Making Their Own Way

Ken Begley

OUR FIVE KIDS SPENT a collective 24 years in college. All five have bachelor’s degrees, and three also have master’s degrees. The youngest graduated May 2023. Only one child qualified for non-merit aid—a $300 Pell grant.

My wife and I didn’t give them money for college. We don’t live near a major public university, so four of the five had to live on campus. Here’s what prepared them for college and how to pay for it.

First, grade school is more important than college. If a kid gets lost there, you can forget about any other education. They’ll struggle everywhere. But excel at grade school and they’ll be able to make it anywhere. Our kids went to a small rural Catholic grade school. I don’t think the teachers were any better than public school teachers. But the classroom discipline was very conducive to learning.

Next, tell your kids the hard truth. Our oldest child was smarter than average and a forward thinker. Renee came to me in sixth grade and asked, “Daddy, when I go to college, you’ll pay for it, won’t you?” I looked into my daughter’s beautiful brown eyes and said, “No, we won’t.”

I knew at the time that, if we paid for all of our children’s education, we’d have to beg, borrow or steal some $500,000. I explained to Renee that her parents would be ruined financially if we borrowed money for each kid’s college education. The best we could do was get each of them through high school and then they were on their own. We were not going into debt for them.

That was a lot for a sixth grader to take in—but she now knew she’d have to do it on her own. It pushed her to excel. Our oldest set the bar high, and the other kids then followed her lead.

Renee talked to the guidance counselor as soon as she reached high school. She explained her goals for college and her lack of parental support. She did this in the first week of her freshman year. The counselor was surprised. This was unusual for a freshman. The counselor provided some good advice that led to scholarships four years later.

The guidance counselor also put her in contact with a teacher who oversaw a highly active student organization running multiple events each year. Renee took on leadership positions and eventually became the organization’s president. She also had smaller roles in some of the academic clubs. But remember this: It’s better to do a few things extremely well than to have a student resume listing gobs of organizations where the student could only have had minimal involvement.

Competitions are important. Any sort of competition—but particularly academic—should be sought after. It all adds up, whether it is school-wide, district, regional, state or national. Children shouldn’t be afraid to put themselves out there.

Kids should also take every hard or advanced course they can, and then strive to keep their grades up. When struggling, they should stay in constant contact with their teachers. You’d be surprised how much teachers, for the most part, really do want to teach. But you have to ask for help.

Choose college majors wisely. It has a big bearing not only on future job opportunities, but also on the scholarships that are obtainable. My oldest was planning to major in business and later become a lawyer. I was doubtful. Everything I read said the country was drowning in lawyers and it was an expensive degree to get. Then Renee was invited to a gifted student conference at a major university, along with a few hundred other Kentucky high school students.

The students and parents met in a huge gym and were asked to follow the representative of whatever school they were interested in as a major. I’d say 75% of the students and parents got up to follow the engineering school representative. We ditched the business school and went with the engineers. We found out that the job opportunities for engineers were one of the best, if not the best, for students from that university.

It’s also a great idea for the student to work jobs while in high school. It could be fast food, babysitting or pretty much anywhere. It teaches the value of a dollar, looks great on a student resume and shows you can balance school, work and extracurricular activities. The extra money isn’t bad, either.

College entrance exams like SAT and ACT are pretty standard, though some universities don’t require them anymore. But it seems to me that, if you want a big scholarship, they’ll be asking for those scores.

I had my kids test up to 10 times on the ACT to get the highest score possible. Three ended with 31s out of a perfect score of 36. This had a huge bearing on what they ended up with in scholarships.

Look for the big scholarships, internships and conditional job stipends. Three of our kids were selected for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program. Every year, a few get picked for the program from each high school. It was a huge factor when winning multi-year scholarships from Kentucky universities.

The kids all earned money through internships while at college, either during the summer months or during the semester, when the internships served in lieu of classes. Three had part-time jobs during the college academic year as well. Three of our children received stipends from the state while earning civil engineering degrees. In return, they were required to work for the state after graduation. Each of the three kids got about $50,000, and had to work one year for each academic year that they’d received the stipend.

Our youngest was selected to attend a college residential program for math and science students after her sophomore year of high school. This led to a free education and she actually made money each semester. She became a mechanical engineer.

One child didn’t get the big scholarships. Instead, she attended a community college, and later took online and Zoom courses to complete her four-year degree and later her master’s degree in education.

Finally, each came out of college with no student loans and money in the bank. The youngest had $43,000 in her bank account. We have three civil engineers, one mechanical engineer and one grade-school teacher.

True story.

They all have other problems, as does any individual, so don’t envy us. But this part of their lives turned out better than we ever dreamed—and it’s a reason I could retire at age 60.

Ken Begley has worked for the IRS and as an accountant, a college director of student financial aid and a newspaper columnist, and he also spent 42 years on active and reserve service with the U.S. Navy and Army. Now retired, Ken likes to spend his time with his family, especially his grandchildren, and as a volunteer with Kentucky’s Marion County Veterans Honor Guard performing last rites at military funerals, including more than 350 during the past three years. Ken’s previous articles were Loosening My Grip and How I Got This Way.

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