Chatting With My Parents About How (And Why) They Paid For My College Education

by Jamie Wiebe

When I was 18, my parents sent me 600 miles away to Northwestern University for a journalism degree worth nearly $200,000. Minus $50,000 in loans and grants, they paid for the whole thing out-of-pocket. I’ve never understood why. As far as I knew, my family was well-off, but never rich; we had necessities, but rarely luxuries. Why did they spend that much for me to study journalism? For that matter, why and how did they pay for college at all? I put that journalism degree to use and asked them.

Jamie: When did you guys start thinking about college for me and Jennifer?

Mom: Oh, very early. Shortly after you were born.

Dad: You were pretty much a baby, Jamie. We wanted to start putting some money away so that you could afford to go to college.

Mom: I think we did a mutual fund.

Dad: 20th Century Ultra was the name of the fund that we invested in. And we put all of our money into that. Mom, you were the one setting it up, and I was the one who selected the fund. And for what it’s worth — it was a very, very, very good fund for many, many years.

Jamie: Do you remember how much you put in that when I was a baby?

Dad: I think it was $50 a month.

Mom: No, it was $25.

Dad: $25?

Mom: That’s all it was!

Jamie: That’s less than I put into my retirement account.

Mom: We just put a very small amount for years. As you got closer to college, we were in a position where we could increase it, so we increased yours rather significantly for a number of years. But by then, they had established the 529 educational savings plans, which are tax deductible.

Jamie: Why did you pick it? Did you think it would be a good fund when you picked it?

Dad: Why did I pick it? I don’t remember. It was a good fund! It had a good reputation. Back in the day, you picked funds based on if they’re long-term or short-term. I think we picked it because it was considered an aggressive fund, suitable for long-term investments. At that time it was a long time before you were going to college. It had the right horizon in terms of timing.

Mom: One thing I remember about Dad was that he wanted an aggressive fund. Surprise, surprise.

Dad: Shocker.

Mom: When we switched over to the 529 plan, we did have some choices. There was an aggressive fund, which is what Dad wanted. I was a little more concerned about that. Instead of picking the year you would graduate, I think we actually picked a year or two after that, and then we picked the aggressive fund. As you got closer to your graduation year, it automatically put you into a different, less-risky fund.

Jamie: That’s how my retirement fund works. I’m in the 2050 retirement “group” and it’s really aggressive. I’ve earned $66 on my investment, already.

Mom: That’s good. You’ll be amazed over time what it does. For example, Jennifer is pretty protected right now. For example, when the stock market fell in 2008, they had already put her in one without much risk. I don’t know what it has in it, but it doesn’t have much growth. It’s less risky. So she didn’t lose much. But she lost a lot in the crash before that. You were in a more conservative fund but she wasn’t so she lost a chunk, right there.

Jamie: How much did you think you would have to pay for our college tuitions when you started saving?

Dad: Less than you spent. Would you like me to be less cynical?

Mom: I never even really thought about it, to be honest, except that when you were in high school, I know we started putting $1,000 a month in. We never did that with Jennifer. We increased hers — I remember putting $500 in for her at some point, when we were in the growth period of our business. Then we cut back, for both of you, then we had to totally stop. Jennifer didn’t have nearly what you had. The other thing, of course, which was a great help to both of you, was that your grandparents gave you $10,000 a year.

Dad: Beaucoup bucks.

Mom: I haven’t found anyone or heard of anybody else doing something like that for their grandkids, to that degree.

Jamie: How did that come about? How did grandpa decide to do that?

Mom: It started way back with your oldest cousins going to college…

Jamie: Did they announce at a big family dinner, like they announced our family trip to Disney World when I was eight?

Dad: I kind of vaguely remember them announcing that. “We’re gonna give every grandchild $10,000 a year for their college education.” They told everybody, the whole family all at the same time.

Jamie: Was it your goal to have me go anywhere specific? A certain “level” or type of college?

Dad: The idea was simply that you’d be able to go to a college with a paid for college experience. That’s really what it was.

Mom: We didn’t have any real designs on what kind of college you would go to.

Dad: We mumbled words, but that I think we both knew that was kind of meaningless and you’d get to pick where you wanted to go.

Mom: I think the International Baccalaureate program at your high school had such a disciplined program to help you pick your colleges. I hear parents that have no idea how to help their kids work through that process, and IB spelled it all out for you. They gave you a plan.

Jamie: I remember even in 7th grade, Mr. Sears had us go through and pick out colleges, and figure out how much tuition cost.

Mom: I remember that.

Jamie: Did that make you nervous?

Mom: I think that’s when we started upping your college fund. By this point, we knew that both of you were very bright and could really go to some very good colleges. You were showing an interest in journalism. I always kind of had Northwestern in the back of my mind.

Jamie: That was on my original list I made in 7th grade! That and Yale. When I started getting into colleges, what was your thought process while I was making the decision? What did you want your involvement to be?

Dad: My thought was, “She’s going to break the budget.”

