College contingency plans

Gandalf and FrodoI’m a big fan of always having a plan B, and having more than one stream of income. You can only control you own actions, and try to have a plan on how you might cope with unexpected events. That’s why we diversify our portfolios, have an emergency fund, and try to think of some type of side job that keeps some money coming in if the main gig goes kaput. The era we’re currently enduring highlights the worth of these principles. So let’s apply them if you, or your nearly-adult child, is in college at the moment.

If you’re returning to campus

I wouldn’t. If we view the recent experience with the Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it’s entirely possible that schools that open will rapidly close down. This means that all the expense of moving clothes and tiny refrigerators, purchasing sheets for the extra long twin that exists nowhere else on earth, getting there, getting a college wardrobe (often for a different climate than where you live), etc., will all be spent again getting out of there. It’s easily hundreds, if not more, directly down the hairy dorm drain.

Nevertheless, I see the desire to get rid of parents/kids and live your life independently. I’ve heard that some students are still renting apartments near campus and using those as a base to study remotely. My concerns, as might be anticipated, are about health (and costs).

  1. Sign a HIPAA form. Without permission, a school or health service cannot discuss student health with parents. Often the school will include these with registration, but double check to make sure one is on-file with the student health service and if possible, with the local hospital and any doctors that the student may use.
  2. Double check insurance. Some types of insurance may not have in-network providers in the campus area. Know what and whom the insurance will cover, and take a list of in-network hospitals and maybe a few names of internists with you. Bookmark the insurance tool that allows you to check whether a health provider is in-network. You don’t want to be scrambling to find this out in an emergency. If your health insurance is lacking, you may want to purchase the school’s insurance, if only for backup.
  3. Where is the nearest emergency room? For urban campuses, there may be a choice and the whole family should know where the student would go (or where EMTs would take them), so that no one has to experience the horror of calling around to find someone.
  4. If you need medical care, how will you get there? What if you’re too sick to drive, or call a ride-share, or even walk to the health service? Does the school have anyone to send to check up on you, or are you dependent on friends (who may also get sick)?
  5. How will you get food or prescriptions? Even well-intentioned friends may not be dependable for three meals a day for many days. They also may not be eager to get something contagious. This is even harder if you’re not living in a dorm with food service. Be sure you know what pharmacies, groceries, and restaurants will deliver, and if it applies, whether they’ll deliver to a dorm.
  6. Have a credit card. Okay, maybe everyone does but these have more protection than a bank debit card. This is one instance where student and parent should be able to see charges coming up as an alert, and because fraudsters are happy to take advantage of the sick, the protections are worthwhile. Even being on a parent’s account builds credit history.
  7. You might need an emergency fly out plan. More than one university closed its dorms while students were on spring break. Students were then faced with returning to campus to clean out their rooms. This would be a really good time, if returning to campus, to take only the minimum with you until we all see whether this is going to work.

If you’re working remotely

Yeah, we’re all climbing the walls. There’s little that will substitute for the chief advantages of learning IRL. You won’t get the spontaneous conversations with professors and students; won’t get a campus job assisting a prof; won’t get the late-night debates about profound life issues; won’t get to meet famous people brought on campus; and will have a much harder time getting drunk and getting laid.

However, actual college study is much more about what you do yourself—reading, thinking, forcing yourself to develop your writing and argumentation skills. In fact, learning remotely is much more about self-instruction, with the advantage of professorial guidance and, most important, personalized feedback—the one thing that is hard about self-instruction. College is a great time to become the person responsible for your own learning. While you may be accountable, and appreciate the accountability, nobody is going to track you the same was as in high school. Even on campus, many people can’t muster the self-discipline, and those people are called dropouts. Work your goals: you’re in control of your learning.

Sure, it’s not what you dreamed of. Sure, it’s tough and you’re missing out. So is everybody. It’s a great time to learn to roll with the punches and make the best out of a bad situation—a most valuable and frequently used adulting skill. Don’t hesitate to get help—you don’t have to “desperately need it”. Therapy or counseling can also be growth enhancing, helping you to a better life. Most mental health professionals are doing tele-health appointments, and many insurance policies will cover those, at least right now.

On the other hand, you might find that you have more time than what you’d have on campus. You’re not walking to class, and you’re probably not going to parties, working, or hanging out in the campus cantinas. This is a great found opportunity to learn something additional—coding, home repair, guitar, adulting skills. My most recent newsletter had a much longer article on these ideas, so email me if you’d like a copy.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Challenging College

For about 10 years now, I’ve invited anyone to tell me about someone they personally knew, whose family did not have financial need, who got a free ride for all 4 years at college. By free ride, I mean all expenses paid, not just free tuition, and not just a one-year fellowship or grant of some kind. Finally, someone has come up with this plum, the result of a Facebook discussion. She sent me this list, which is interesting to review. Upon drilling down, however, many of the awards on this list are—you guessed it—tuition only. She also told me she knew of a student at the University of Delaware (un-named) and that her own child had gone to the University of Central Florida with only $500 in costs of books, and transportation costs to get there. Score! Someone did it!

