College Planning: What You Need To Know

What You Need To Know About College Planning

Higher education, like college, can also come with a higher price tag. It’s a daunting expense for the majority of families.  An expense that can rapidly creep up on you if you aren’t thinking ahead and even then the price of a two, four, or more-year degree can have you blanching at the thought of writing those checks.  Join Janna as she is joined by Brad Baldridge, a financial advisor and creator of Taming the High Cost of College as they discuss getting a handle on the cost of college and ways to make the process a little easier. 

ABOUT OUR GUEST | Brad Baldridge is a College Funding Specialist who has helped thousands of families plan and save for college with smart and proven strategies to save time, money, and stress. As a financial expert, blogger, and host of the Taming the High Cost of College podcast, Brad has been sharing his college planning insights with clients, subscribers, and listeners for nearly 20 years. He teaches parents the best ways to save and pay for college, including how to find the right school, maximize financial aid and scholarships, avoid student loan debt, and make your children’s college dreams come true without wiping out your finances or retirement. Since 1998, Brad has become one of the nation’s leading college planning and college finance experts. He offers life-changing advice through his private practice, his online platforms, and numerous workshops, seminars, and events each year.

Janna (00:00):

Welcome to Homeschool Your Way. I'm Janna Koch, your host, and BookShark's community manager. As a homeschool mom of three with two 17-year-olds that are juniors, this topic is really pressing in our household. We're going to be talking about what homeschoolers need to know about college, and my guest is an expert in these things. Brad Baldridge has created Taming The High Cost of College. You can find it online. You can also search for his seminars, and he's a fellow podcaster. Let me introduce Brad Baldridge.

Brad (00:35): Hi, thanks for having me.

Janna (00:37): Brad. I am nervous. I am nervous because I feel like... Let's just jump right in. I have probably missed some deadlines and missed the boat. My girls are juniors in high school and we are now just starting to really be intentional about talking about colleges and the cost of college. Before you talk me off the ledge, I'd like you just to introduce yourself and let our audience know where they can find you on social media.

Brad (01:08): All right. Yeah, my name's Brad Baldridge. I spend a lot of time working on various college areas and I can be... Primarily the website. I have a little bit out there on Facebook as well under Brad Baldridge and Taming The High Cost of College and YouTube. I'm going to be launching a YouTube channel hopefully in the next couple of months.

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Janna (01:29): Great. Well, I think the first question that probably people would love answered is how did you get involved in taming the high cost of college?

Brad (01:42): Yeah, so I'm a financial advisor, so I work with families about retirement and saving and investing and that type of stuff. I realized that college was one of the big challenges that a lot of families were up against and a confluence of events. It's been getting more and more expensive. More and more kids are going, and it's a bigger deal now, where it has been derailing financial plans because people didn't realize what it was going to cost or they didn't find the low-cost option. They ended up signing for major loans and blowing up their retirement or those types of things. The more I got into it, the more I realized that there are a lot of things you can do, but it isn't clear which things will work for which types of families. I realized there was a lot of value to add by helping families understand the whole process and leverage the process to their advantage instead of just stumbling through it.

Janna (02:34): It truly is a process. It's almost like this black hole that people know is out there and they know that one day, more than likely, they're going to be stepping into it and they have some reference if they have gone to college, but as you said, things have changed dramatically since probably a parent now, looking for their children, when they went and what their parents had to deal with. As you come in and you are talking with people who are, I imagine frantic, because now all of a sudden, we thought we had a plan, and with inflation, with the cost of higher education, this plan that we were just sailing and it felt it was a smooth road, is now a giant cliff that we're getting ready to jump off of. As for that very person I just described, I think maybe we start with timing. When is the best time for parents, homeschool parents, and parents just in general, to start thinking about college?

Brad (03:41): Right. So I would recommend the sophomore year of high school as a good time to really buckle down and start trying to figure out specific plans. Now, certainly, if you've got a two-year-old at home or something like that, you can plan for college in the... Let's set up a savings or let's do some budgeting and that kind of thing. I would call that early stage planning where you don't know the college, you don't know a lot of details, you don't know what your two-year-old's going to major in, et cetera, et cetera, but once you start getting freshman, sophomore, junior year of high school, now it's becoming real. You realize that your student is likely college-bound or not. Maybe they're starting to think about majors and careers and it's much more real. As you've mentioned, you've got a junior and you're feeling already behind.

