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College in 72 Hours

Greg Spears

OUR NEPHEW JESSE, age 19, took a gap year after high school to explore meditation and work for UPS. He’s a great kid. But he had worn out his welcome with family friends in Florida, so he decided to sleep in his car.

That was in May—and that’s when we invited him to live with us in Pennsylvania.

Jesse hasn’t had an easy life. His mother died of cancer when he was four years old. He became the youngest of four kids in a blended family. We wanted to help Jesse the way his mother—my wife’s sister—would have if she were still here.

After a few weeks, we knew that Jesse was extremely bright and intellectually curious. He can discuss the elements of the periodic table and breathing techniques for relaxation. He’s also a teenager, doing dumb things like losing his debit card. We felt his best path forward was to enroll in college, the same way our kids had been launched into the world.

There was only one little problem: Classes began in a month.

When our son and daughter applied to college, it was a two-year slog. We scoured the college guide books for small schools that change lives. There were campus visits. SAT prep classes. A software package that handicapped the odds of admission to any college. By the time we dropped our youngest at Franklin & Marshall, my wife Laurie could have made a living as a college admissions consultant.

We had been down this road before—only now we were traveling at 120 mph.

Jesse needed financial aid for college. He didn’t qualify for in-state tuition in Pennsylvania, so even community college would be expensive. As we considered options, the opacity of the college application process was frustrating. You don’t know what a college will cost when you apply, even though it’s one of life’s largest expenses.

A retired college dean told us there might be large scholarships available at small, private schools for a student as good as Jesse. He earned a 3.87 grade point average in high school. His SAT scores placed him among the top 5% of students. He had passed four Advanced Placement tests, including biology and calculus.

We began by cold-calling small private colleges in our area, places like Susquehanna, Chestnut Hill, Moravian, Immaculata, Ursinus, Ithaca and Hobart. Almost all were interested in Jesse for this fall. But only one, Alfred University in upstate New York, said they still had substantial merit money left to award.

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Our son’s girlfriend had graduated from Alfred, and she recommends it. It has small classes, a warm atmosphere and open-minded students. Alfred is nestled among forests and farmland, far from the big city lights. But that was a plus to Jesse, who likes to camp and hike.

Now all we needed to do was apply—immediately. On a Tuesday night, after working all day at a farm, Jesse wrote his admission essay in under an hour. It was a fluid discourse on the nature of consciousness. As I said, this is a kid who belongs in college. The next day, a kind-hearted administrator at Jesse’s old high school sent his transcript—plus the required teacher recommendation, which the school still had on file—to Alfred.

My wife formed a phone connection with an admissions officer at Alfred, who kept us posted on what was received and what was still needed for Jesse’s application. On Friday night, she told us informally that Jesse was accepted, and recommended for the top award—$25,000 a year in merit aid. His FAFSA form for need-based aid knocked another $5,000 off the sticker price.

Laurie and I agreed to pay Jesse’s room and board, which is $10,300 a year. Altogether, we whittled the cost of Jesse’s college down to less than $12,000 a year. That can be paid by his dad or using federally subsidized loans, or with a combination of both. That’s certainly not free—but it’s on par with a community college if he lived with us in Pennsylvania.

After his acceptance, Jesse visited Alfred and liked it, and now he’s back there again for his first semester. We’ll miss him at the dinner table, but it’s time for him to fly the nest. We hope that college will help him find his place in this big world. There are hundreds of good colleges where a smart kid like Jesse can make a start. And we discovered you can shop among them and find a bargain—even when you have just 72 hours.

Greg Spears worked as a reporter for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. After leaving journalism, he spent 23 years as a senior editor at Vanguard Group on the 401(k) side, where he implored people to save more for retirement. Greg currently teaches behavioral economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as an adjunct professor. The subject helps shed light on why so many Americans save less than they might. He is also a Certified Financial Planner certificate holder. Check out Greg’s earlier articles.

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Helpful Neighbor
Helpful Neighbor
1 month ago

Just got a chance to read. Wonderful. You and your wife picking up room and board- beautiful. May God continue to bless you.

booch221
booch221
1 month ago

$12,000/year is still a lot of money. If he gets student loans he will graduate $48,000 in debt.

How long do you have to be a resident of PA to qualify for in-state tuition?

Which state is he a resident of and why didn’t he look at colleges there?

Last edited 1 month ago by booch221
Christopher Galen
Christopher Galen
1 month ago

My now junior in college daughter did a summer astronomy camp at Alfred three years ago (she ended up closer to home). It’s a cute campus and seemed to have a nice college town atmosphere. Hopefully the western NY winters will be manageable.

ostrichtacossaturn7593
ostrichtacossaturn7593
1 month ago

I agree with Andrew Forsythe — your professional journalism was evident in this article! And as the father of a high school Junior who is not quite as academically oriented as her two older siblings, I was glad to learn that a software package exists “that handicaps the odds of admission to any college.” Would you mind sharing the name of that software, or any other related details? Thanks!

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
1 month ago

My daughter’s small high school had this “admission odds” software over 15 years ago. It is called Naviance . Every high school guidance department must have it by now. It was pretty accurate 15 years ago and is probably even better now.

Greg Spears
Greg Spears
1 month ago

Thanks for your kind words. The software package was called Naviance, and our access to it was provided by our children’s high school. It let you know the admissions success rate of previous students with similar characteristics from our school. Hope this is helps!

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
1 month ago

Excellent piece, Greg, and what a life changing turn you and your wife did for Jesse. And your journalism background shows—beautifully written.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 month ago

Nice story. It’s good to hear that if there is a will, there is a way still exists. I know F&M well, three of my children graduated from there.

Charlie Warner Jr
Charlie Warner Jr
1 month ago

Heart warming story. I recently read a book “Cracks in the Wall”. A true story about “gems” like Jessie and “gem finders” who help these gems break through the cracks in the wall. Greg you and your wife are truly “gem finders”. A true inspiration for me.

Newsboy
Newsboy
1 month ago

Great article! In an era of digital everything, there is something to be said for just picking up the phone and calling these schools! Kudos to Jesse for taking this important next step in his life journey. He is blessed to have you and your wife as loving good shepherds by his side.

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