Why My Kiddo Attends a Private University

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 ūüôā 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.

 

 

 

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Raising Consumer Savvy Kids

For those of you with young children, think back over the media aimed at families that you’ve seen in the past week. Television, magazines, ads placed next to your Facebook feed, and so forth.

How many ads can you recall promote a product for children? Toys, clothing, vitamins, sports equipment….

How many ads or even plain images can you recall promote just being a kid? Running, jumping, making up stories, dancing to no music, making swords out of sticks, singing nursery rhymes?

There’s an overwhelming message in our society that children’s culture is consumer culture.

 

Somewhere in the timeline of families becoming more child-centered and the advent of family social time being focused on watching a television show together, companies started researching marketing tactics that hooked consumers at an earlier age. Companies like Disney have spent huge sums of money finding ways to create “cradle to grave” brand loyalty. Studies show that infants as young as 6 months can recognize brand logos, and splashing a nursery with corporate characters just reinforces those connections in developing brains.

Food with cartoon characters featured on the packaging is placed at a child’s eye level, and before we know it, a toddler has to have a Frozen dress and lunchbox and listens to the soundtrack in the car and eats Frozen-themed chicken nuggets and gets Frozen toys in the drive-through. As busy parents we think we are making choices for our kids, but in reality the corporations behind child marketing are making the choice for us if we are mindless consumers ourselves.

 

The first step in minimizing the effect of childhood marketing is to minimize the exposure. 

 

In 2011, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 90% of parents said their children under 2 watched some form of electronic media one to two hours per day. ¬†At the time the academy recommended no screen time for children under two years of age. Even with the AAP’s recommendation changing in 2016 to allow for families’ habits changing over the years, multiple studies show that sleep patterns and language development¬†are disrupted in children who do have media exposure before age two.

When I was pregnant with my son (nearly 20 years ago) I found myself reading numerous journal and research articles in the neuroscience section of my university library, specifically on then-current studies of infant brain development and the importance of free play and parent interaction.

For me and my son’s father it was easy to choose not to let¬†our baby watch TV – even without my readings and our pediatrician’s recommendation, in our new parent bliss¬†we didn’t¬†want or need our baby in front of a screen. We wanted to play with him, read to him, and cuddle and bathe and sleep. Sure, we recorded new episodes of X-Files to watch on the rare night we weren’t exhausted and the baby was sleeping, and we loved movies, but we were also active, outdoorsy types and were living in a town where it was easy to find like-minded people and things to do.

We mostly had second-hand clothing and selected items that were free of logos or characters. We limited toys and asked that gifts from grandparents were books, or free-building Lego sets when age appropriate. We cooked at home and made baby food by mashing up what we were eating.

For us, then, limiting exposure was the easy part. Or so I smugly thought. I vividly remember a day driving with my baby strapped in his rear-facing car seat, and seeing his little arm excitedly pointing out the window. “Do you see an airplane?” “Unh, unh!” “A car?” “Unh!” What in the world was he looking at?? And then it dawned on me: “Are you pointing at that yellow sign?” “Gai!” (which meant “yes” in his made-up language). He was pointing at the sign of a place he had never been to, never seen a commercial for, and never heard a word about: McDonald’s. Even though we were positive he didn’t actually recognize the logo, he responded to it just as enthusiastically as if we’d gone there the day before.

From that point on we became much more proactive with our anti-consumer endeavors. It was no longer good enough to keep our kiddo in our little bubble until he was walking and speaking actual English instead of a mishmash of sign and his own language, because he already understood way more about the world around him that we’d expected.

Like many issues we as parents face with our children, it’s important to talk. Repeatedly. At different ages and throughout our children’s lives.¬†

We started calling out various marketing ploys we saw wherever we went. At the grocery store, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? See how easy it is for you to reach the toys? That’s because the store wants you to like that¬†toy.” “But¬†I do like that toy!” “And we can visit it next time we come here to get food.”

Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? The store wants you to think that you need that toy.” “But what if I do need that toy?” “Do you have a toy at home?” “Yes!” “Then you want that toy, you don’t need it, and that’s okay, we’ll visit this toy the next time we come here to get food.”

Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display on the end of the shelf? You know how the store wants you to like¬†that toy so you will buy it? Let’s try to find how many other places you can find that same character in the store. How many times does this store try to make you buy that toy?”

