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Money Talks

Listen to the audio version here.

(No…It’s not about that.)

I spent some time with a good friend in Charlotte, NC last week. The first thing he said when we sat down was, “Been adulting hard lately, brother.” He went on to tell me about dealing with some incredibly tough and delicate HR issues at work. This week he’s staring down the barrel of another round of necessarily honest and inevitably uncomfortable meetings with a few employees.

After I left his house, I was thinking about a conversation I have coming up. I’m calling it The Three P’s: puberty, pornography, and pregnancy. Before my son turns 11 in May, I’m going to take him for a hike and then a meal at Waffle House and cover these topics.

I’m still debating and continually second guessing myself on the order, analogies, anecdotes, and appropriate amount of detail. Regardless, it’s going to be a rip-the-Band-Aid-off experience. I’ve heard a million ways to broach all of these topics. I’ve read articles and books on “raising boys” or transitioning to adolescence. I’m not sure if my plan is the right or best way to do this, but I am sure it has to be done.

Undoubtedly, some of you are wincing as you read this. Others (those who enjoy watching people trip on the sidewalk or take punishing hits in sports) would probably enjoy a Go Pro view on that day to witness in real-time the train wreck of awkwardness and bemusement. Others (not putting any wagers on percentages) are likely nodding in support or considering what you did/ should have done/ wish you’d said differently/earlier/ more directly.

Whether at work, at home, or in our community, life inevitably presents us with these critical but cringe-worthy moments and conversations. While incredibly tough, it is so much better to have them than to put them off or completely avoid them. When it comes to the college search and selection experience, the topic most families unfortunately do not discuss early or thoroughly is finances.

The Timing of the Talk

Any admission or financial aid director can share countless painful stories about families in April of the senior year who come to their office in tears. Having received a financial package, the reality of paying for college is upon them, and they have not had earnest conversations along the way.

Now, after the student has been offered admission, bought the college hoodie, and changed all online profile pictures to indicate they’re enrolling, financial lines are being drawn and emotions are running high.

If you are the parent of a junior, now is the time to start having these discussions. While you do not need to itemize all of your expenditures or accounts, you will be so much better off if you are willing to honestly and openly discuss your overall financial situation and how it relates to paying for college.

The truth is most students have no idea how much you pay in taxes, or what percentage of monthly or annual income goes to your mortgage. Understandably, they have not given any real thought to how adding college tuition may impact your family’s life and other financial obligations or goals.

“Opening the books” shifts the financing college conversation to a partnership and a collective investment. As a student’s first significant adult decision, they should be privy to the expense and implications of their college choice. These talks will help you have better discussions about opportunities to offset costs through jobs, co-ops, or internships. They will inform the questions you ask  about return on investment, careers, salaries, and how the school helps students pursue employment opportunities during and after college.

Yes, I understand this feels uncomfortable. Again, you are talking to someone who is about to discuss the darkest recesses of the interwebs with a 10-year-old. So let’s do this together!

Set Limitations

How much are you willing to invest in your son or daughter’s college education? Particularly in states with strong public university systems, we often hear parents say, “I am willing to pay for any of our state schools or the equivalent price, if my daughter chooses to go to an out-of-state public or private school.”  Consider and honestly discuss what limitations you want to establish. I’m not saying these should keep you from visiting or applying to a school that looks like it will cost more than your determined threshold, but setting limitations early will prevent feeling “gut punched” in April of the senior year when financial aid packages show up.

Set Conditions

“My parents will not pay for a school south of Virginia,” or “They have already told me I’m on my own if I look at schools west of Colorado,” or “We will pay for $40,000 a year for College X, but we are simply not paying that for Y University,” or (though short-sighted and not recommended) “we will only pay for a college that is ranked in the top 50.”

What are your family’s conditions, and why? College is an investment. Your family’s goal is to be confident in the dollars you spend. If you talk about why you are putting conditions in place, they will not come across as irrational or arbitrary, but rather instructive and rooted in love.

Photo credit: CNW Group/Credit Counselling Canada

Set Expectations

What role will/should your student have in paying for their own college education? Is there a flat amount or percentage you expect them to contribute? Setting clear expectations before applying to college allows them to consider how they can work and save money during high school, as well as ask colleges about opportunities for on-campus jobs, or the prospects for (and salaries associated with) internships or co-ops while in college. Instead of being divisive, setting expectations can unify your family because “the problem” of paying for college becomes a joint effort—one to solve together.

