Find the Dream Experience, Not the Dream School: How Parent of 4 Kevin Gillis is Paying for College

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“One of the things I’m trying to do is just get parents to talk about [the college application process]--It’s almost like it’s a dirty secret,” says Kevin Gillis, a Massachusetts-based father of four. “It’s almost taboo to talk about it, because you can’t talk about your debt, your loans—parent loans, student loans, grandparent loans, refinancing, home equity lines—I think it just makes it harder to prioritize their [kids’] decision. And what I’m seeing is there’s a lot of peer pressure, even for the parents.”


With two children at out-of-state colleges (one private, one public) and two in high school, Gillis is well familiar with the college application and financial aid process. And like many parents with multiple kids heading to college at or around the same time, he knows the admissions and financial aid process can give you battle scars. The good news? A level-headed approach and clear communication can go a long way toward minimizing stress and managing expectations.


Here’s how Gillis’s family approaches the college application and financial aid process.


Edmit: You’ve got two kids in college, and two more soon to go. How did you talk to your kids about planning for college—and how can other parents successfully have ‘the talk’?  


Gillis: We started saving when our oldest was born; we did the 529 for a long time, but it still wasn’t anywhere close to what we would need. You think you have all the time in the world, but it compresses so quickly. So we just basically said [to our kids] here’s what’s available, and you have to make up the difference.


There’s more than 3,000 four-year colleges, and even if you follow sports religiously, you only may be able to name, let’s say, 400. Well there’s another 2,600 you’ve never heard of! So there’s a college for everybody, but there’s also a college debt for everybody if you’re not careful.


For the parent/child conversations, timing is your friend. If you start the conversations before they’ve stepped on any campus, there’s not a lot of emotion. It’s just “all my friends are going to college, I guess my parents went so I’m going to go.” If you’re talking to them as a freshman or a sophomore [in high school], it almost doesn’t matter, but as a junior or a senior, and before they’ve started getting too deep into the process, now you’re driving and shaping the conversation. You’re not having the kids’ friends or the famous alumni from a particular college driving.


We asked our kids “what are your top three schools?” while they are applying--the reason being you’re not waiting until the last week or the last month in a complete panic if you can’t decide. You have to plan.

I think the best thing is also talking to other parents with kids in college, other people who have been through it. Ideally, the more aligned with the economic situation of the people you’re talking to, the better.


Edmit: How did your family tackle the college financial aid process?


Gillis: [Encourage] kids to not just find the dream school. It’s more like, OK, the reality is here’s what we’re able to afford, and and we’re not going to let you make a terrible decision. We don’t know what’s going to happen in five, 10 years, so at least let’s minimize the exposure and risk.


So, here’s what everything costs, here’s what each college costs—at list [price]. Then what are all the ways we can make it work? Maybe don’t do the meal plan, live in a different type of housing, be an RA, get a job in school, do real jobs in the summertime when you come home, work during the Christmas break.

We’ve given each of our four children the exact same amounts, if they take four years or 10 years to go to undergrad, it doesn’t matter, they don’t get more. From their perspective, they had to factor that in and decide what they wanted to do.


For financial fit, we knew what we could afford for each of them, and everything else was [their responsibility]. We knew what they had saved, going into their freshman year, so we had a goal to get through at least the freshman year debt-free for everybody—both parents and children. The ideal was also the sophomore year debt-free. But they’re still paying for something—they’re paying half, or more than half in some cases. This is a conversation that’s a little more complicated for children to understand: that we’re not going to do anything to the house or our retirement to help you with your education. We have saved for 18 years, and that’s all we can afford.


Edmit: What are some creative ways your family has paid for college or made the process more affordable?


Gillis: My daughter ended up moving into student-owned housing, and she’s saving $12,000 per year off room and board—but she has 29 roommates. That’s the trade-off. Is it ideal? No. Would she rather be with her friends in an off-campus apartment or a dorm? Yes. But guess what? You’re going to grow and learn a lot more [than the dorms], and save money, too.


My daughters have both done basic internships, they’re paid about $13 to $14 an hour, it’s not huge, but it does make a difference. It’s work experience for the resume, you can make some money in the summertime, get a second job. It’s just part of the cycle.


Additionally, if you apply to schools where you’re above the average, you’re much more likely to get merit aid. So that’s a factor, too. You could go to your dream school or get a dream experience—and the dream experience can set you up [for success].


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