON: All these kids look exactly the same.

 

LISA: Well so what do they want? Do they want kids…

 

RON: There’s all sorts of kids, there are very few kids from affluent communities in particular, who just hustle for four straight summers. It’s okay to say to a college admissions officer, I made $32,000 over the four years that I was working, and I’m putting that all towards college. If you write an application essay about some aspect of your job, that’s going to stand out, because there’s not that many of those. Those kids from family, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, College of Charleston. They did okay. They did okay, nobody was penalized for having worked during the summer. 

 

LISA: That’s an incredible story, and on so many levels, and incredibly useful. Okay, so that gets us to another key question, which is, whether or not a family is going to go down that road, at what age to we start talking with our kids about exactly where you began, what we can do, what we’re willing to do, what may fall to them to cover, in terms of paying or taking loans? When should these conversations begin with our kids? 

 

RON: Yeah, so here’s what I would suggest, and this is what we’ve done in our household. So we started saving in a 529 account right after my wife peed on the stick

 

REENA: That’s kind of when you have to start.

 

RON: Yeah, we started right away with whatever we could, and we elected to get the account statement on paper, and starting at a pretty early age, you know, when our oldest was five or six, and we’re about to start doing it with the 6-year-old too, that thing would come in the mail, and I would open it up and I’d say to her, Talia, we have 9% of your college paid for. Mommy and I have been saving and one of the reasons we work extra jobs is to make sure that you’re going to have enough money, that we’re going to have enough money, try to have enough money, so that you can go wherever you want without us having to think too hard about it, because that’s not how it was for me, right? I was on need-based financial aid and it was a real struggle, and we’d like to make it so that it’s not that way for you. And so, some of that went over her head when she was younger, but what was implanted was an expectation that she was going to go, that we wanted her to go, that it was going to be an option for her, that she should try to not think too hard about money, and just think about the things that she was passionate about. And you know, we’ve given her more detail over time. She’s a rising junior in high school now, but then we sat her down before her first year in high school, and we said to her, look, we think it’s only fair that you know a little bit about how the system works. And there’s a group of 20, 30, or 40 schools that don’t do any discounting based on what kind of student you are. That just doesn’t come into play. But there are some really good schools, the University of Chicago, Duke University, Oberlin, Kenyon, Macalester in Minnesota, Grinnell, Tulane is another example, that will discount or even give you a free ride if you’re an extraordinary student. We are not telling you this, we are not telling you about this so-called merit aid system to put more pressure on you, we want you to be happy, we want you to sleep when you need to sleep, and we want you to pursue the things that you’re passionate about, but we did not want to end up in this situation where you only found out about this in your junior year, and maybe because we didn’t meet our savings goals, your choices were constrained, and you would say to us, how come you didn’t tell me there was this opportunity to effectively earn my way to bigger discounts with kind of a lights out academic performance? Because maybe I wouldn’t have screwed around as much, or whatever, right? So we felt like it was only fair that she knew how the system worked. Now, Lisa, you may remember this, but adolescent psychologist Twitter was really angry with me when the excerpt from “The Opposite of Spoiled” showed up in the New York Times with the headline “your kid’s grades could be worth $100,000. You should tell them in eighth grade.” People were really mad, but I just think, again, we didn’t create this system, it would be nice to blow it up, and I’m trying to do my part to change things, but it’s not going to be easy to change it. And so we’re faced with two bad choices: we hide useful and important knowledge from them in the hopes of keeping the pressure off, or do we actually give them the information they need to make intelligent decisions for themselves, while being very careful not to put pressure on them. And I just don’t think it’s a close call, right? We don’t want them to wake up at age 16 or 17 and be like, how dare you? How could you, in the name of protecting me, kept this information from me that literally affects my life and the choices that I have? I don’t know, do you all think it’s a close call? I don’t.