Discuss Loans

Last year, the average loan amount for students graduating from four-year colleges was approximately $30,000. Their average starting salary was approximately $50,000. Take some time to discuss the concept of loan tolerance and repayment. Check out our mock budget from The Money Blog and put some real numbers on paper.

I get you would rather be talking about The Voice or debating which Marvel movie should come out next, but having these honest, open,  and important discussions early is essential. Again, critical but cringe-worthy.

If you want to trade topics, let me know. I’ll come to your house and talk finances. You can go hiking with my son and walk him through what’s about to happen to his body. Just promise me you won’t be that family in April of the senior year in some college dean’s office passing the tissues, pointing fingers, and yelling things like, “I wish you’d told me!”

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A (Fox) Worthy Approach to College

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in January 2016.

When asked to name some of the greatest minds in history, many would respond with Plato, DaVinci, Descartes, or Tesla. Certainly there would be controversy in assembling such a list, and ordering would be nearly impossible.. However, when it comes to establishing a clear front-runner today, it’s much easier than looking back through history. Clearly, one man would rise to the top… Jeff Foxworthy (and you were worried this was going to be an idle diatribe about college rankings!).

Model Release-Not Needed

I am confident we can all attest Foxworthy’s portfolio is impressive and wide-reaching, from The American Bible Challenge to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. What launched such success, brilliance, range and influence? Well, certainly his education at Georgia Tech did not hurt, but ultimately it was his astute ability to help others with effective, actionable self-realization. Foxworthy utilized extensive qualitative research to develop what is known in modern psychology as You might be a redneck. His approach was simple—systematically use “if – then” prompts to suggest indicators of this condition and help listeners self-diagnose: If your family tree does not branch, then you might be a redneck. Valid and noted, sir.

I think many parents can use Jeff Foxworthy’s approach to take a pulse on how they’re doing. Ultimately, this litmus test comes down to pronouns.

  • If you’ve recently said, “We are taking the SAT next weekend” then you might be overly involved.
  • If you said to a friend in the bleachers last week, “Our first choice is Columbia” then you might be overly involved.
  • If, as your daughter was leaving for school the other day, you said, “Let’s ace that Calculus exam!” then you might be overly involved.

Shift from Parent to Partner

Listen, I get it. We’ve already established that people love their kids, so your desire to help and see them thrive is absolutely commendable. But this spring is the right time to make an intentional shift from parent to partner. We talk a lot about this concept in our orientation and first-year programs. Stepping back (not away), changing pronouns, and providing opportunities to make practical, diurnal decisions before heading to college is critical.

If you have a high school senior, they are going to be on a campus somewhere in a few short months (grab some Kleenex, but keep reading). And once there, your student will face options and opportunities each day that you’ll never know about. Bolster your confidence in them now by stepping back and empowering them as they navigate this spring. If you have a junior or underclassmen, you can set a pattern now for your support and direction and control of the college admission process.

Going for a college visit soon? Let them find the hotel and make dinner reservations. Talk through the budget, the details on logistics, and what they’re wanting out of the trip beyond seeing the school.

Son was deferred by a college? He should be the one to reach out to his admission counselor or to verify that all necessary transcripts or supplements have been received.

Laundry/Credit Card bills? Who is taking care of those things? And who will during freshman year in college? Or who will when they’re 24? The time to provide opportunities to become more independent and more aware of limitations is now—while you are there to answer questions and give guidance.

I’m no Jeff Foxworthy, but I hope you’ll take these prompts to heart, watch your pronouns, and seize the opportunity to start making that frightening yet crucial shift from parent to partner today.

(By the way, our survey is still open! More than 200 people have already shared their thoughts–we hope you’ll join them!).

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Hope for the New Year

Listen to the audio version here.

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2019. Over the break I was thinking about how great it was to be a kid during the holiday season: time off from school; presents; lots of sweets; and family around to spoil you. As a parent… not so much. Maybe I’m doing something wrong but my holidays were filled with doing dishes, spending money, and negotiating family and neighbor dynamics.

I also had several lengthy conversations with friends whose 12th grade students are going through the college admission experience now. Some of the most frequent words I heard were: stressed, nervous, unsure, and scared.

Ironically, as I was taking down holiday cards I kept running across words like joy, light, and–the most popular– hope. So, since the new year is about believing in and creating a better future, and because parents are usually the ones sending, rather than receiving, the notes at this time of year, I wanted to write you my admissions letter of hope as we kick off the New Year.

