Empty Nest Magazine
Emptying the Nest:
Helping to Make Your Child’s College and Career Dreams Come True
by Robin C. Bonner
Note: The financial aid and college application and acceptance policies and processes referenced in the article below may have changed since we experienced them. For current information, check with your child’s high school guidance office and the colleges to which he or she is applying.
Then, a few years later, during her freshman year of high school, Amie and I saw Good Will Hunting. The film tells the tale of a genius janitor (played by Matt Damon) who works night shift in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology math department, proves his unusual mathematical talent, overcomes many obstacles to follow his dreams, gets the girl, etc. Exiting the theater, Amie issued another zinger: “Mom, I’m going to go to MIT!” “Why, because they have cute janitors there?” I teased. She stared at me (in apparent disbelief that her mother could be so dumb) and shot back: “Because MIT is the best engineering school in the world! Didn’t you get that from the movie?” I already knew this, of course, and my heart sank as I considered the road we were heading down…
Turning Dreams into Reality
Years before, when Amie was about 7 or 8, she decided that when the time came for her (as a teenager) to get a summer job, she was going to be a lifeguard. (At our local pool, it was “very cool” to be a lifeguard.) “How are you going to get that job?” we asked her. “Why should they hire you instead of some other kid?” After some discussion, she came to the conclusion that before applying for the job, she had better first become a very good swimmer, so she joined the swim team. Amie came (very quickly) to loathe competitive swimming, however, and eventually her desire to be a lifeguard likewise fell by the wayside. She did finish the first season, though, as difficult as that was; in fact, she stuck it out for a couple of seasons and even tried diving. Eventually, her plans for a summer job changed, although the experience had taught her to define goals and work toward them. (We had learned our lesson, too, when we let Amie quit ballet lessons in kindergarten, at a point of boredom midway through the year, then watch her disappointment as her friends progressed to the excitement of the year-end recital. From then on, it was “If you start the season, you finish it” for any activity she joined.)
In the end, Amie spent her teen summers attending space camp, working at a local airport, and attending Civil Air Patrol meetings, search-and-rescue missions, and “boot camp.” All of this dovetailed with Amie’s goal of someday becoming an aeronautical engineer. (We also went through the “I’m going to be a pilot” and “I’m going to be an astronaut” phases along the way.) In addition, Amie bused tables to save money toward camp and college tuition. Incidentally, these activities made for good reading on the “brag sheet” Amie included with her application (see Cohen, The Truth About Getting In, 2002).
Education and Sacrifice
With that in mind, we encouraged Amie to attend Mount St. Joseph Academy, a private, all-girls high school about 40 minutes away from our house, rather than the local public high school. We knew of The Mount’s reputation for academics, high SAT scores, and 100% college acceptance rate. The chance for girls to excel in an all-girls environment appealed to us. (In 1992, the American Association of University Women published the study < http://www.aauw.org/research/upload/hssg.pdf > “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” which supported our beliefs.) The school was challenging to get into, a good first step to getting into a competitive college.
When picking a high school, however, Amie was ambivalent about choosing The Mount and leaned toward another private school, one that her best friend had chosen to attend. “Which do you think is the more challenging school?” we asked her. “The Mount” she replied. “So, then, what are you waiting for?” we asked. To her credit, Amie did choose The Mount, although it was a distance away and no one she knew would be going there. She never regretted it. Our theory was that if we paid for Amie to attend a competitive high school, she’d get a scholarship to a good college—the theoretical climax of a good education (thus, we would lay out the college money early). Things didn’t work out quite the way we had planned, however, as you’ll see later.
Grades and SAT Scores
Amie knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to work hard to get it, pushing herself to the limits in her achievements. (Yes, she had friends—whom she e-mailed and instant-messaged while she did her homework. We never could figure that one out. And she went out to parties on weekends. In short, she had a “normal” social life.) As Amie approached senior year and took the SATs, her highest accumulated score was 1490, well within the school’s criteria for consideration. (MIT’s Web site gave the average freshman’s SAT scores as 1430–1570.) She also scored high on her SAT-II and AP exams and was named a National Merit Finalist. Placing in regional and statewide science fairs helped as well.
Visiting the Campus
Still, at this point, a dose of reality regarding acceptance was in order. So we counseled Amie about MIT’s competitiveness—on the fact that according to Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges (23rd ed., 1998), only 25% of MIT’s 1997–1998 applicants had been accepted. Of those accepted, 56% achieved more than 700 on the verbal section of the SAT and 86% achieved more than 700 on the math section. She was in the ballpark, but the going would be tough. We recommended lining up Plan B. Amie then researched other schools that offered a major in aeronautical engineering. We visited Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Worcester (MA) Polytechnic Institute, Penn State University, Georgia Tech, and Cal Tech (another “stretch” school). We encouraged her to get a feel for the campuses and programs and decide which fit the best. She wanted diversity and a lively and stimulating atmosphere. Comparing campuses, student life, courses, and programs offered, MIT was still her #1 choice, but now she had some other options.