Then, a couple of years later, “See that toy display? Remember when you were little and really wanted that toy? Would you still play with it today?”

kiddo riding no-handed while I’m naturally envisioning him falling into the river to the left

 

It’s also important to talk about the different types of messages used in marketing – and not just marketing directed at kids.¬†

It’s simple to spot toy product placement, but messages about what we as humans need¬†in order to be happy is force fed all of us every day. Any media we exposed our son to we did very deliberately and talked through the entire thing – every radio commercial, every videotaped children’s movie, even books.

We talked about how these things made us feel. We talked about what the intent might be (of the author, or the commercial writer, or the movie character that just said something worth discussing). We talked about the things our family valued (always being able to talk to each other, honesty, being kind, being true to ourselves and standing up for what we believe is right). We talked about how the message in whatever we were passively interacting with fit into our family’s idea of a healthy world.

The first time I realized that all my ramblings did in fact have¬†meaning to our son, we were once again driving, listening to the radio, when suddenly after a truck commercial a little voice announced, “Oh MAN! That one GOT me! That GM vehicle really got me! I really want a GM vehicle now!”

 

Realize that it’s not just messages about stuff that reinforce the idea we need to buy in to a certain way of living to be happy.

Here’s where you might think I’m a nut, and as with all things parenting, take the pieces that work for your family and leave the rest ūüôā

As a toddler my son loved purple and glitter, loved trucks and construction equipment, loved his toenails painted like his friends, loved playing with sticks as if they were swords, and loved his weekly dance¬†class. Every week I overheard other moms speaking in hushed horror that they’d never let their son wear nail polish¬†and a¬†sparkly¬†shirt. Sometimes other kids would ask if he was a girl, and he’d cheerfully say, “Nope, I like this shirt when I dance, it’s¬†fun!”

When we went clothes shopping, we talked about how the stores decide what is for boys and what is for girls when it comes to t-shirt colors. I remember more than once uttering, “Target is trying to tell you girls don’t like football and boys don’t like purple.¬†I think that should be your decision about your body.”

We also discussed that most families didn’t think the same way as we did, so other kids might say¬†“boy” colors or “girl” colors, and that’s okay for them if that¬†is what makes them feel happy. Because these were concepts we’d talked about for years, our kiddo had no problem being confident in his choices and explaining them to anyone who asked. His wardrobe changed quite a bit over the years, but his ability to find his own way¬†without worrying about what society expected of him remained steady.

 

Don’t get me wrong, our son was still a material-driven kid — he’s collected things over the years from Legos to Hot Wheel cars to Yu-Gi-Oh playing cards to video games to computer parts to bicycles, in roughly that order. But he can tell me exactly why he chose to let every single one of those items into his life. He also has no trouble letting those things leave his life once he’s moved on (um… I’m the one that still has a tote full of cars and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and I hope he never outgrows his Legos!).

 

It’s not just what we buy, but¬†why¬†that makes us mindless spenders.¬†

I readily admit my parenting experiment was conducted with just one child, but our choices as parents have hopefully helped shaped a¬†discerning consumer. I’m sure he’ll have things happen in his life that shape his relationship with money, just as we all do. I’m hopeful that¬†being able to identify his impulses and how they are affected by his surroundings¬†will be a solid enough foundation to avoid the mindless spending traps so many of us have spent years¬†trying to reverse.

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Why Does Santa Only Bring Presents to Rich Kids?

This was a question my preschooler asked from the backseat after we’d volunteered decorating Christmas baskets to hold donations.

He wasn’t asking for himself, even though he would get one present from his parents and another few from his grandparents. ¬†As a non-churchgoing family we chose to limit presents from the beginning and focus on the spiritual parts of the winter season that, to me, are magical and grounding even though we don’t belong to a church.

When he was very young, it was obvious my kiddo was quite literal in his interpretation of how the world worked (he is now an engineering student so our instincts were right!). ¬†If we visited the mall he turned away from people dressed as cartoon characters; they weren’t real and he didn’t like their giant heads.

I can’t remember exactly how we landed on the idea of not introducing Santa as a gift-giver, but it definitely made sense to us. ¬†I grew up with Santa, and have delightful memories of ripping off paper to see what he brought. ¬†As new parents, however, we didn’t want the holiday to be about Stuff. ¬†We included Santa in our Christmas stories, but he was just that, a story of one way that Christmas is celebrated in our wonderful diverse world.

We chose to live in the middle of a city that is both racially and economically diverse, and took advantage of our location to explore different cultures whenever possible. ¬†We didn’t have a lot of money but helping those in our community has always been important to our family, so we volunteered for organizations that allowed young children to participate.