 

LISA: Well, here’s what I think. I think, first of all, information is power. The entire goal of psychotherapy, actually, is to just make more choices available to people, to not have people feel constrained, right? So anything that really in life makes people feel like they have more options for them, I think the better. But the other thing that I think is critical in this is, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. And so, part of what is so valuable for us, is to hear how you said it to Talia. That if a family wants to say that, your language, your tone, your matter of factness I think is so powerful, and I think that often gets lost in the written word, I think that that doesn’t always translate well. And so, I think it’s wonderful for people to know, as parents, what their options are, and then to decide, as a family, how they’re going to let their kids know what their options are. And that’s the goal. To have options. 

 

RON: Yeah, and I don’t want to oversimplify the psychological complexity of some of this because there are plenty of families who are in a spot where all they’re going to be able to pay for or borrow for is the price of the flagship state university. And at that point, the conversation in eighth grade is you can and should take your shot at the University of Chicago or Tulane or Pitzer or Whitman or whatever, but we just need you to know that it’s going to be very difficult to do without you getting a bigger than average merit aid package from those institutions, and really the only way to do that is to take your studies as seriously as possible. And that doesn’t come with an apology, by the way. It doesn’t come with downcast eyes. Again, can’t say it enough, you as a parent have nothing to apologize for. You have almost certainly done the very best that you can, and if you are absorbing this knowledge and creating a plan and having an intelligent and thoughtful and careful conversation with your 14-year-old about it, you are in fact ahead of 99% of humanity. 

 

REENA: Do you know Ron, that before I read your book and before we had this podcast, my strategy was to go into whatever school they’re going to be in, and apply for a job, whether it’s making turkey sandwiches, sweeping the floors, librarian, and then would I qualify for half tuition or something like that? I just, it should not be this expensive, and that was among the comments we got, that both parent and child should not have to go into debt to get an education. 

 

RON: Yeah. And you know, as we’ve mentioned, it’s possible not to do that, you can take a year off, you can earn money, you can put it away, you can go to community college for two years, you can live at home, you can work on the side, you can go to the flagship state university, you can work 60 hours a week every summer and 15 hours a week during the school year, and you know, that will just about do it, without debt. There’s very few people that do it that way anymore, but it can be done. You can go and serve our country for three years, or longer in the armed forces and come out with a pretty good sized educational benefits that will pay for, or come close to paying for college. You can do ROTC, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and achieve similar results. So it’s not impossible, but many people feel it’s impossible because they’re all wrapped up in the prestige game, the window sticker on the back windshield with the fancy name play. And community college, or joining the coast guard, or taking a gap year to work, those things are part of the list of what it means to be a successful parent for a lot of people, who didn’t have any problem going to college themselves, and feel like they’re a failure if they can’t do it for their kids. And again, let me just say, things are radically different from when we all went to college, and nobody should be beating themselves up over not being able to do what their parent did for them, or not being able to solve for all of the mistakes that their parents may have made, and not do it for them. 

 

LISA: Amazing. Ron, thank you so much for being with us, I have learned so much, I feel much better. I feel like I can think about these details without becoming overwhelmed. We are so grateful for your time. 

 

RON: Thank you for having me. 

 

LISA: Of course.

 

REENA: And I want to remind everyone the resources Ron talks about and especially the title of his book are available on our show notes, so be sure to check it out. So Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?

 

LISA: Well, I’m thinking about what Ron said about the prestige question. And how that is lurking around so often in family life. And I agree with him completely, this is a completely different ballgame than when we were applying to college, getting into college is much different and much harder, the financials are much different and much harder, and so the more that parents can lay that down, set that aside, come to this as naturally as they possibly can about what’s going to work best for their kid and best for their family, financially and otherwise, the better. 

 

REENA: So much to chew on and so much to think about Lisa. We want to thank Ron Lieber, and we hope you join us next week. We’re going to talk about sleepovers. Do you really have to send your kid to sleepovers? Lisa and I are going to talk about that. I’ll see you next week.

 

LISA: See you next week. 

 

The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.