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Introduction to The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, 2nd Edition

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Lynn O'Shaughnessy saved about $125,000 off the sticker price of her son and daughter’s college educations, and just as importantly, they both picked schools where they could grow academically. Lynn introduces second edition of The College Solution so you too can become an empowered consumer and accomplish much the same thing with your children.
This chapter is from the book


For many years, I was a financial journalist who wrote for such national media outlets as Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and BusinessWeek. I thought that I had covered just about every financial topic imaginable until I realized that I had overlooked one subject.

My daughter Caitlin was in high school when it occurred to me that I knew nothing about what families can do to make college more affordable once their days of saving for this big-ticket item are over. How do parents take what they have managed to accumulate for college and stretch the cash as far as possible?

I began thinking a lot about college costs when Caitlin’s initial plan for college no longer struck me as feasible. My bright, outgoing daughter had assumed that she would attend the University of California, Berkeley, which was her dad’s alma mater, but by her sophomore year in high school, we realized that Berkeley wasn’t a realistic choice because she would have had to be near the very top of her class at her highly competitive high school. While paying for a UC school would have been more doable financially, we were faced with finding a Plan B.

While I was pondering all this, someone suggested that I buy a copy of a book titled Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges by Loren Pope, who long ago was the education editor of The New York Times and later became an independent college counselor. I remember reading the slim book, which had become a classic, at my son’s soccer tournament in the high desert of Southern California. I was mesmerized by Pope’s loving description of seemingly delightful colleges that I didn’t even know existed. College of Wooster? Evergreen State? Agnes Scott College?

Reading the book prompted me to wonder if Caitlin should expand her search to schools beyond state universities in California. Half of all college freshmen attend schools that are no more than a two-hour drive away from home, while just 14% venture at least 500 miles away, but my daughter was game to explore promising schools wherever they might be.

While Caitlin was excited about casting a wider net for college, I wondered if distant schools—particularly private ones—would be prohibitively expensive. To answer this question, it helped to be a financial journalist. I began writing magazine articles that addressed how families with teenagers can shrink the cost of college, which allowed me to talk to knowledgeable insiders. Uppermost in my mind were questions like these:

  • Who qualifies for financial aid?
  • Who earns scholarships?
  • Are schools as expensive as they seem?

What I really wanted to know, however, is whether Caitlin could claim a share of the billions of dollars available for families to pay for college.

I was heartened by what I learned. I discovered that students don’t have to be at the top of their class to attract the interest of the vast majority of schools. Teenagers certainly don’t need 4.0 grade point averages to earn scholarships from state and private colleges and universities. In fact, I discovered that at a surprising number of schools, nearly every student receives some type of price cut.

As we toured schools, Caitlin became excited about attending a liberal arts college, which you’ll learn more about in this book. She received scholarship offers from several colleges, but ultimately ended up choosing between Juniata College and Dickinson College, which are both lovely schools in central Pennsylvania. She selected Juniata, and after four great years—including two semesters at the University of Barcelona in Spain—she graduated and experienced no problem finding a phenomenal job back home in San Diego.

After Caitlin departed for college, I could have returned to writing about mutual funds, Treasury bonds, retirement planning, and other topics that I used to routinely cover. I decided, however, to ditch all that and focus on the issues that petrify parents who aren’t sure how they can possibly handle the cost of college. In 2008, I started my blog, The College Solution (www.thecollegesolution.com), which now contains years’ worth of advice on paying for college and selecting the right schools. I also write a college blog for CBS MoneyWatch, and for awhile I also wrote one for US News & World Report. And, of course, I wrote the first edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

I eagerly switched gears to focus on college issues because they continue to get short shrift from the very people who should be helping families. Financial journalists, for instance, routinely write articles for parents with young children about the need to begin saving early for college, but they rarely provide guidance for the millions of parents with teenagers who haven’t saved enough.

Journalists’ failings are small potatoes compared to the shortcomings of the financial industry. It’s rare to find financial advisers who possess even a rudimentary understanding of college financing. (And I’m not talking about the tiny minority of ethically challenged guys who urge parents to move their money around to avoid detection from financial aid formulas. Stay away from them!)

I believe the primary reason why the financial industry isn’t educating families on college issues is because there isn’t enough money in it to make it worthwhile. The industry’s focus is on retirement because that’s where the big bucks are. You will find a lot of advice on the websites of brokerage firms about how Americans can stretch their retirement account assets once they need the money, but I’ve yet to find one of these sites that provides advice about stretching college dollars.

I was even more surprised by the lack of knowledge among high school counselors, who are the go-to source for millions of families. I’ve met few parents who are pleased by the college advice that they are receiving from their children’s high school counselors. As you’ll learn later in the book, these counselors are routinely required to earn master’s degrees in counseling to qualify for their positions, but the nation’s schools of education shamefully ignore college issues in the curriculum.

While I started out focused chiefly on the finances of college, I also became fascinated by the different types of academic choices that teenagers face. When I give talks, I often ask the parents and students in the audience if they know the difference between a college and a university. It’s rare that even a single person raises his or her hand. One of my chief aims in writing this second edition of The College Solution is to help students decide what type of schools are best for them and to also consider overlooked academic gems.

By the time it was my son Ben’s turn to explore colleges, our family was in an even better position to evaluate schools both academically and financially. After seeing the kind of experience that his sister had at a liberal arts college, Ben also chose that path. After visiting about ten liberal arts colleges, Ben picked Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he’s currently majoring in art and math. When my daughter asked Ben, halfway through his freshman year, what he thought about his school, he replied, “I love Beloit more than life itself.” That was an amazing statement particularly coming from my son, a pretty cynical kid who usually has no use for hyperbole.

I figured that my husband and I saved about $125,000 off the sticker price of our son and daughter’s college educations, and just as importantly, they both picked schools where they could grow academically. I wrote this second edition of The College Solution so you too can become an empowered consumer and accomplish much the same thing with your children.

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