Mom: We talked about it. You did a lot of work yourself, which is admirable, figuring out what college is gonna cost. And I remember we said, you’ve got x amount of dollars and we figured out how much you would have to spend. We knew for Northwestern it would only go for three years.

Jamie: I remember you telling me I had to figure out one year by myself.

Mom: And now you’re paying for it!

Dad: And how long do you have to go, Jamie, before it’s all paid off?

Jamie: So many years.

Mom: I wish you wouldn’t have had to have loans, but that was a choice you made, really. I don’t know. If I look back, I would have probably have liked to see a few things done differently.

Dad: Hold on, I can hear the dogs scratching at the door. “Let me into the conversation!”

Mom: I know I had concerns about the values of the colleges. I think in a lot of ways you’ve maintained our values, but you haven’t maintained some of our spiritual values. I’ve heard of parents that have said, “If you want us to pay for it, you will choose colleges that are x, y, and z.” And there are parts of me that wish maybe we had done that. We pretty much let you pick.

Jamie: But if you had put that restriction on, I would have gone to KU.

Mom: I couldn’t force those things on you at that point, and that’s part of the reason we didn’t. Those have to be your choices, but at the same time, it was kind of painful. And you were on a course, you’re right, at the end of high school. When we went for Northwestern’s parent orientation, I felt pretty good. Their journalistic standards had a lot of integrity in them. But both you and Jennifer have taken classes that are kind of… weird. [Author’s note: Human Sex! It was a psych class!] But I think it’s just the environment, some of those colleges. I still think you both managed to get through it without too many problems. But you want your kid to go to a good school. I have a friend whose kids have gone to Christian colleges — the problem she’s had is finding strong, academic Christian colleges.

Jamie: It is really difficult. There are a few.

Mom: For people who care about values — I’ll just use that word for lack of anything else — you feel like you’re throwing your kids to the wolves! It’s not just money. You know, you have to let go of your kids. You hope that you’ve given them something the first 18 years they’ve lived in your house that they’ll take with them. Hopefully you’ve built something in them that will withstand those pressures.

Jamie: When you guys were in college, how much did you pay, roughly, and how did you pay for it?

Dad: My mom was on faculty, and I got half-off tuition. I did end up taking out a relatively small amount of student loans to cover the balance. I think my entire college experience left me about $8,000 in debt. Maybe I’m off; maybe it was less than that. I really don’t remember. For a poor kid, I had a fairly affluent lifestyle, compared to most college kids, and that’s probably because it cost me nearly nothing.

Jamie: And do you remember how long it took you to pay off those loans?

Dad: I’m gonna bet that it took me about three or four years. This was in 1979.

Mom: And for me, I’m sure I’ve told you this story — I took my transcript and I met with the dean of students or whomever. The guy looked at my transcript and goes, “Wait a minute.” I sat there, and he came back a few minutes later and said, “We want to offer you a full tuition scholarship!” So I paid nothing for college. What my dad did though — being my dad — is he made some big contributions back to them after I graduated.

Jamie: And how did you pay for other expenses, like rent and stuff?

Mom: They gave me an allowance. I had a scholarship all the way, as long as I kept my grades up, which wasn’t too difficult. I didn’t pay anything. I think it included room and board too.

Jamie: When I was in college, how did paying each quarter’s tuition work? What happened once you got the bill?

Mom: The bill came, and I logged on to the website, Learning Quest, and I would put in there how much whatever it was and they sent the check to Northwestern and … that was it.

Jamie: Did you ever have to take money out of your own accounts? Or did all of the college tuition come from the 529?

Mom: It all came from that. The rules were made: this is college. But when you took out loans, we did have to get them in our name.

Dad: I remember now. That wasn’t all that long ago. We cosigned some loans. I think if you skip out on the loans we’re still on the hook.

Jamie: Don’t worry. I don’t think that will happen. I hope not. I’m pretty good, financially, at this point in time. I think.

Dad: You can send money to me!

Mom: That’s what people need to do. They have to teach their kids finances. Did you ever have classes in how to manage money?

Jamie: No, you taught me! When I got a checkbook, you taught me how to balance it. I remember you giving us piggy banks or something and telling us to put aside 10 percent for savings, 10 percent for church…

Mom: You guys were able to earn money by packing things when we had the business in the home. I think that’s good. You got a sense of what work is.

Jamie: Now that I’m actually in the working world, it took me a little bit of time to adjust but I feel like I quickly got the hang of not spending all of my paycheck, every single time. On that note, when I was in college — what about spending money? I’m assuming that did not come out of the 529?

Mom: No. You got a fairly nice allowance.

Dad: Which Jennifer reminded me of just a few days ago. “Jamie got a fairly nice allowance.” I think you got a little too nice of an allowance.

Jamie: But you guys didn’t do the FAFSA for several years — why?

Mom: They had these things online that were not the actual FAFSA, but you can put your numbers in there and figure out how it would come out. I did try that. It would just say, “You don’t get anything!” I just assumed that you wouldn’t get anything. You got some advantages, but your disadvantage was I didn’t realize that I should have filled out the FAFSA. Northwestern said they didn’t give any scholarships! But do you remember that one time we went in and talked to that financial aid officer, before your senior year?