(04:31): To prevent that, I encourage families to jump into it sophomore or even freshman year. The challenge is most families are trying to figure out high school the freshman year, so I'll let you off on the freshman year and then maybe jump right in sophomore year. With homeschooling, of course, maybe the years don't matter as much, but two or three years out is, I think, important for most families to really start digging in and understanding because there are things that parents can do and you don't really need your student to participate. Like will we qualify for need-based aid? How does merit aid work? Do we have a savings plan? Is it effective? Should we be doing more or less differently? Et cetera, et cetera. Then there are the things that you actually do with the student. They need to hopefully figure out what they want to be when they grow up, but then in addition to that, you're trying to figure out what kind of schools you might be interested in.

(05:27): You might be doing some school visits and obviously, the students would go with you. Testing. Is the student going to have to take the ACT or SAT and is it once and done? Are they going to take it two or three times and prep and do the best they can? Scholarships? What kind of scholarships are you going to pursue? I had a family that did 40 scholarship applications and they won seven for $39,000 and that sounds great. Most people say, "Oh, I'd love to do that," until they start really thinking about it. How long does it take to do 40 scholarship applications?

(06:02): It wasn't a Sunday afternoon. It was many Sunday afternoons. Both the student and the parents work hard to get it done. Now again, if it pays off $39,000, it's probably worth your time and effort, but that means you got to figure out what to do and how to do it and have enough time to actually get it done. That's where most families I'm talking with don't do 40 scholarship applications because they don't have the time because they're still trying to get the visits done, they're still trying to figure out what school they want to go to. Usually, time is one of the major constraints.

Janna (06:37): Well, not only that, as a homeschool parent, we're still working on getting the curriculum done as well. You have that added factor. Now I will speak from experience. I have twins and one has very clearly known what she wanted to do. She has researched and found the college that has the very specific program that she wants. I'm not going to lie, it's a very high-cost college. Now, her twin sister on the other hand doesn't quite know what she was going to do, and is very anxious about the idea of having to decide at 17 where she wants to go. Then obviously thinking about the money and how she's going to use our money to get there, and what if she changes her mind. Practically speaking, I can say I'm grateful for the one that has a plan, but everyone knows the best-laid plans can be derailed by so many things.

(07:33): I think that as a parent, it's super important to understand for our children that decisions can be made and decisions can be made with as much information as we have without putting pressure on our children to have this decision made that it feels like they're boxed in. I think sometimes as homeschool parents, we're just trying to get our kids to like American literature and write the essays that we need. This idea of college does sneak up on us because we're focused on their learning. Then specifically, well, what is she good at or what is he good at? Where do I think he's going to go? So I have said to my daughter, "State school is probably a better option for you if you don't know what you want to do yet, because we don't necessarily need you to be spending high dollars, unlike your sister who has a very specific program," and it's funny because these are things that I don't think an average parent is necessarily processing as their children are working through their high school courses.

Brad (08:38): Absolutely. There's a lot to unpack there, but one thing is first of all, and I don't know what the true statistics are. Maybe it's 50/50, maybe it's 60/40, whatever, but there are again, those students that are very focused and they've always wanted to be an engineer from the time they learned what they do or they're very interested in computer science or they're very interested in becoming an author or whatever it is. Then you've got those students that, "Well, today I want to be... Maybe biology sounds good, and the next day, I want to be a lawyer, and the next day, well, it's back to the science." Both are right. You have to plan accordingly because of that. That's the first thing. The other thing around homeschooling is in high schools, a lot of the counselors in that type of thing are starting to track students.

(09:29): In other words, they start talking to them about what do you think you're interested in and how well are you doing in math. Oh, you're a computer science kind of kid. Well, we'll make sure you get all the computer courses that the high school offers and verify and do some of those things. Then they're also saying, "Well, what are the college requirements if you want to be an engineer," let's say. Well, you really should top out the math at the high school and the physics and chemistry and all those things, whereas if you're going more towards some liberal arts or writing or English or something like that, then maybe you want to be topping out all the language courses, the English courses or whatever it might be. They're helping students lay out that curriculum. In a homeschool situation, now parents are responsible to pick up what that school counselor is doing.

(10:24): Again, a great example of, well before you know it, they're going to be 16, 17, 18 and off to college, and you need to make sure you lay out that curriculum and know what the colleges require so that your homeschool provides it. They may want some form of a transcript, and certainly, there are services out there that help generate transcripts and that type of thing. Some colleges will need some verification that they're college ready, especially as you get to the more competitive colleges. Then testing is probably important. If you can do well on the college test, the ACT or SAT, I think that makes a lot of colleges feel a little more comfortable that the student did learn their math or their various sciences.