The Application and Interview
Some schools offer an “early decision” (rather than “early action”) application option. In such a case, the student applies by a predetermined fall deadline (the early decision application deadline for New York University in 2003, for example, was November 1), and the school issues a decision by mid-December. The difference, however, is that if the student is offered admission, he or she is legally obligated to attend the school and must withdraw all other applications. In the case of NYU, if the applicant’s early decision application is rejected, there is no deferment—he or she is denied admission.
In many cases, an early action or early decision applicant has an advantage: The admissions staff can accept a higher percentage of early applicants than applicants from the later, regular pool. Students applying early decision, however, must make sure the school is their first choice and must be reasonably certain their families would be able to finance the costs, should they get accepted. (NYU claimed that it would not hold an early decision application legally binding if a family determines that the financial aid package they are offered was not adequate. Other schools may have different policies, and the practices at MIT and NYU may have changed over time, so this is an issue that should be explored with each school before an early decision application is submitted.)
With all this in mind, Amie completed her application and wrote her essay(s). It’s a good idea for applicants to read through published essays from successful college applications. (For example, consider 100 Successful College Application Essays, by Harvard Independent, 2002; these books can be found in almost any large bookstore.) I was surprised to discover that the “essays” were actually creative writing pieces—and the more entertaining, the better. Like any good writer, the applicant needs to find an angle from which to tell his or her story. Most admissions staffs read hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. So, an essay that stands out earns the application a spot in the “consider further” pile and brings the student one step closer to admission. Amie’s essays addressed such topics as “the biggest problem in the world today” (her response was “coffee in a cardboard cup” after song lyrics from a Kander and Ebb musical) and “something difficult you did of which you are especially proud” (which resulted in an essay about cleaning her room). In each case, Amie wrote a clever story that provided the interviewer with a tongue-in-cheek and entertaining insight into her personality, life experiences, abilities, and work ethic.
Like many other colleges, MIT requires a personal interview. The school sets up appointments between prospective students and nearby alumni. Amie met with an MIT graduate living about 10 minutes away from her high school. The meeting lasted about a half-hour. Amie was nervous (of course), but enjoyed it—and thought it went well. To prepare for such events, I recommend reading A is for Admission by Michele Hernández (1997) or another, similar book. The section on the personal interview, which lists questions likely to be asked during an interview, was especially helpful.
Younger sister Sarah volunteered and proceeded to rip it open. Meanwhile, Amie, normally a fearless kid, hid under a stack of pillows on the couch. The rest of us huddled around the letter, unable to read it coherently, but we caught words like “congratulations,” “happy,” and “acceptance,” and that was enough—we assumed the rest for the moment. We ran over to the couch and grabbed Amie, and all of us jumped up and down and screamed together for several minutes (which seemed like an eternity). I’m sure the noise in our house that night resonated throughout the neighborhood. (I’m surprised no one called the police!) When we all settled down, we read the letter from start to finish. Then came the phone calls to everyone we knew. It was hard to believe it was a weeknight, as our home had taken on a party atmosphere and we were all up until well after midnight.
Paying for It All
The first step was to apply for financial aid. We filled out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, outlining our family’s and Amie’s income and assets, and returned it by February 1 (note that we were able to fill out the form online). At the time, the FAFSA form was used by most schools to determine financial aid packages. Books such as Taming the Tuition Tiger (Kristof, 2003), which contain a sample FAFSA form and instructions on how to fill it out, can be helpful. The CSS Profile, which is issued by the College Board and contains additional family financial information, is also required by some schools, MIT among them.
The truth of the matter was this: From the information on the FAFSA form, schools decide a student’s and her family’s “expected contributions.” Get ready for your child’s assets to be added together and divided by four, then each quarter earmarked as a contribution toward a year’s tuition. Thus, in four years, your child’s assets could be “liquidated.” The formulas are a lot more generous with the parents’ assets (so if you’re saving for college, you may not want to do so by setting up a fund in your child’s name). Schools then offer a combination of grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study options to help families fund the college costs that exceed the expected family contribution. The FAFSA form must be filled out anew each year. We had high hopes as we sent them in.
When the financial aid package arrived in April (together with acceptances and packages from Amie’s second-choice schools), though, it was decision time. Less than half the total cost would be covered by grants, scholarships, and loans. We would need to come up with the rest. The dream of coughing up the cash for private high school tuition in the hopes that scholarships would fund the college bills quickly dissipated. In addition, although we were no longer paying Amie’s high school tuition bills, with her sister beginning high school that year, we needed to maintain those payments. Gary and I decided that we would “do whatever it took” to send Amie to MIT the first year, then take subsequent years “one at a time.” It turned out to be a wise move.
I want to add a few words about merit-based versus need-based aid. Amie’s financial aid package from MIT included no merit-based aid, as MIT doesn’t offer any. However, many other schools do. If your child has good grades and a strong resume, she could probably attend a very good college—one that offers merit-based aid—for much less money than MIT. Penn State University, Georgia Tech, and Rensselaer, for instance, offered Amie substantial merit-based scholarships.