Dear Parents,

As your student goes through the college admission process, I hope you will have the vision to help them start by asking why they want to go to college, the patience to listen and thoughtfully consider their answers, and the wisdom to keep bringing them back to those guiding responses as they apply, receive decisions, and ultimately select a school to attend.

I hope you will allow their goals and hopes–rather than an arbitrary list, the opinions of others, the culture of your school or community, a rankings guide with subjective methodology, or outdated stereotypes–to lead your exploration.

I hope you will be the example in your community. At times the swirling discussions about college and gossip about admissions will be unhealthy and unproductive. I hope you will recognize these moments and either remove yourself entirely or redirect the conversation.

I hope you will be the example on social media. You are going to see some terribly misinformed opinions, negative banter, catty comments, and bold-faced lies. I hope you will not engage in that dialogue online and take opportunities in-person to re-center the conversation with your friends, neighbors, or relatives. Strongly consider not posting anything about your child’s college search or admission experience, unless you think it could be beneficial to others online.  My hope is you will use your platform to be encouraging, positive, and reassuring—provide healthy and desperately needed perspective when discussions go off the rails and fan the flames of anxiety.

I hope you will be the example for your family. Try to back away when you are at a college visit or information session and let your student ask their questions of a tour guide or an admission counselor. In a short year or two, they will be on a college campus. They need to be able to advocate for themselves to professors and navigate internship or job interviews. I hope you will see this as an opportunity to prepare them for success in a future chapter.

I hope that will go for a walk or a drive when you hear yourself say things like “We are taking the SAT next weekend,” or “Our first choice is Boulder.” Ask yourself if those pronouns are just a reflection of your love and 17 years of intimately intertwined lives, or if they are a subtle indication you should step back and let your student demonstrate what you know they are capable of handling. Parenting is a delicate dance, but it is one you know well. Be honest with yourself and you will know when to take the lead and when to step back. You got this!

Trust your child’s ability to articulate points and express themselves effectively in writing for colleges. My hope is you will ask questions about college essays and make helpful edits or suggestions, rather than re-write their work by inserting words like “blissful” or “propitious.”

You are going to see inequities. You will see students “get in” with lower scores. The kid down the street/ the blue chip athlete/ the son of a major donor/ (insert unthinkable prototype here) is going to receive offers or scholarships or opportunities that your student does not. You are going to read online, or see on social media videos, pictures, comments, and posts about neighbors or students in your school or community who by every measure you observe do not seem “as good as” or “as qualified as” your kid.

Each year after decisions go out, admission officers receive fuming phone calls, vitriolic emails, threats, accusations of bias or conspiracy, and expletive-laden rants. These are never from students. I hope when you are tempted to “come down there” you will take a deep breath and (when necessary) bite your lip. When you get upset or frustrated or angry, my hope is you remember those emotions are a manifestation of your love. More than they need you pulling strings or filling out appeal forms, they simply need to hear you tell them you love them and you are proud of them.

I hope you will encourage your student to enjoy their final months (or years for parents of juniors/sophomores) in high school. Remind them to keep perspective when a test does not go well or a final grade is lower than they hoped. Keep making time to get to their games, shows, recitals, etc., and hug them even when they pretend like they don’t care or need it. My hope is you will truly enjoy this unique, and all too short, chapter of life.

Make every effort to get out of your local admission echo chamber. Take time to look at the Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 lists of companies and their CEOs. Most come from schools that are not categorized as highly selective. Go back and re-read Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Listen to the many stories your own friends and colleagues have about their own college experience. They will tell you about how they did not get into their top choice or could not afford to attend a certain school, and now 20-30 years after graduating, they would not have it any other way.

Talk to parents who have kids in college. Ask them to reflect on their experience. Inevitably, you will hear them say they wish they had not stressed as much. They will tell you about their daughter who was not admitted to her first choice school, ended up elsewhere, and is thriving now. They will go into great detail about how their son did not receive the merit scholarship he had been hoping for, selected another option from his choices, and now has an incredible internship and a girlfriend (who they actually like) that he never would have met otherwise.

I understand that as a parent the college admission experience seems incredibly complicated because it is filled with a myriad of dates and deadlines. It seems confusing because the mainstream press and pervasive how-to guides regularly provide incomplete and frequently inaccurate data. It seems consuming because friends and colleagues incessantly share their “inside” information and stories (or the alleged stories of relatives twice removed) on social media. It seems confounding because those same friends and colleagues, while adamant, have widely divergent experiences and opinions they are quick to share each time they see you at the school, store, or stadium. It seems complex because colleges and universities all have different processes, review different factors, and operate on different timelines.

