Tuesday, March 10, 2015

New blog on college affordability launched!

 During the five years since Back to School for Grownups was first published, I have spoken with many adult learners as they faced challenges, pursued hopes, and celebrated success. From the grandmother struggling to retrain to be able to support five young grandchildren after losing their mother, to the executive who simply wanted to follow his dreams, this has been an interesting and rewarding journey.

And it will continue...with one exception:

In response to the student loan debt crisis I will no longer be posting here but instead have launched a new blog: OurPlanforCollege.blogspot.com

Based on my new book, Our Plan: A Family-Centered Guide to Paying for College, the new blog focuses on college affordability for learners of all ages. Our Plan shows readers how to keep their family at the center of every higher ed decision; and by doing so avoid unmanageable student debt.

Thank you for your readership! Please visit my new blog: www.OurPlanforCollege.blogspot.com!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Student Loan Debacle: What's Next?

2014 appears to be the year to address financial health.  Expert Nathan Dungan to Dave Ramsey to Fidelity Investments have declared 2014 the year of the conversation, the year to clarify and achieve one's financial resolutions, the year to get back on our financial feet.  But how can we address the student loan crisis - the trillion dollars of college debt held by US students (and parents and grandparents on their behalf)?

Unfortunately the student loan crisis (I prefer 'debacle') is here for the long haul. 'Crisis' typically describes a sudden horrific event (earthquake), a time of intense difficulty and chaos (health outbreak), or a turning point for decisions (divorce).  'Debacle' implies something broader; for example, the aftermath of a long-coming event (such as the stock market crash of 1929 or the subprime mortgage debacle).  A crisis effects your life, but a debacle effects the world (or at least a piece of it). We are dealing with a debacle.

Unlike a typical crisis the student loan debacle offers no sudden event from which to recover, no Red Cross to collect and distribute donations to help families get back on their feet, and no turning point decision option (e.g. bankruptcy). 

And the challenge remains as post-secondary education continues to be the cornerstone of a healthy career and a standard for a healthy domestic and global society.  Thus, financing higher education must be addressed as a larger issue, not just a how-to-borrow-the-funds-for-Bailey's-college issue.

As we begin to understand the long-term consequences of the student loan debacle, the stories of woe will expand accordingly.  So too will options  emerge, relief be offered, and hope return for future generations.  Over the next few weeks I'll post some thoughts and recommendations for roles essential to the recovery.  In particular I'll look at the role of:

  • Families
  • Higher education institutions
  • Employers
  • Legislation and Policy
  • Society
Stay tuned!  As always I welcome your comments and dialogue!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Remembering Brad

This Memorial Day weekend I'd like to remember one of my star students, Sargent First Class Bradley B. Lahti who died December 11, 2012 at the age of 33.  I met Brad in the fall of 2010. From the first night of class it was clear Brad was a quiet leader in this cohort.  Mentally sharp, always prepared, and willing to be the first to answer or ask a class question, Brad demonstrated respect for - and was respected by - his colleagues.

Brad was also an excellent writer.  As adult learners, students wrote about organizational theories in light of current work environments. Many students get trapped writing about what should be; Brad focused on what was and what could be, both at his civilian job and for his upcoming military redeployment to Kuwait.  Brad's keen perspective, maturity, and calm strength were palpable in his written word. With his permission I kept several of Brad's papers as models of insightful, substantive work. 

 A particular gift Brad left with me was a new understanding of the military in light of traditional business theory.  Throughout the course Brad and I had several brief one-off discussion about military leadership, his graduate school goals, his new baby and wife, and how he could be the best leader possible with his new platoon.  By the end of the course I'm not sure who learned more from whom.

Rest in peace Sargent Lahti.  "Thank you for your service" does not begin to describe your contribution and legacy. You are missed.

Your grateful professor, Dr. Laura

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Savings Challenge #3 - Time Matters

For adult learners time is money, literally.  Trips back and forth to campus mean higher gas bills.  Tight schedules mean more fast food for the family. Reducing job hours (if that is even an option) means less income. With pressure from all sides what's one more loan?  But first, consider counting minutes along with those pennies.

A great way to save time is to mix and match online and face-to-face courses. You'll save travel time & parking expenses.  Rather than grabbing a $4 mocha and bagel (aka "dinner") on the way to class, you can throw in a load of laundry, grab some leftovers and a Coke from the fridge, turn on the computer and you are in class.  Traveling for work?  Debrief the day over happy hour, then head up to your room and log in to class without missing a beat.