Jamie: Vaguely, yeah, yes I do.

Mom: They said, “You need to turn in the FAFSA.” I didn’t understand that when it said you don’t qualify, what it meant was you don’t qualify for federal money. I went to a class at your high school. “FAFSA for Parents.” That’s where I found out about that place online where you could try it out. I tried it, and you said you don’t get anything.

Jamie: Northwestern should have a class.

Mom: That’s what I’m saying, when I went in to talk to that lady, she said, “You should fill out the FAFSA,” and I said, “Oh, we won’t qualify.” Well, I didn’t understand that the school could still make decisions. I didn’t have that education and that was unfortunate for you. The FAFSA only tells you if you get federal money, but your school might give you money. I don’t think people understand that. I didn’t understand that! I imagine a lot of people don’t understand that, that each school makes its decision. But Northwestern certainly gave the impression that they don’t give scholarships.

Jamie: What they’re talking about, I think, is that they don’t give any merit scholarships, which is true. I got a grant.

Mom: That’s when we were still making money, but you didn’t have any college funds left. Jennifer’s school makes it clearer. Of course, we’re in a different situation, financially, now. For her, we had a pretty good idea she would get some good grants before she applied, because they had some online calculator thing. Her school cost basically as much as Northwestern, but she doesn’t have the kind of money you did. She probably ended up with — how much did we end up with you? About $120,000. She had more like $80,000 to work with, with grandma’s money.

Jamie: What is different about college now, just between me and Jennifer, in the past four years?

Mom: The college prices just go up and up and up. It’s just incredible. She’s paying $60,000. What I remember you paying was $48,000, which is what your last year was.

Jamie: It was $43,000 or $44,000 when I started.

Dad: Which is ridiculous.

Mom: Yeah, it’s ridiculous! Here’s my take on it. I can’t say I’ve truly researched it, but I think there’s huge pressure on colleges to produce facilities and research, both of which are expensive. Every college you go to is constantly building new facilities.

Dad: Yeah, but the flip side is that there’s some pressure to contain costs in the last three or four years due to the near depression/recession.

Mom: I think that the country is getting very concerned about the amount of student loans. There was some stuff in the news recently about how the student loans are depressing the economy. Kids have to pay back loans and they can’t do things that kids your age should do, like buy houses and cars and stuff like that, because they’re paying loans off.

Jamie: I recently hit this point where I was like, “I would like to buy a house!” and I realized that 20 or 30 years ago, someone who hit that point about now could reasonably start thinking about that happening.

Mom: Yeah, exactly! Now you can’t do that until you get into your 30s. They can’t pay off college loans and they can’t put money into the economy. It’s really deflating the economy. I can remember paying $35 an hour to take a class at Wichita State. And that was in the ’80s. It was not a big deal to take a college class. I came home from college over the summer and paid to take a class at WSU. It was nothing.

Jamie: Was there ever a point where you thought, “Screw it, you should just take a year off?”

Dad: Never.

Mom: Never. Oh no…

Dad: Never considered it, never thought about it, never crossed through my head. Never.

Mom: Of course, dad went through in three years. Why did you go through in three years?

Dad: It was a decision I made when I had six weeks left in my junior college year, to suddenly graduate when I realized I could do it and I could get a job.

Mom: But it wasn’t driven by finances?

Dad: No, it had nothing to do with that.

Jamie: What do you think is going to happen?

Dad: Do we think tuition is going to continue to rise? Of course. That is my opinion.

Jamie: Do you think it should?

Mom: Honestly, it’s like we’re training liberal arts college students in some other sphere than in the reality in which they work. I don’t think that was true for you, though. I think what you did in journalism was practical.

Jamie: Did you just say a journalism degree was practical?

Mom: Well, yes! I still think it is, you learned how to write! When we went to that orientation, one of the things that impressed me was that the dean said, “If you have a journalism degree, you have learned how to write, and that is a major skill.”

Dad: What I remember, is that if you have a degree from Medill, you have a pretty good shot at getting jobs that other people won’t get.

Jamie: Did you have to put off any personal goals for me and Jennifer to go to college?

Mom: No, though in retrospect, we should have been putting money into retirement! People say that you should do your retirement before you do your college fund, but we didn’t do that. We did your college fund, and then retirement.

Dad: No. I didn’t have any goals, so it didn’t matter. I’m only now starting to develop my goals for my life.

Jamie: What do you guys want from me? Do you want me to pay you back? Do you want me to provide you a lavish retirement in Florida?

Mom: Sure!

Dad: That’d be great. And if you want to pay back the $120,000 we saved up and gave to you — with interest — that’ll be fine with me.

Mom: When your mom is old and gray, and dad has flown away in his plane, you can try to take care of me. You don’t have to give me a retirement home, but let me live in a corner of your little tiny abode.

Jamie Wiebe checks facts for a living. She posts pictures of all the animals not allowed into her apartment on her blog.

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