Hi Everyone —
Ron here, the personal finance columnist for ​The New York Times​.​ Thanks so much for your
interest in my new book, ​The Price You Pay for College​.
The book was born of a financial planning challenge that it took me years to recognize. At The Wall Street Journal and then at The Times (where I’ve been since 2008), I ​spilled​ ​a lot​ ​of ink over the question of how to ​save​ for college. After all, 529 plans used to be pretty mediocre. But we’ve solved for the high costs and middling investments for the most part. So, that’s not really a great way to engage with readers — or clients — anymore.
Then, there was the question of how to ​pay​ for college. Starting around 2010, growing numbers of people started washing up and ​out of college​ and ​graduate school​ with six figures in student loan debt. It was well worth using journalism to shine light on bad actors — see-no-evil private universities, for-profit colleges, law schools with poor bar exam passage rates, the failing public service loan forgiveness program. ​I still do it​.
But for you? The advice on debt can be pretty technocratic. It’s not a particularly scintillating conversation.
Several years ago, however, I started hearing from families with different sorts of questions. They knew that we lived in an era of big data. So where, they wondered, was the set of numbers that could explain why Northwestern at full price was $100,000 better than Marquette, once this “merit aid” that schools like Marquette seemed to be tossing around was fully applied? And was Marquette $100,000 better than the in-state rate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the best flagship state schools in all the land?
Turns out I had missed something very important — and I bet some of you did too. ​The biggest question of all in this area is not how to save or how to pay — it’s ​what​ to pay for college​.
It’s entirely possible to spend ​well over $600,000​ for two kids to go to college nowadays, more than what many people pay for a home. And because it involves children, it really is the biggest, most consequential financial decision that many families ever make.
So how do you talk about it? When do you start? And what, exactly, do you say — and ask — to get sources (for me) or clients (for you) to open up?
After years of work in this area, I now know, and I’m putting all of my best questions down below. ​They are yours to take as you wish and use as you will.
I just ask two things:
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1) If my thinking influences yours and you use these questions in client newsletters, please tell the people who receive it that you got some of the ideas from my book. ​ Also, please link to it right here​.
2) If you like the book enough and want to buy a few for clients, please let me personalize the books for them. You can put an order in with my local independent bookstore, send me a spreadsheet or email with names, and I’ll sign them. We can try to get you a bit of a deal off retail too. Please write to me directly at ​ron@ronlieber.com​ to set this up.
That’s it for the asks. Let’s get started.
As we all know, most people like to talk about themselves. And they really like to talk about their college days, if they went to college. So perhaps you should start not with the obvious fact of where they attended — but with the feelings that the decision and the place evoked and still evokes:
Did you attend college?
If not, how did you decide not to?
Any regrets?
What did you like most about college?
Can you tell me a story about that?
And what’s the one thing that you’d like to be different for your kids, if anything?
If there are two parents in the meeting, there’s a pretty good chance that these responses will elicit something that surprises the other spouse. Roll with that. Let fly with a few followups to tease out the discovery — and perhaps any disagreement.
Now, go back further:
What do you remember your parent or parents saying to you the first time they talked about what college would cost and what, if anything, they would pay?
Or if there was silence around the topic of paying for college, what did it speak?
And what happened next?
Now, how much better do you know these clients than you did 30 minutes ago? Good. Keep going.
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Let’s say there are two kids in the mix, ages 2 and 4. Perhaps you proceed as follows, keeping in mind that we’re not even bringing up numbers yet — and that we’re not making any assumptions about possible goals, lest we offend or seem judgmental.
One of my jobs here is to try to get you to think about your most important goals — do you hope that your kids will go to college someday?
If so, you should probably consider saving some money. We don’t have to talk amounts, but we should think about categories a bit, since they can affect the goal and the strategies we might use to get there. So what type of college do you imagine them attending someday?
Now come the forks in the road. Let’s discuss three basic ones.