After watching this cycle repeat itself for two decades, I am convinced it seems this way because people are too focused on “getting in” when they should simply be committed to staying together.

Ultimately, my biggest hope is that no matter where your college admission journey leads you, you’ll keep telling your kids three things: I love you. I trust you. I am proud of you.

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Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

This week we welcome Associate Director for Guest Experience, Andrew Cohen, to the blog. Welcome, Andrew!

Over the summer I made a very big life change – I moved almost 900 miles away from the place I call home.  I was born and raised in Central New Jersey, attended college in upstate New York, and have lived in New York City ever since.  In June, I accepted a position with Georgia Tech and started planning my move to Atlanta.  Of course I was excited about this life change, but it was also a bit terrifying.  I’ve never lived more than a four hour drive away from home, and now I’m a 13 hour drive away from where I grew up.

On the other hand, many aspects of the move were very exciting.  I was excited for a fresh start in a new city with so much to explore.  I was also excited about all of the new opportunities coming along with my new job, not to mention the big life decisions that came with the move, like buying my first car (I always used public transportation in New York City).

The more I think about how my life has changed over the past few months, I am reminded of the many conversations I’ve had with high school students and parents about the location of the colleges they are considering.  Many times families set a limit on the driving radius from their home, whether it’s in miles or hours.  While I understand the comfort of being close to home, it is important to recognize there are opportunities you may be excluding with this kind of limitation.

When I was considering leaving New York City, I took into consideration things like job responsibilities and future opportunities, location, and even the weather.  That’s why I recommend thinking about the following items when you’re building your college list.

Opportunities for Growth

For me, position and career opportunities were very important. Here at Tech, I manage the campus visits team and customer service for our office.  The opportunity was different than what I was used to and that excited me.  Tech has a very unique story to share with its approximately 40,000 visitors annually.  I attended a smaller private college, then worked at a similar type of school for a few years, so working at a larger public institution was a big change.  Professionally, it was a great opportunity.

Just like I considered these opportunities, you as a student should think about the programs offered at each institution on your college list.  Besides thinking about your major, what opportunities are offered outside of the classroom?  What kinds of internships or co-ops are students participating in? If you’re not sure what you want to major in, then look at the variety of majors offered. What kind of support is available to help you choose a major?

For me, new opportunities were the biggest driving factor in making the choice to move to Atlanta.  As a high school student, new opportunities should also be a driving force selecting a college.

Location, Location, Location!

The next thing that I considered was location.  After living in NYC for many years, I knew I still wanted to be close to or in a large city.  I was not ready to make the jump to living in a more rural location.  I like access to the hustle and bustle of a city, so Atlanta was perfect.  While Atlanta is a large city, there is a balance of quieter suburbs and outdoor activities all around (even when I’m on campus I forget I am in the heart of Midtown Atlanta!).

As a student, don’t think of location as a mile/hour distance, but rather the type of place you want to live for four years.  Are you interested in being in a college town, a large city, or a more rural area?

Weather

The last of considerations for me was a bit more minor, but something that should not be overlooked – the weather.  As a native northeasterner, snow and freezing temperatures do not bother me.  Moving to the south was an opportunity to try something different.  I can happily say I survived Atlanta’s heat and humidity in August, and I’ve been loving the warmer fall temperatures.

As a student, weather should certainly be a consideration for you too–but it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.  Is it worth giving up an amazing opportunity just because of a few cold winter months?  In the long run, college is only a few years. Looking back, I see how surviving a cold winter can build character (and make you appreciate warm weather!).  If you are thinking of going to school in a place with very different weather than you are accustomed to, be sure to visit the campus during that season.

After being in the south for only a few months, I am constantly reminded of the great decision I made.  It has been an adventure exploring the city and I have quickly adjusted to my new job.  If I was not willing to step out of my comfort zone and look past the 4-hour driving radius around the New York City area, I would have missed out on an amazing opportunity.  Even with being so much farther away from my family, I still have been able to see them quite frequently (thanks to Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport!).

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The Coach’s Guide to College Admission

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A few months ago I wrote about no longer coaching my son’s soccer team. This fall I have moved on from that 9 year-old boys’ team to my daughter’s 7 year-old squad. Let’s just say it’s been… a transition. The 9 year-olds, especially in those last few seasons, had really developed their skills and understanding of the game. We had progressed to using phrases like “check,” “square,” and “drop.” When they came to practice, they would (generally) listen, execute the drills, and understand what I was instructing them to do.

