saving for college helpIn the coming weeks I’ll be sharing videos, blogs and resources to help families better understand and prepare for all the costs of college. Precisely because a college education has become an incredibly expensive investment, much of my time will be devoted to financial considerations, including an in-depth look at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA as it is known by millions of parents and students. Other topics will include creative ways for parent(s) and students to share the financial burden, the often over-looked but game-changing world of merit aid, and ways to shave off not only classes but semesters, to name a few. Just the other morning I had one of those “college + money” conversations with my son, Jack, who is a junior and is well into his own college search. If you’re not talking about or thinking about or very likely fretting about the financial costs of college, you’re turning a blind eye to a topic that demands your attention.

The cost of college, however, is much more than tuition, or tuition plus room and board, or even the official Cost of Attendance estimate each institution must calculate annually. The cost of college actually looks like this:

Total Cost of College = direct expenses + indirect expenses + opportunity cost + time + energy

Total Cost of College (TCC) is a term I created as a more effective way to consider not only what you’ll pay, but also what you should expect or even demand in return. We’ll dig into each of these categories in future blogs, but today I want to focus on the last two because they are assumed but often neglected: time and energy.

Don’t just “go to the gym”

emptygymThink of TCC as a health club membership. Ever become really excited about getting in shape, find a cool gym in a great location and sign up to a long-term contract only to fizzle out after a few weeks? The paid access to equipment and possibly a personal trainer are the most obvious costs, but they’re wasted money if you never actually go – or if you go and put forth the least amount of effort in order to pat yourself on the back for going to the gym. (Around here we have a saying that “Getting better is better than just getting done”.)

College is like a health club membership. It’s worth absolutely nothing unless you actually go to class, pay attention to what the people in the front of the room are talking about, and do the hard work that’s required to take you from where you are now to where you want to be.

Think for a moment about the time you’ll spend in pursuit of a degree: hours, days, weeks, semesters, years (hopefully no more than four and maybe even a little less). During that time, college becomes your life, and one of the best parts of it is your newfound freedom to schedule your time as you wish. Some things are beyond your control (classes are offered at specific times), but most of your time is precisely that – yours. From the moment you wake up until your head hits the pillow, you set the agenda. Far better writers and thinkers have made the point that we all have the same number of hours in a day, and we really do need to choose carefully how we spend our time. Time, like money, is a limited resource so the word “spend” is entirely appropriate.

Life Lessons from Bluto Blutarsky

BlutoWhen threatened with expulsion, John Belushi’s character in Animal House laments the time costs already invested: “Seven years of college – down the drain!” I’m not in favor of the eternal student but I also recognize that college isn’t a race to the finish line. As a graduate student in fine arts at UW-Madison I was fully aware that tuition didn’t just buy me a degree; it bought me time to develop my craft and also gave me invaluable access to people who could help me learn and grow. I chose Madison’s three-year MFA program over a newly created two-year program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design because of its considerable reputation in academic circles, but also because I knew in my heart that two years just wasn’t enough to get me from where I was to where I needed to be. For an artist, the single-most important factor in a job application is the portfolio. Three years sounds like more than enough time to slap some paint on a canvas but I knew that third year would be necessary to produce the absolute best work and increase my chances of landing a job as a professor. My plan worked, but I readily admit that it came with the added costs of a third year of tuition and the opportunity cost of working part-time vs. full-time.

The Hidden Costs of Time + Energy (or “How a really average artist worked his way into a full-time job with benefits”)

RestYourWearyHeadrestTime by itself wasn’t enough, however. I needed energy. And I spent every ounce I could muster, arriving in my studio early, working until it was time to go to one of my part-time jobs, and approaching my studies in a very focused, pragmatic way that was a bit unusual for an artist, to say the least. People noticed. Truth be told, I wasn’t the most talented applicant and practically forced my way into the Master of Fine Arts program through schmoozing and hard work, and that work ethic carried through once I was admitted. I simply worked harder and longer than most of my peers, and was rewarded with one of the precious few university teaching positions in my field.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is a great title for a book. I agree that elite universities are not the only paths to success (and the data support both Mr. Bruni and myself), but I’d revise this to read Who You’ll Be Is What You Do When You Get There: An Antidote to the Myth that Getting By Is Good Enough. Because if you treat college as an exercise in checking off your to-do list, then all you’ll be when you’re done is older, poorer and finished with college. Harsh words but this is not a time in your life to simply go through the motions. (When is?) And if you don’t put in the time and spend the energy, then all you’ll be left with is a four-year (or more) membership to a health club that you never actually go to on some college campus where you had a great time but didn’t accomplish much. That’s a bad return on your investment, even if you did attend a “cheap” in-state school.

So are you counting all the costs of college? Do you know where to get started and how to dig beyond the sticker price? For help with this and all other college planning questions, give me a call. Or schedule a free one-hour consultation online and let’s get started.