8/22/2013 2:45 PM ET|
I squandered my college trust fund
Even when parents set aside money for their child to go to college, complications can arise -- especially if that child is unprepared for higher education. Here is a cautionary tale.
My father died in a car accident when I was 8 years old.
A decade later, when I graduated from high school, I found out he’d set up a trust fund for my education -- about $7,500.
I was really surprised because my family had never talked about paying for college. I’d had no idea the money was there. College was cheaper in 1991, so it should’ve been enough for two years of in-state tuition, as long as I lived at home.
And that’s exactly what my father had intended. I was supposed to use the money to go to school near home at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
What I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t ready for college. I had no idea what I wanted to study when I was 18. I’d never talked to either of my parents about what I wanted to do when I grew up -- that just wasn’t how my family was.
I’d also never had a job. Heck, I’d never even had an allowance.
Then, I got the entire $7,500.
Trouble from the start
I paid for my first two semesters of school and books, got an on-campus job that paid a little more than minimum wage and registered for core classes. Basically, I took the minimum load of classes required.
I didn’t read the syllabus for my classes closely enough to understand that attendance was part of my grade, and the classes were boring, so I only showed up for the tests. As a result, I flunked every single class because of my attendance (or lack thereof), even though I got A's and B's on all the tests. I was really disappointed. The second semester wasn’t much better: This time, I showed up, but I didn’t take the homework very seriously. All I can say in my defense is that I was 18 and didn’t understand the importance of a college degree at all.
Meanwhile, I burned through the money I’d been given. After I paid my first tuition bill, I kept spending my inheritance. I put my meager paychecks into my checking account and then spent them immediately. I got a credit card, I shopped, I joined a sorority, and I went on spring break to Mexico. I didn’t keep track of how much I was spending or what I was spending it on.
At one point, my uncle, who was the guardian of my trust, told me he’d noticed my spending habits. He cautioned me to be more careful. I was embarrassed because I felt as though I’d disappointed him. So I started to be more careful with my money, but by then I had already spent so much that there wasn’t enough left to pay for a second year of college.
And it didn’t actually matter: My grades were so bad the university kicked me out.
Life as a college dropout
I found out that I wouldn’t be allowed to return for the fall semester or keep my on-campus job in the summer. I don’t think I told my family about my bad grades -- I just told them I was out of money. I was upset, but I didn’t know how I was going to pay for more classes, so I figured I just wouldn’t go back to college. I applied at a temp agency and started doing secretarial work. But I quickly figured out I didn’t want to keep doing that, because it didn’t pay nearly enough.
After temping for July and August, I enrolled at a community college in Greenville. I still didn’t know what I wanted to study, but the classes were much less expensive, and I could pay for them out of my salary. Thankfully, I didn’t have to temp anymore. I landed a regular full-time job, as an office manager for a janitorial company. I went to class two to four nights a week, trying to figure out what I wanted to major in.
During that time, I also got married. My then-husband and I decided I needed to finish college. He hadn’t completed his bachelor’s degree, and he was finding it tough to get jobs he wanted without one, even though he had the right experience. So I made arrangements with my company to job share and go to school full time. But after two semesters, my boss said I had to either come back full time or quit.
That wasn’t a hard decision: I was too close to finishing college and didn’t even want to consider taking only night classes again. I put in my two weeks’ notice.
By then, I’d discovered that working with computers came as second nature to me. I enrolled in the computer programming associate degree program and made friends with the department chair. When I told her about quitting my job, she offered me a new one, working in the computer lab. I finished my associate degree in computer programming in May 1996, but I stayed for another 18 months to complete a microcomputer associate degree. While I finished my second degree, I worked in the computer lab and taught some classes.
What working my way up has taught me
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in all these years spent getting degrees, it’s that it’s not always what you know -- networking is huge. In the end, I’ve gotten almost every job I’ve ever had through someone I know. The department chair who gave me my job in the computer lab and my teaching stints later recommended me for a position at a local pharmaceutical company whose manager she knew -- the manager had gone through the same community-college program I had.