One of the most generous on the above list appears to be the one at Duke. Drilling into their website, they currently have 122 people (across all four years) who are Robertson Scholars. Duke has a student body of 15,192, which means 0.08% of the student population managed to land this. There are currently 21 freshman Robertson Scholars. Duke received 41,000 applications for the freshman class, giving an individual student a 0.005 chance of landing one of these awards. In other words, slightly better than a snail’s chance in hell.

Here’s another list I found through our old buddy, Google. If you look at these, you’ll see that a lot of them are also tuition-only, or for one year, or you have to be on campus already, or they’re for a very small number (sometimes only 1) student in a huge student body.

You may think this has changed my opinion. You’d be wrong. But I’m now willing to acknowledge that someone, somewhere, has actually gotten a full “free ride”, for college. But don’t plan on it unless you can guarantee your student will meet all the following conditions:

Be willing to go to any school that accepts them

I’ve yet to hear about an Ivy League quality school. Indeed, even needy students that get free tuition from an Ivy often find themselves in deep debt for living expenses, because in many schools aid means loans as well. Getting in at all is a real challenge. The New York Times just published an excellent long-form piece on low-income applicants, and the calculus of admissions. Even though they mention that 89% of students get aid, guess what? That includes loans. It’s a must read for any family going through the application process.

If your student is pragmatic enough to choose schools by aid packages instead of prestige, you may have a chance at an award from a school where the profile of the student body is far less academically qualified than your student. Yes, I believe the student and their motivation is more important than the school, but having been to state schools and big-name schools, and having a daughter who also matriculated through both, I can confidently say there is a difference in quality of instruction and student experience. No one has ever asked me for my grades; I graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern Illinois, and well, I graduated from the University of Chicago—but the later is the only cred that has ever counted for anyone.

Be really, truly extraordinary

That means, be a National Merit Finalist, at least. There were 15,000 last year, of whom 2,500 actually got a lousy $2,500 scholarship—but schools look very favorably on them. Or win the Intel, or a Davidson or some other nationally-ranked competition. Publish a commercially edited book. Be an activist or humanitarian who’s been on national news. I don’t care if your kid tested profoundly gifted or has a perfect SAT—yawn, I know quite a few for whom that didn’t even guarantee admission.

Be absolutely certain to major in a field corporations want

This means engineering or computer science. Ha, ha English or Italian literature majors. Because you’re just not worth paying for if you’re not in an “economically useful” STEM field—what’s a liberal education worth anyway. Let’s all support college as a trade-training mill. And quit your major (engineering is one of the most dropped)? Bye, scholarship.

Be willing to go to a region where no one in their right mind from your area would go

Hello, northern urban person. Enjoy Podunk U. The football games are great. Lotsa school spirit.

Get in.

Any school that has even a slight whiff of full-ride programs will immediately get far more applications, which will mean that your student will have even less chance of actual admission than they might have had before such a “generous” policy was announced. And if you refer to the NYT article above, you’ll see that making the school aware that you need financial aid seriously impacts your chance of admission at all, whatever they’d like you to believe.

It’s not quite as hard as finding a virgin to catch a unicorn. But assuming your kid is smart and will get a “scholarship”–ergo you don’t need to save–is not a financial plan. You’re going to need one.

 

Hands making something with clay

The Deep Value of Useless Things

At the risk of sounding like an aging baby boomer (oops, that is me), I want to put in a pitch to value highly those things that aren’t worth much. So here’s why everyone else is wrong.

A liberal arts or humanities major

There are an awful lot of parents these days who have a seizure if their progeny announce they are majoring in English or worse yet, French literature, art history, or history. This is close on the heels of recovery from the previous seizure when they saw the tuition bill. In the instant mental computation available to every check writing parent, we now know the degree will be worthless and the kid will be decorating cappuccino cups as their highest creative achievement. Particularly for female students, they’ll also feel as if they’ve betrayed feminism if they don’t major in a STEM field. In fact, tell people about a liberal arts major and they’ll immediately feel sorry for you (or your pathetic kid).

Once upon a time I majored in Sociology and minored in creative writing/English. Then I took COBOL and FORTRAN programming. Guess which choice has been more useful to my career, as well as my life? If you guessed computer skills, you’d be wrong. I haven’t made a penny off my computer skills. Technical knowledge quickly becomes defunct, A lot of specific, functional expertise can be gotten off YouTube (how do YOU do home repairs?). You can take an adult ed program or concentrated seminar for specific skills you discover you need.

