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.

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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