I’ve felt from day one that my job as a parent is to see who my child is and help him navigate the world through that lens. My former husband and I always agreed that whatever vocation our son was drawn to was just fine with us and we’d help him figure out how to attain that goal. What we didn’t feel was necessary: college just for the sake of attending.
My son knew from very early on that he wanted to be an engineer. His specific interests varied but he was always designing things and modeling ideas on paper and was obviously adept at higher math.
School itself, however, wasn’t a total cakewalk; some subjects were quite difficult. He developed study habits and a work ethic that put me to shame, and made an effort to discuss assignments regularly with his teachers. We live in a very sports-oriented state, but he made a decision going into high school to give up his sport so that he would have more time to study.
The high school he chose offered an engineering track in their curriculum and he took all the classes allowed. He applied for and was accepted to an internship in an engineering department where he learned from both mechanical and civil engineers.
When he first looked at schools, one particular university kept popping up over and over as a great fit for his interests. He was never keen on the liberal arts classes in high school and the idea of paying tuition for a year or more of general classes wasn’t appealing. We discussed a variety of schools’ programs and different housing options including living at home.
He always circled back to the curriculum of the one school, but I discovered by accident that he wasn’t going to apply because of the cost: over $50,000 per year.
We had a long discussion about not ruling out his dream school; he could apply to a variety of schools and we’d talk through the decision once acceptance letters came in. He applied and I began researching (and of course kicking myself for not getting my financial house in order sooner in life, ha).
Our local university, which required general courses and isn’t especially outstanding as an engineering school, is approximately $16,000 per year for tuition and books. Room and board if my son chose to live on campus instead of at home would be $9500 per year. I personally am biased toward students living on campus at least for the first year so that was a realistic option for us. Miscellaneous fees and a meal plan weren’t accounted for in our initial investigation, but can range from several hundred to a few thousand dollars.
His dream school added up to $50,015 when he applied – for tuition, room and board, meals, all fees including a school issued laptop, and books. Their curriculum had only one general course that was designed to ensure all students were researching and writing at the expected level. From the day he applied, he was assigned a liaison at the school. His contact checked in regularly throughout the admissions process, making sure we had all the forms submitted on time for financial aid, for example, and answering any questions about individual majors and classes. My son’s liaison called him personally to tell him he was accepted.
In the meantime, the state school he applied to was silent. Eventually he received a postcard saying, “Welcome to XXX” and the admissions packet sluggishly followed.
After he was accepted to dream school, they required we attend an education weekend, where there were a variety of presentations emphasizing how rigorous and difficult their programs are. Halfway through the day, the prospective students were split up by intended major and taken on a tour that included challenges using actual lab equipment and doing a lot of math 🙂 We parents stayed behind and attended lectures on campus safety, the dedication of staff to ensuring their students succeed, and even more emphasis on the intensity of the academics.
Kiddo was super excited after the weekend trip. The curriculum is exactly what he was looking for, and every single employee we spoke with was incredibly engaged in getting to know the students. We felt like the school’s “customer service” was far above any of the other schools we’d visited, and they especially did an excellent job of not sugarcoating their expectations for academic dedication.
The factors that ultimately swayed my son’s decision:
- The overall interaction with people at the school made the process very personal. They were evaluating him as him: his experience, talents, and academics, not just test numbers.
- He plans to pay for school himself (with loans and money saved from working summers and breaks) so wanted his money well-spent. This school more than fit the bill of not “wasting time” on classes that didn’t pertain to his major.
- He was originally looking at a four-year Civil or Mechanical Engineering degree followed by graduate school for Aerospace Engineering. This school offers a 5-year freshman to master’s degree. He will have the same level of education in four years that most students do in their second or third year of graduate programs.
- Because of the academics, job placement rates are very high. My son expects to have job offers in his junior year. He will be almost guaranteed to find a job where graduate school would be paid by his employer.
- He wants hands-on experience throughout college, since he was exposed to that in high school. This school has some major companies offering summer internships, and these often turn into jobs.
- He wants to be in a school that values diversity, which ruled out some of the big hitters early in his search. This school attracts remarkable students from all over the world (I attended a final speech he gave last spring and some of the students’ stories absolutely blew my mind. I was the weirdo with tears running down my face and a giant smile through nearly all the presentations).
- He wants to be challenged, and there was no question this school would provide a stimulating environment.
From a financial standpoint:
- Dream School offered a tuition deduction that varied in amount for Kiddo’s ACT score. State School did not.
- Dream School offered a tuition deduction varying in amount for Kiddo’s GPA. State School did not.
- Dream School offered a tuition reduction for attending a summer camp (that Kiddo didn’t attend). State School did not.
- Dream School offered a tuition reduction for Kiddo’s engineering-related classes in high school. State School did not.
- Dream School offered a tuition reduction for Kiddo’s high school internship. State School did not.
State school would, at bare minimum, cost us $17,000 per year, and more likely $27,000 at least the first year.
The amount left for us to pay at Dream School? $11,000 per year.
Early on in his college research, my son was reading finance blogs and was even leaning at one point toward tech school due to cost, with the hopes he could leverage it into a four-year degree then graduate school. By following his true interests, however, he found the perfect fit for what he wants out of his education.
This isn’t meant to be an advice piece. Rather, it’s one example of one kid who made a choice based on his personal values and goals rather than on money, that turned out to be a better choice financially as well, and will likely pay off even bigger as a newly graduated engineer in a few years.