It did not take me long to remember what it’s like coaching 7 year-olds. In the first practice, one girl literally fell to the ground when I said, “drop” (I’m not sure what she would have “checked”  had I used that term). When I asked them to stand five yards apart and work on two-touch passing, I got a few blank stares combined with distances that left me wondering if it was their understanding of  “five” or “yards” we  needed to work on.

And then we had our first game. It felt like trying to verbally control Foosball players. I found myself calling out from the sideline, “Now you kick it to her, then you kick it to her, and…” Yeah. It didn’t work. On the ride home I realized I needed to re-think my approach and expectations. I decided on three simple priorities for the season: stay “jump rope” distance apart; dribble—don’t kick; and encourage each other.

If you are a parent (or “coach”) in the college admission “season,” I think these goals (pun intended) apply to you as well.

Jump Rope Distance

Clearly, the kids needed to see what five yards looks like, so I brought a jump rope to our next practice and had them take turns stretching it out and holding it. We talked about that being an appropriate separation to keep while you are on the field. At that distance, you can pass to each other and help each other defend. Maintaining that length keeps you from bumping into each other or knocking each other over while trying to get the ball.

As a parent in this process, you are a coach—not a player. You are a parent—not an applicant. Sometimes you may need to go for a walk or drive to re-examine your game plan and check-in: have you recently said something like, “We are taking the SAT next weekend,” or “Our first choice is Purdue”? We have all winced while watching through the slits in our fingers as a coach forgets their role and runs out onto the field, attempting to play for the team. Don’t be that coach! This means asking questions about college essays and making helpful edits or suggestions—not re-writing them with words like “lugubrious” or “obsequious.” This means backing away when you are at a college visit and letting your son or daughter ask their questions of a tour guide or an admission counselor. In a short year or two, they will be on a college campus. They will need to be able to advocate and navigate for themselves. Are you coaching them to be ready for that?

In a recent Washington Post article, Scott Lutostanski discusses executive function skills, which include organization, time management, and planning. He asserts parents need to be disciplined and cognizant of taking opportunities to empower their kids to grow and develop in these areas. Searching for, applying to, getting in, getting disappointed, and ultimately deciding upon a college are all opportunities to help your student enhance these invaluable skills. Don’t steal the ball. Remember: Jump rope distance.

Dribble—don’t kick.  

In practice, I let them simply kick and run after the ball. When they did that, the ball often went out-of-bounds or a defensive player quickly took it away. They realized they were out of control and ineffective. Since then we’ve been focused on dribbling—keeping the ball close so they can cut or change direction when necessary. As a parent/coach, that’s your job too. The college admission process is not Foosball where you simply turn the rod and control the players or the game. You cannot control admission decisions. You cannot control merit scholarships or financial aid packages. You cannot control the competition in any given applicant pool. Slow the game down. Keep perspective. One play at a time. One game at a time. Dribbling allows your team to keep things close and make choices, adjustments, and intentional decisions when the unexpected or uncontrollable happens. Dribble—don’t kick.

Encourage Each Other!

Most of the girls on our team have yet to score a goal. We have made it clear that success is not about scoring. Winning looks different for each one of our players. For some it is making a good pass, while for others it is performing a new dribbling move, or using their non-dominant foot to trap the ball. One of the most gratifying parts of the season has been listening to the players on the bench cheering for their teammates. Some of the loudest celebrations have come after a teammate makes a “jump rope” pass. The entire bench starts chanting “jump rope, jump rope!”

What is winning for your daughter or son in their college experience? Not where, coach (and not what you want!). What do they want to study? What kind of faculty and students do they want to be around? What part of your state, region, or country are they excited about spending their colleges years in? Keep asking them these questions.

I hope you will not make winning about getting in to a particular college. Coach so your son or daughter doesn’t feel like your expectation, love, and approval is tied up in getting in (read: scoring), but rather that your joy is in seeing them find multiple colleges that match their goals. Winning is finding affordable financial options everyone is excited about. Winning is staying connected and supporting your son or daughter—holding them up and celebrating them, rather than achieving a particular outcome.

Game Plan

In documentaries or press conferences, players do not talk about how the coach got them to something (titles, awards, etc.) but how they got them as a person—they built trust, believed in them, and encouraged them relentlessly. Similarly, in retirement speeches, coaches rarely mention championships or trophies, but rather define success by their bond with players.  It’s going to be a great season. Go get ‘em, coach!

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