(11:12): Certainly, if they can pass the AP chemistry exam or those types of things. Again, another indication that however, they learned it, they don't care, but they verify that they did actually learn it. That's where I think some colleges are nervous. Of course, there are other colleges that are very homeschool friendly and they already have systems in place, so that's another thing that parents can start digging into, is what types of colleges are we looking for and at what academic level, and how do we get prepared for those types of colleges?

Janna (11:44): I would say in my research, I found that there are colleges that actually have homeschool admission pages that they've created, Princeton being one of them. So there definitely are colleges that are now seeing with this influx of homeschool children looking for college entrants, that they're making adaption so that parents can find the information that they need and say, "Okay, we don't have an AP science course, but here is what we need to see from you." Love the internet. Love that it's twofold. It can be very overwhelming. Unfortunately, sometimes Google does not give me the answers I'm looking for, but it was comforting to see that there are quite a few articles and things that will help homeschool parents see that there are very homeschool-friendly colleges. They have their own pages for homeschool admissions, so those types of things are out there for homeschool families.

Brad (12:41): Right. Absolutely. My recommendation there would be to plug into people that have gone before. If you've got a 12-year-old and you know some homeschoolers that have 15-year-olds that are in the college process, touch base with them every once in a while or find those blogs where they talk about that type of stuff because the other thing is it's just changing landscape. There are the Montessori schools, there are home schools, there are all these alternative education paths now, and colleges are embracing some of them because they've taken some of those students and they've been fantastic students, so they'll take more. Other times, they've had bad experiences. That's the challenge that you're up against. From the colleges' side, outside looking in, they're trying to make sure that the students they accept will be successful. Nobody wants to bring a student on and have them gone in a semester or two. It's a lot of time and expense, obviously, for the family, and it doesn't work well for the college. They would much rather fill a seat where you show up and pay for four years instead of one.


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Janna (16:43): Well, Brad, you created a very handy tool on your website that does put into practice what you're saying about pricing per state. Do you want to go ahead and share that?

Brad (16:57): Sure. On my website is the net price of college by state. Just go to the website. There's a resources tab there where you can get the cost of colleges by state. What it does is it lists most of the prominent colleges in the state and what their prices were, but it also shows what the net cost was for various incomes. Again, a hypothetical example, it might say like, "Well, here's that private school at 65,000, but the average family earning between 0 and 25,000 paid on average 12,000 or 15,000 after all the aid that they received." Now in the very low incomes, you're getting aid from the federal government typically, the state government, and potentially the college themselves. Between all of those things, substantial amounts come off of that list price.

(17:51): That same college in the 110,000 of income plus, so the high income, might again be 35,000 on average. If you look at the state schools, and some state schools do offer some scholarships or there might be a state scholarship program that's not from the college itself, but from the state where the sharp kids get 2000 or 3000 or 5000 off in that particular state or at that particular college, so it's academically based, but then there's also a lot of need-based programs in states, again, where even at the state school, it might list at 25,000 and the high-income average 24,000, which tells you that maybe there's not a lot of aid available to the high income, and then it might be 10 or 12,000 or 4,000 or something relatively low for the low-income families. That's, I wouldn't say by design, but it makes sense because what has happened is they've raised the prices on colleges until everybody says, uncle.

(19:00): Paying 5,000 or $10,000 if your income is 25,000 or less is very challenging. Paying $40,000 for college when your income is between 110 and 150 is doable, but very challenging. They've been raising prices, but recently, when they raised the price, they also raised the scholarship. The net cost of college is not going up nearly as fast as it used to be, because they've topped it out. Most families are finally saying, "Well, if it's going to be that much, we're just going to have to find a different option." Colleges have realized that they've gotten to the top of where they can be and there are fewer kids graduating each year now, so there are fewer students for them to fight over. Pricing and COVID have caused pricing to level out, at least for the last couple of years. Whether or not it'll continue, we don't know of course, but that's part of the process as well.

Janna (20:02): Well finally, the people have spoken and somebody heard.

Brad (20:06): Right. Exactly.

Janna (20:06): We said, "Enough is enough," because I went to a private mid-level college, and it's been a long time, but if I think back, it was probably like 12,000 a year and 20 years ago, that was quite a bit of money, but now, you tell people that and they're like, "Sign me up. We can make that happen." It's interesting. When I did go on your site and look at that tool, I was comforted to know that I wasn't necessarily having to rule out some schools for one of my daughters because of the price.