One of the earliest volunteering opportunities we had was decorating holiday baskets to hold donated items that would be delivered to clients. ¬†After a couple of years we started adopting a basket, which was especially fun as we could “match” with someone who had a cat and a child, just like us. ¬†We shopped from a list of hoped for items, most of which were necessities but the organization always requested people list items just for fun as well.

The first year we adopted a basket, my son was delighted to get our list assignment, and he had many questions over the following days.

“Are we going to Target? ¬†I think we should go to Target. ¬†Do you think this boy would like Hot Wheel cars? ¬†Is it ok to give him a Hot Wheel car that I really like? What if we get more presents that what it says, will he have to give one to someone else?”

“What’s a crock pot?”

“What if our presents don’t fit in the holiday box?”

“Do you think his cat likes crinkly balls too? ¬†Will his cat be sad that he doesn’t get very many presents?”

“Mom…. I think it’s more funner to get presents for my boy because I know he will be happy.”

“Mom? ¬†If my boy’s family doesn’t have money to buy him presents, because the dad is sick, what if they don’t have money for the doctor?”

“A boy at my school said he is getting a lot of presents from Santa. ¬†If Santa is real, how come he brings presents to kids with money? ¬†If I believe in Santa will he bring me presents, and I can give them to kids with no money?”

“Do you think my boy believes in Santa? ¬†I hope he likes Hot Wheel cars.”

 

Now, as an adult, my son has admitted that he’s glad we never lied to him about Santa (he definitely wasn’t gonna buy into the Easter Bunny!), and he and his friends are still the most empathetic, grounded, generous group of young adults I’ve ever known.

I truly believe that children are born connected to the wider world, the soul of humanity, and the spirit of the Earth, regardless of their spiritual/religious traditions. ¬†Once they’re old enough to recognize differences, they are naturally incredibly generous. ¬†It’s our parenting and our culture that slowly retrain the ability to identify¬†with someone¬†that isn’t like us in some way. ¬†Gift-giving should be about making a connection with a fellow human. ¬†Sometimes this means you see a coffee cup on vacation in the tropics that you know your friend will love (because there’s a very real looking ceramic roach in the bottom and she is terrified of bugs but will still think it’s hilarious) (ok so I was the recipient and I didn’t think it was funny at first but it’s pretty dang funny); sometimes this means you spend hours reading every birthday card in the store to find just the right words (my mom does this and we absolutely treasure the cards); sometimes this means you buy every kitchen item on a gift-basket list and then also the CD and sweater even though it’s more than you spend on the rest of your family; sometimes it means you give a boy a Hot Wheel car he didn’t ask for because cars are your favorite, most loved thing in the world and you want to share.

Santa, therefore, has no place in my giving traditions. ¬†He’s too busy running a toy-building empire, flinging toys from the list into his sleigh, and eating a bazillion cookies to offset the caloric requirement of climbing in and out of chimneys all night across the world to know anything more than whether someone is Naughty or Nice.

I do acknowledge the pure magic of Santa. ¬†I remember most of my presents from Santa better than those from my parents in my younger years. ¬†But even more than gift-delivering, I find the usage of Santa as a behavioral bribe utterly abhorrent, for many reasons. ¬†It’s bad enough that we tend to overindulge our consumerist cravings, but now in a season that is full of anxious, stressed adults; loads of sugar; and a lot more driving to and fro than usual, we make exclamations like, “If you keep fighting with your sister, Santa won’t bring you any presents!” ¬†And even worse, to my mind, is using the recent Elf on a Shelf to make the threat and remove ourselves even further from empathy (as a coworker recently showed a group of us; I was appalled but everyone else thought it was genius. ¬†It did cleverly rhyme, I’ll give her that).

To me, these actions not only fly in the face of my anti-consumerist leanings, but miss the point of celebrating at all. ¬†Gift-giving should make you pause to reflect on the things you see are important to another person, and given in love. ¬†During the winter holidays, gift-giving should be from the heart of your spiritual tradition while being respectful of the recipient’s. ¬†Gift-giving should never be a contest and should never be about the Gift — but about the act of Giving. ¬†Of thinking about what matters. ¬†Of thinking about the people, because the connection in our mere humanity¬†matters.

 

Santa hats on pets, however, I wholeheartedly support.  And Elf is required viewing in my home at minimum once per Christmas break!

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