Having made the decision to move forward with MIT, we took advantage of the economic climate at the time and applied for a low-interest home equity loan to supplement what we could spare from savings and earnings. Amie rolled up her sleeves and secured a summer internship with an engineering firm (an unusual arrangement for a new high school graduate). Because of her involvement with the Civil Air Patrol, Amie was also able to secure an Air Force ROTC scholarship. Before classes began, however, she decided the military life was not for her and turned it down. We were supportive of Amie’s decision, but at the time, we did feel the accompanying pinch in the financial aid package.
The MIT financial aid package was a little better the second year. We refinanced the house, rolling the home equity loan into the new mortgage. We were 16 years into our mortgage, so we took out a new 15-year loan (at a lower interest rate) and cash from the equity to finance much of year two. In that way, we could again deduct the interest on our tax return, and our mortgage payment didn’t change substantially. Amie landed a more lucrative internship that summer, and she was able to contribute a good amount to the August bill. In addition, she worked on campus during the school year to earn her spending money. At about the same time, my employer announced the closing of its Philadelphia offices. This could have posed a real problem for us, but I was able to find another job, at a higher salary. In addition, younger daughter Sarah was named a voice scholar at The Mount, an accolade that carried a scholarship that reduced our tuition payments. So we ended up better situated financially that year.
Year three proved a little easier, with Amie earning a substantial salary at her summer internship and us being able to squirrel away more cash during the year (as we finished paying off an auto loan).
The fourth year was tough. In the spring of junior year, Amie received a wonderful opportunity for a summer internship, this time with an aircraft motor company outside Paris, France. It was the chance of a lifetime for Amie—a lover of everything French—to live in Paris for eight weeks and to gain experience in her field. However, there was a catch: The stipend would just about cover the costs of living there, so she would essentially earn nothing to apply toward senior year tuition. On top of that, we (of course) planned a family vacation to visit Amie that summer, and even doing so as inexpensively as possible, we still had substantial bills. This resulted in more loans than we had planned for in the upcoming year. Amie was able to secure additional student loans for the spring semester, however, which mitigated the effect. All in all, it worked out, and Amie graduated with a degree from MIT.
Lessons in Financial Aid
You need to weigh your options. If your expected family contribution (based on your salaries and assets) is less than the cost, the difference is your need. Not all schools will completely meet the family’s need with aid, though, so this is worth looking into with individual schools. Fortunately for us, MIT did. (Later, when younger daughter Sarah applied to colleges, we found that NYU did not meet a family’s need with aid. In general, though, the less competitive schools were more prepared to bankroll the educational costs.) Theoretically, you could send your child to a state college and receive no aid because the costs are close to what they determine you are able to pay, or you can send your child to a more competitive school, where the costs will greatly outweigh the family’s income and assets, and most of the need could be met with aid. (Note though, that the chosen major does make a difference. We found out later with Sarah, a drama major, that the arts are funded to a much lesser degree than are the technical fields, although the policies of schools can vary in this regard.)
Not that we planned it this way—we were pleasantly surprised to find out how it works, because we really were never in a position to set up college funds for our children (and, trust me, family vacations were taken at a campground, in a tent). The downside is that if unexpected expenses come up (or a loss of income rather than an increase—which could have happened if either Gary or I had lost our job), things can be difficult. If you are not willing to make any sacrifices to finance your child’s college education (and we did make them, the years our kids were in college), then send him or her to a state college or to a less competitive school offering a big financial aid package.
Unless you have substantial income, assets, and/or savings, if you want to give your child the gift of an education at a competitive college, be prepared to give up expensive vacations and a lot of dining out. And plan to drive old cars. Sarah, in her attempt to help with the family finances while Amie attended MIT, paid for half of all her own voice and dance lessons and chipped in toward car insurance and gas (these costs really add up quickly for teenagers), just as Amie helped out with her own expenses when she was in high school. The process takes a lot of faith and hard work on the part of all family members, but it can be done and along the way can develop a bond that lasts a lifetime.
Since our family traveled this road with Amie, younger daughter Sarah—a dedicated thespian—went through a similar process to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a child with career dreams of her own, Sarah ached to sing, dance, and act, and that she did—in year-round and summer theater groups locally and in Philadelphia, supplemented with attendant piano, singing, dancing, and acting lessons. A go-getter at an early age, Sarah paid for half of those costs, and later contributed toward college tuition, by babysitting, then waiting tables, and eventually bartending and training to work in publishing. As an arts major (her grades and resume were exemplary), Sarah wasn’t able to secure the financial aid package her sister had, so everyone did what he or she could do to help. I took on side jobs, we took out additional loans, and Amie, once gainfully employed, contributed on a regular basis. Sarah graduated from NYU in 2008 and lives the life of an actor in New York City, auditioning and working in publishing to pay the rent until she “makes it big.”
Our girls are now on opposite sides of the country chasing their dreams, but we hear from them by email, phone, or text message several times a week and look forward to spending time with them whenever we can. The bonds we forged in helping them pursue their dreams and the memories we have of our family’s experiences along that road are priceless.
Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see “About Us.”
Empty Nest: A Magazine for Mature Families
© 2009 Spring Mount Communications