(20:48): I think it's those types of tips that maybe homeschool parents know, maybe they don't, but it's worth looking into those types of resources to start getting a good idea of what is this cost and is it doable and how do we make it doable? Because I'm the type of mom that's going to sit there and do 40 scholarship applications to get seven that potentially could be ours. Now, I do have to ask, and this maybe shows my ignorance, but are most scholarships for four years? Do you have to reapply each year for a scholarship or is that just totally dependent case by the case with scholarships?

Brad (21:30): Right. Yeah. Another resource on my website, Scholarship Guide for Busy Parents, answers some of these types of questions, but in general, if it's a scholarship from the college itself, it's generally going to be a four-year type of offer where, due to your academic standing, we're going to give you 15,000 off each year. Now, because of that though, they might have a rule that essentially says, that you got to maintain a 2.5 or a 3.5 GPA or whatever it might be. I had a student get a full ride at a college. To maintain the full ride, he had to maintain a 3.8 GPA. Again, the cost is zero tuition for four years, but he's got to really deliver and keep his grades up.

(22:20): There's that. But if it's need-based, again, based on the family's income and assets, we feel you need a scholarship or grant of say, 25,000, now if things stay the same financially every year, it should be about the same. That's from the colleges themselves. Now, there are many other scholarship sources like the federal government and state governments where, again, they're rules... Some of the state programs are very much freshmen only, and they're not a lot. Here in Wisconsin, the top student at any particular high school gets $2,250 off a state school if that's where they go. If they choose to not go to the state school, then the next person on the list is there... Until they find someone that actually goes to the state school, but there's only one in a typical high school. Now, if your school is very large, there might be two or three, but again, that's just the top student and that is a one-time award, but renewable. It just depends on where the state budgets go.

Janna (23:34): I know, again, way back in the day, I was actually given... Because I was a graduate of homeschooling, I received a homeschool graduate grant for four years. They recognized like, "Hey, good job." I guess there was just money set aside and we're talking homeschooling 20-plus years ago when it wasn't nearly as trendy, but my parents were incredibly grateful. They didn't even realize that that was an option, but when I went to talk to the admissions counselor at the college, they were like, "Hey, we want you to come, so let us help you find the money that you need," and so I think that once you figure out maybe where you want to go, it's very helpful to talk to... Become super good friends with the admissions department because they really are going to help you find what you need in order to be successful at their school.

Brad (24:30): Right. Again, another good analogy would be similar to shopping at the department store, where you go in and the T-shirt is $40, but by the time you use your coupons and you are frequent this and all of these different things, then the T-shirt is $15, or you just go to Walmart and don't play any of the games and just pay $15 for the T-shirt. Some of that is going on in the college as well, where many of the private schools especially, and especially the ones that are not... Harvard and Yale, do things completely differently than the local, smaller private school where they may essentially give just about everybody $20,000 off if there's a need. If you show a need, they'll give it to you. If you have merit, they'll give it to you. If you're homeschooled, they'll give it to you. If your parents are alumni, they'll give it to you.

(25:21) They're looking for a reason to give you that 20,000 off. The first 20,000 is easy, but then to go much lower than that, now all of a sudden, you need to show a stronger need or be strong academic, but just about anybody and everybody gets the first 20,000 as an example. I've seen a news story where this particular student won $2 million in scholarships, and when you dig into it, you realize he also applied to 145 schools, and if each school gave him 20,000 off, again, the easy scholarship, that's how he got the 2 million, is a hundred schools times $20,000 is $2 million.

(26:08): Obviously, he can only take one of those scholarships because each of those schools is saying, "This scholarship is usable at our institution." You obviously can't take a scholarship from Notre Dame and take it to Northwestern. That doesn't work. Scholarships and understanding the pricing for a lot of families are part of the learning process of, well, this is how it's going to be. I recommend families, and I believe now there are enough tools out there, that either you're working with someone like myself or just digging into it on your own, you can figure out what colleges would cost. Now, like in your situation as junior year, you can price out those colleges that you're thinking about now and get a feel for what they might be, and then some parents would say, "Well, if this is likely where they're going to be, then we're not going to apply."

(27:04): Or what I would recommend and a plan would be is tell your kids, "You're welcome to apply, but if these numbers come in like this, you can't go, so we need to find some alternative schools." I think where families really blow themselves up is they don't know that that school is going to be really expensive, but they let the student fall in love with it and the student doesn't have many other alternatives, and then at the end of the process, it's really hard to say no because either there's not a lot of good alternatives or you feel like you're pulling the rug out from under your student, and a lot of the education and what our kid...

