How ordinary families can win the college game

Claudia Stack


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This article is for ordinary families who want their children to be able to attend college without massive student loan debt. These suggestions are by no means comprehensive, but they are based on seventeen years of college advising experience as well as my personal experience as a student and as a parent.

The first thing you need to realize is that there are many ways to obtain a college education. If you don’t have a large college fund there are still ways to graduate without huge student loan debt. However, you have to be strategic, and you have to be willing to consider unconventional approaches.

In a previous article, An Ivy League Degree Can’t Make Your Child a Happy Person, I argued against the notion that everyone should strive to attend the most prestigious school possible. Based on your child’s goals and personality, another option may be better for him/her. In one extreme case, I sat down with a freshman whose goal was to be a “repo man”-- while his mother was telling me he was going to become a meteorologist! In any case, the path to the elite schools is narrow and the cost is generally high.

Some people are surprised to learn that yes, elite colleges practice affirmative action, but mostly in favor of white legacy admits. These are students who have family connections to the school, such as parents or grandparents who are alumni. Colleges count on legacy admits to cement ties of alumni loyalty and therefore keep donations flowing. A 2019 NBC news article reported that: Study on Harvard finds 43 percent of white students are legacy, athletes, related to donors or staff

The study, published earlier this month in the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard University were recruited athletes, legacy students, children of faculty and staff, or on the dean’s interest list — applicants whose parents or relatives have donated to Harvard...That number drops dramatically for black, Latino and Asian American students, according to the study, with less than 16 percent each coming from those categories...The study also found that roughly 75 percent of the white students admitted from those four categories, labeled 'ALDCs' in the study, “would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs,” the study said.

I mention all of this not to discourage young people from applying to elite schools, but to help them realize they should also consider other possibilities. Here are a few of my general guidelines about college:

  1. Limit student debt to one year of your average starting income

For example, if you are obtaining a teaching degree in North Carolina, you would want to keep your debt below $32,000, about what you would make as a first-year teacher. A 2013 US News and World Report article is even more stringent and suggests keeping student debt below $25,000, assuming your starting salary will be $30K-40K.

  1. Consider community college

After advising thousands of students, including many transfer students from community colleges, I urge everyone to consider this route to college for several reasons. You can earn transfer credits economically, and some people obtain a two-year degree that gives them the ability to work and earn more than they would have otherwise as they go through university (for example, you could become a certified nurse assistant and make up to $19/hour). The cost per credit is considerably less than at a university. Perhaps even more important, faculty and staff are experts at shaping high school grads into successful college students. Be sure to discuss your goals with an advisor. Also speak with the admissions office of your target four-year school to be sure you use your time and tuition dollars wisely!

  1. Consider enlisting in the US military

A friend of mine in college paid his way through as a reserve member of the Coast Guard. He also learned valuable skills during his service. Someone else I know was in medical school and all her bills and living expenses were being paid by the Air Force, in exchange for her commitment to serve as a doctor in the USAF for a certain number of years. In general, education and other benefits for US military members are good. The following is from Today’s Military website:

The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays all public school in-state tuition and fees. The full benefit amount an individual can receive is calculated from these numbers: *Tuition and fees payment (not to exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition and fees in each state) *Living stipend (equivalent to basic housing allowance in that ZIP code for an E-5 with dependents *Allowance for books and supplies ($1,000 per year. The actual benefit amount will vary based on an individual’s total length of service.

Whatever your college plans, be sure that you are focused enough to do well once you get there. The only thing worse than paying a lot for a course is paying for it again because you failed. Don’t attend college unless you are mature enough to focus and get help when you are confused. Also, make absolutely sure that your college/ online program is accredited.

No matter who you are, there is a way to win the college game. Your family name doesn’t have to grace a building on campus for you to succeed. What is vital is that you have clear goals, enough maturity to focus on your studies, and a good strategy to handle the expense.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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