First, there may be some families that want their kids to work their way through college, just like their parents did and their parents before that. ​This is… extremely hard to pull off these days​. And the notion does beg a few questions.
Do you expect the kids to attend community college for two years and then transfer? And will you pay their living expenses during that time?
Will you let them borrow money from you if the $10,000 or so they can expect to earn each year (in today’s dollars) does not prove to be enough — and they also max out their federal student loans?
Second, there may be the sky’s-the-limit families — their parents scrimped and saved and paid in full for them, and they’re going to do it for their own kids too, no matter what. Or maybe they’ve spent years paying off undergraduate student loan debt, and they’re dead-set on making sure their children have all options open without having to worry about loans.
This presents some obvious and not so obvious questions:
Do you wish to have the $1 million saved that it might require to pay in full for two kids, 15 years from now, by the time they start college?
If not, how much do you think it will be possible to pay out of current income at that point, given your current profession?
How much might you be willing to borrow — or delay repayment of your own student loans? How long are you willing to delay retirement to meet this goal?
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If your parents paid your way, is it possible that you should not feel obligated to do the same, given how much the world has changed?
And if your parents paid nothing, have you asked yourself whether 15 years of extreme thrift starting now (or going deep into debt 15 years from now to pay for your child’s first-choice college) may not erase whatever pain lingers from that period long ago — or may create new conflict with your spouse and kids?
These may seem like absurd questions to be asking about an unknown expense for children of unknown academic prowess 15 or 20 years in advance, but the numbers are too large to ignore. I know I don’t have to tell you this, but you may need to tell them if their eyebrows go up or the heads go into the sand.
Meanwhile, I keep running into more and more people in an ill-defined third place. They may have the ​ability​ to pay $300,000 in today’s dollars or borrow a non-insane amount of money to get there — or they may be on a trajectory to do so. But they are increasingly questioning whether they should have the ​willingness.​
Perhaps they haven’t articulated it quite like this yet, which means you can do it for them — perhaps by literally sketching an ability-> willingness continuum on a piece of paper and letting them visualize it. Then, you should be listening for some version of the following: “We’ll pay for a really good private college, but only a really, ​really​ good one.”
Which might lead to:
How are you going to define “really” good?
If it’s by U.S. News ranking, you do realize that the list doesn’t say much about what might be right for particular kinds of students, right?
If really good is Ivy League only, do you know that for academically minded students, these can be terrible places to go to college, given how little interest many star faculty have in interacting with undergraduates? In fact, they often brag about not having to do so at all. Having to teach teenagers is a sign of lack of status.
The “Great or State” strategy sounds nice, but once you ask a few probing questions, it eventually turns very gray. And if it doesn’t? Here’s where you go next:
Are you a snob?
Are you a stone?
Some people are happy to admit to their own prejudices or elitism when it comes to college. Others are more worried about how other people’s snobbery will affect their kids — say in the
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hiring department at McKinsey or Google or on the medical or law school admissions committees. Either way, it’s good to talk about these things, if you dare to ask.
The I-am-a-rock stuff is something parents may not yet question, but they should get ready. They are going to spend years cultivating these kids — to make them ready for the wider world and, most likely, anything and everything that college has to offer. They will ask their kids to work hard in middle school and high school.
And then, finally, the college choice will come. And these beloved children may well look at their parents, tears in their eyes if the parents are lucky but maybe some screaming and slammed doors if there is anger and disappointment, and ask the parents to do more, pay more, work more, borrow more.
If you are a rock, made of stern stuff, you’ll stay stony-faced and stick with the plan. But most parents don’t. And that’s how we got to $1.7 trillion dollars in student loan debt.
Maybe that’s fine. You’re not there to solve a national policy problem with your clients. But there is a pretty good chance that they are very, very far from being fully in touch with their feelings on this matter.
Facts they can find on their own, or in my book.
But feelings? That’s your job. I hope this helps you do it even better.
ronlieber.com