I landed that job. My new boss recommended I complete a bachelor’s degree in management to help me advance in my career working with computers in the pharmaceutical industry. She told me about a 14-month program at Mount Olive College, which cost about $11,000 at the time. I enrolled and I was spending about $600 a month on tuition out of my paycheck without taking out any student loans. But I wasn’t saving anything, and I was putting everything I wanted on my credit card. Only a few months from turning 26 and while working full time, I earned my bachelor’s degree in May 1999.
That was the first graduation ceremony where I walked across the stage to get my diploma, and I was proud. My uncle was also there, and I think he was even more excited for me than I was.
In the end, I’d finally committed to college because I’d paid for it. Ironic, isn’t it? I found I put much more effort into the classes that I paid for myself than I ever put into the ones that were paid for. When my tuition was coming out of my pocket, I went to school every day, did my homework and graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
Today, college is a huge expense, and many parents wrestle with how much to give their kids to get there. Is my story a cautionary tale? I’m not sure. But it is amazing to me how much you focus when you pay for something yourself. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but for me, it was a big motivator.
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I have 3 kids, 21, 17, 15. 21 year old is in the Navy and currently deployed. He is building his own scholarship. After 3 years active duty he will get pretty much a full ride into any state school he can get into.
17 year old is thinking about it. I told him and his 15 year old sister, that while they are in school they can live at home rent free. They need to pay for their own classes. Community college is 1/3 the cost of state schools and don't need to pay for room and board. ALL credits are guaranteed to transfer to the 4 year school. Getting a degree can be done without going deep into debt.
I did it back in the 80's and it can still be done today. I paid for all my own classes and completed my BA in 4 years with 120 hours (minimum numbers to complete). My youngest brother had his classes paid for by our parents and it took him 6 years and he had 175 hours. You need to have your own skin in the game.
it isn't fair to compare what you did in the 80s to today, see "Cost Of College Degree In U.S. Has Increased 1,120 Percent In 30 Years, Report Says" (). The pay for that job you had isn't 10x greater now...
Not to fully excuse the daughter, but it sounds like the parents dropped the ball as far as preparing their child for adulthood.
Two things I don't get: How did the so-called guardian of the trust just let her do whatever she wanted with it, and does an 18 year old really not think they have to attend classes? Both my kids went to college, the first, between scholarships and basic student loans, didn't need our help to get his Masters (and he's been employed in his field since the day he got that Masters, all student loans paid off several years ago); the other while smart was not a great student in HS, so she did two years at a very affordable community college, with the promise that if she did well we would help with whatever university she transferred to for her Bachelors. BTW, knowing that not all CC credits are transferrable, she made sure the University would accept credits from the CC before starting there. She buckled down, made Deans List and Two Year College Honor Society, got a decent scholarship from the University when she transferred AND enough of a scholarship from the Honor Society to help pay for textbooks, so we kept our side of the bargain and took a parent loan in addition to her taking the federal student loans. She graduated Cum Laude, was accepted into a very tough Doctorate program in the health field, for which she had to take out huge loans, and is now working in her field and paying down those loans. We're paying the parent loans, but feel like we got value for our money.
My point is that you can't say all kids should pay for college on their own since every kid is different. If someone is helping pay, or there is a trust, someone should oversee how that money is spent with the understanding that if the kid doesn't hold up their end of the bargain by attending classes and getting good grades, all deals are off. While colleges will tell you they can't share grades etc with parents/guardians, they actually can - the student just has to file a FERPA form giving them permission to share information; parents can also require the student to give them their passwords to their student portal so they can check on progress themselves. While some ppl may think this is an invasion of a student's privacy, to me its a fair price to pay for help with tuition. If an 18 year old is really as clueless as the author of this piece seems to have been, then maybe a gap year is in order.
18 yrs ago I met a small business owner who became a client of the tiny accounting firm I started( I was making $40k a year in the firm). 7 yrs later I bought his small business. Now, it's 11 years since then. Last yr I made almost $1 million in salary from that business. I've never made less than $500k a year since I purchased it 11 yrs ago. This is an example of "networking". If I wouldn't have done the cold calling and referrals I never would have met this person because he was a total stranger up till then.
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