On the other hand, it’s almost impossible as an adult to get concentrated time over an extended period to immerse yourself in culture, beauty, and deep background. College is very likely the only time in your life when you’ll have such an opportunity. I would have been very disappointed if my already-cosmopolitan daughter had selected some technical training field with the purpose of paying to become corporate cannon fodder at graduation.

Yes, of course we all have to work, and if your heart is in computer science, go for it. But, for most people I think not. At the music camp I just attended, instructor Kevin Carroll (a better musician and teacher than I can ever hope to be) commented that once upon a time everyone wanted to and thought they could be a rock star, and sales of electric guitars boomed. In these times, electric guitar sales have crashed. Now everyone wants to be an app developer or tech billionaire, or just play video games. Is it love, or is it the promise of instant riches? Why do the worst jobs have the best cafeterias? I wanted dearest daughter to keep her eyes on the prize—she needed to become employable at some point and probably no one hires a BA Anthropologist to do anthropology—but she isn’t a dope so she figured that one out for herself. In the meantime she learned a lot about group process, creating alternative solutions to unfamiliar tasks, and read a ton of good books which she thankfully sent home to educate her mom properly.

Playing music with no intention (or hope) of becoming a professional

An orchestra director once lamented to me that his extremely talented students, the ones whose parents were tigers, graduated and went into (pick one) engineering, computer science, or statistics because the parents felt that the only degree worth getting was one that offered instant employment, and music sure wasn’t that. But awards look good on college applications.

I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about performance majors at conservatories, not because of the near-impossibility of finding a job in the field, but because the education is so thin in any other topic. But what a supreme pleasure to play at that level. And I dearly wish I saw those same kids, or their parents, in the audience at musical events. They seem to disappear once the admission letter arrives.

I’m focusing on music here, but I could probably say the same thing about art, or creative writing, or even languages. They are all or individually worth doing because of the immense pleasure and satisfaction they bring to your life, not your work. I’ve enjoyed an obsession with music—guitar, piano, ukulele, dulcimer, Native American flute—for most of my life. I play everyone of them badly, but all I have to do is catch sight of one of my instruments from the corner of my eye to feel happy. I almost never play in front of anyone, nor do I feel I need to.

At times, being able to play or do art has been the only thing that saved my sanity in the large variety of horrible jobs I’ve wended my way through in life. I highly recommend it—and it’s often cheaper than all the stress coping activities that attempt to accustom you to a life with no other relief.

Crafts and hobbies

What I say about music and art goes just as well with crafts and hobbies, although making something may have even more empowerment than replicating someone else’s work. Carpentry, sewing, cooking, rebuilding classic cars, all these things give you control over aspects of your life that hiring someone else never does. There’s the pleasure of mastering the techniques, the lifelong opportunity to improve the technique, and the ability to have something custom, well crafted, and utterly your own.

For example, I make almost all my own clothing, (and much of my jewelry) and have done so since I was about 12 years old. No one ever asks me if I made “xyz”. I like to think it’s because what I make is so expert they’d never think it was “homemade” (I prefer “handmade”), but my strong suspicion is that no one, anymore, recognizes that objects could be handmade unless they come from Ten Thousand Villages.

If you’ve been in my office you’ve seen the stunningly beautiful Mission style “throne” that a friend made for me. He’s organized his professional work so that he can have Fridays for his beloved craft.

Some crafts—knitting, cooking—are relatively easy to learn to a competent degree. Others take years—sewing, carpentry—to reach even a medium level of expertise. How wonderful to be interested in something where there is always more to learn.

Back to sewing—as with most crafts, no, it doesn’t save any money with the cost of fabric and the time spent. And, thanks to cheap clothing available everywhere, there’s no real possibility of making finely-made, quality-fabric garments and realizing any money selling them. But oh, the satisfaction, not only in the finished project but in the pleasure of the activity itself!

Less cash, more human interaction

Just about every night we walk our dog past a house in the neighborhood where we see a family sitting in their expensive house, in front of their bay window, eating out of boxes. I wonder how hard and long they work to pay for those boxes because earning enough to do so means they don’t have time to cook. They are well and truly trapped on the treadmill.

I love that we can learn so many things online (it’s how I learned to crochet), but maybe, just maybe, we could spend time with our kids, or an older relative, getting the fine-tuning that interaction with another human offers. But that would mean we’d have to take some time off the moving sidewalk. Maybe then, we could think not of enduring “getting older” but call it living longer (with so much worthwhile to do).