Already studying online? Connect with your classmates and professors outside of required posts and assignments.  Think of the group as a unique resource.  You are all adults, from various backgrounds, reading the same material.  Tap into that brain trust!  Stuck on a question?  Post it to the group.  Having a hard time finding a paper topic or good resources?  Ask for others' favorite resources.  Research time can be cut from days to hours, often with better quality results.  Truly great groups become incredibly efficient at completing their work while getting the most from the course and building long-lasting professional relationships. 

And remember the 80/20 rule of adult learners.  As an adult learner it is very possible there may only be time to complete 80% of the reading (or create an 80% perfect assignment).  The trick is being ok with less than perfection (or guessing which is the right 80% :)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Savings Challenge #2: Try a No-Store-Shopping Spring

We all have items we bought with good intentions that have rarely, if ever, been used.  This spring avoid retail stores (except maybe JCP...they have rock-bottom prices and deserve kudos for the Ellen commercials, even if the concept was an epic fail).  Instead host a Spring Swap.  Here's how it works.

Go through your closets.  Kitchen, hall, bedroom; if it is a closet at least take a look.  Pull out anything you (a) haven't used or worn in the last 2 years and (b) no longer like/want.  For me that includes a kitchen swiffer, tennis racket, chic blouse (what was I thinking), and more two-pocket folders than anyone should own.  The quality should be good enough you'd offer it to your best friend.  Convince one or more friends to do the same.

Name a date, place and time and swap!  Limit the time to 15-60 minutes.  Rules are optional. For an additional twist, send a note to participants ahead of time with requests (I'm looking for a summer top, light blue, size small good for yoga).  Anything that is left over give to a shelter or non-profit (Hope Chest) or Goodwill.

This can be done over lunch, 15 minutes before class (I'm thinking of my adult night students who meet once a week), or as a fun weekend event with pizza ($10 or less a pizza...Papa Murphy's or Kashi with a coupon are great).

Even if you don't score big, you'll give the good stuff in closets more room to breathe, and have fun in the process.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Savings Challenge #1 - BYOW

Welcome to the first savings challenge! Over the next few weeks you'll learn how to recover when  your financial aid award gets reduced.   The first challenges target ways to cut expenses.  The second set of challenges will present creative (or downright boring) ways to earn lost funds from a different source.

Break it down. Let's say your work study award is slashed by $2,000.  First, break it down. These funds are typically earned through a 5-10 hour/week on-campus job at around $9/hour.  That's roughly $35-$75/week cash in your pocket to spend after taxes. Be honest. These funds are probably not going toward the big bills like tuition or room and board.  And, they aren't earned soon enough to use toward books.  More than likely these funds buy everyday stuff from toothpaste, to extra class supplies, bus passes, and - yes - fun.

Challenge #1:  BYOW One of the highest margin items we buy is non-alcoholic drinks (alcohol is addressed in a later challenge).  Ever notice how pricey soft drinks are on restaurant menus?  That's because soft drinks & coffee drinks cost the vendor pennies, making soft drinks one of the highest profit items on the menu. That's how coffee kiosks and soda machines make billions of dollars from students annually, one $2 pepsi or $5 double mocha latte ($6 with tax and tip) at a time.

Chances are, some of your hard-earned $35-$75 bucks are going directly toward that profit. Rather than hand over your cash to beverage industry executives, do your budget - and your health - a favor.  Invest in a Brita water bottle with filter ($17 at Target) and trade the coffee shops and pop machines for each and every water fountain you pass by.  The water is cold, the filter makes it taste great, there are no long lines to make you late for class, and you are doing the environment a favor by reducing the number of plastic cups and bottles in land fills.

At $5 spent per day on average for soda or coffee, that is $35 per week you won't miss from reduced work study funds (besides the hours spent earning it).  And if you feel bad not buying from your roomate the barista, put a tip jar in your room and donate daily.  You'll still save money and the roommate won't have to share the tips. Everyone wins.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sequester Threatens $148 Million in Financial Aid

Last Friday as colleges were preparing 2013-14 financial aid awards the sequester hit, threatening $148,000,000 in federal work study and grants.  That means more than 21,000 students in the 10 worst hit states alone will lose campus jobs that help pay for their studies and keep student loan debt manageable.

To be clear, this is not free money. These are low-wage campus jobs for which students must apply, interview, and be selected.  The federal funds merely supplement a college's wage costs, allowing a college to offer more positions that it could otherwise afford.

Federal grants are also at risk.  For example, while Pell grants are exempt from the sequester, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) which target some of the poorest students are on the chopping block.  See a state-by-state breakdown at Diverse Issues in Higher Ed.

If you're affected by these cuts, don't give up hope!  Over the next few weeks I'll be posting ideas to help you bridge the gap.  As always I welcome your questions and comments.