(27:46): There's nothing too good for our kids kind of attitude for most families. I guess we'll just buckle under and pay the price and you didn't see it coming. It's an impulse decision because again, you've got a couple of weeks to make a decision and send in your deposits and you don't really have time to come up with alternatives. I get calls like that every spring with... We've got seniors in the 11th hour. "What can we do? All these colleges are so expensive and they're saying we should borrow this money and are there alternatives?" Sometimes there's not. Planning ahead is important.

Janna (28:29): Well, information is key. The more information we have, the better we can make decisions. Hopefully, we have partners that, if one is pie in the sky with their ideas that nothing is too good for our children, the other partner is tethering them down saying, "But realistically, we're 55 and do need to retire at some point in our lives," and so I am always appreciative of my idea of what our children's college experience is so different from my husband's. I'm like, "I don't want our kids to have any debt," and he's like, "Well, good luck because I'm not going to give up my retirement, which I have worked hard for and really not out of selfishness, but also what are you demonstrating to your children?" In our scenario, he believes it's like we don't show our kids that they didn't have to work for it. I had to work for it, and now it's just theirs.

(29:22): In my experience, nobody asks me where I went to college. I have my degree. Nobody wants to see my piece of paper. Nobody wants to see my transcripts. Depending on what you choose to do, you don't necessarily need a high-cost college. You need the degree so that you can keep going forward, you can get the job so that you can get the training that you need, but that could probably be a whole other podcast episode. You do have one more tip for us, which I find fascinating and it's your hack for these families as they're starting to research some colleges. What would be your tip for families as they're looking at schools for their children?

Brad (30:03): So when I'm working with families, I try and encourage them to really leverage their college visits. Colleges offer things that happen on weekends where it's a big event and 500 families show up. Many colleges also say, "Anybody shows up at 10 o'clock on any weekday, you'll get a tour and we'll talk to you." Obviously then you're missing work or school or something like that, but there are all kinds of things to do there. If you're starting early enough, just go do a couple of visits and just kick the tires and see what it's like, but then eventually, that's visits 101. Just go do some stuff, and check out some colleges. Visits 201, which is, well, now let's prepare before we go to a visit. Let's go to their website and read about scholarships so that when we're in the financial aid presentation, we can grab the speaker at the end and say, "Now tell me a little bit more about these scholarships I've been reading about."

(31:00): Because if you, again, go in cold and you say, "Well, do you have scholarships?" They're going to say, "Yes, we do, and there are all kinds of information on the website," and they shut you down. It's like, "If you haven't bothered to look at the website yet, go look there first, then we'll talk." If you're prepared and you've read all about the scholarships, maybe you've printed off a couple of pages and you've written some questions in the margins, now you can ask questions that aren't on the website and now you're getting information that's useful that would be hard to gather any other way. Colleges like to see that you're prepared and that it demonstrates that you're truly interested because a lot of the people that are coming are never going to come actually be students there. They don't want to spend much time educating you about everything if they don't have to.

(31:50): Again, being prepared and planning out some visits and then just getting out there and doing it. Certainly, you can do visits as a sophomore. Now some kids are ready, some kids aren't. I have a sophomore at home. We're going to go to a Sunday event at the local college just so she can see a college and kick the tires, and she's one of those undecided types of kids. She'll get exposed to a couple of majors and maybe some careers that she hasn't thought of yet. She can start thinking about it, and it's a low pressure, show up, spend a few hours. If we do it wrong or she needs to go back in a couple of years if she ultimately is serious about this college, then we can go back and do a true visit later on.

(32:37): Now, because I've had families where they do that road trip to Boston or someplace far away, that's their first visit, and then they realize after they get home, they visit a couple more colleges and they say, "Our first visit, we didn't do it very well. We didn't ask the right questions. Now we have to go back to Boston." That's a lot of work versus practicing a couple here locally, see how it goes, and then if you didn't do those first ones that well, as you learn more, you can always go back and do them again without a lot of challenges.

Janna (33:11): Well, I think that is a great life hack because again, as a parent who saw one school, knew it wasn't for me, went to one more and was like, "Okay, that's it, I'm done," I didn't have the whole experience of touring colleges. My parents were not college graduates, so they didn't have that experience. It's funny because you don't know what you don't know. Having these little tips and resources and tools for parents, again, either homeschool or just parents that have students that are looking and talking about college, I think it is super helpful. We will be linking Brad's website and his podcast in our show notes so that you guys can find his resources. We hope that this little podcast and video were helpful and if you were not thinking about college, we hope that you start thinking about it, but don't get overwhelmed and know that there is help out there for you. Brad, thank you so much for being on today.

Brad (34:10): Thank you for having me.

Janna (34:13): Thank you guys for listening. Until next time, bye-bye.