The Path Ahead

How the Thomas family got into the New School Mindset

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By Julie Kendrick, Photo by Doug Scaletta

Nik-Kia Thomas, the mother of a high school junior, knows that the road to college graduation can seem like a steep climb. “I’ll admit that I’m stressing a little bit, but I’m trying not to stress my daughter too much,” says the Tampa, Florida, resident. “I tell her, you’ll thank me later for this insistence on discipline and focus, because it’s all for a purpose.”

Nik-Kia and her husband, Tony, attended a college planning workshop led by Thrivent Financial Professional Matt Oleson of Brandon, Florida, and then followed up with him to do more intensive work on creating a higher education plan for their two daughters: Janaya, 11th grade and Zayda, sixth grade.

The family then met with Oleson to help them review and update their current plan. “I liked it that he included Janaya in our initial discussion,” Nik-Kia says. “He talked with her about academics and how she was staying focused. Then he gave her a career assessment.”

Oleson explains: “Knowing what path students want to pursue, and what schools will do the best job of helping them get there, ensures every education dollar is being spent wisely.”

Nik-Kia and her family have gotten some tools and guidance to make the process more manageable, which she says helped relieve their stress. “It can seem overwhelming, but I tell myself that we just have to do one thing every day,” she says.

Like the Thomases, many families find that planning for college can be stressful. In addition to being the place for setting a lifelong career path, college often comes with a daunting price tag. With college tuition rates on the increase, what can families do to prepare themselves?

Own the process

“Step one—stay calm,” says David Macauley, vice president of Thrivent Scholars Advisor Network Development. Macauley has worked with many families, at all levels of income and all stages of the planning process. He says everyone can benefit from the adoption of a “new school mindset,” one that comes from an attitude of abundance and accessibility, not scarcity. “Remember, you’re the one with the precious resource—your child,” he says. “Don’t restrict your thinking only to schools you know about or are in a specific location. You want to keep options open as much as possible when your family begins the search for a school.”

He notes that Thrivent offers a unique perspective: “Our position as an organization that serves Christians informs the way we approach this process.” He urges families to stop feeling guilty about getting a late start or not meeting savings goals.

“Money and a financial strategy are tools to help you live a life that’s more authentic to your values, rather than be something that you have to get perfect or worry about measuring up,” he says. “This process should be serving you, not the other way around.”

Four steps to a New School Mindset

Oleson says that your values are an important part of meeting goals while staying true to the Wise With Money Journey philosophy. “It is possible to make wise decisions, like reducing costs and choosing the right college, and to do all that while borrowing as little as possible.” Here’s how to get started:

Step 1: Prepare and plan

It’s important to prepare yourself and your child for the road ahead. Make a plan of action for how your family will pay for your child’s education. Your plan should reflect who will be responsible for paying for college: your child, you or both of you? “As soon as you can, develop a savings goal for the family,” Oleson says.

Step 2: Maximize scholarships

Don’t leave free money on the table. Your child should apply for as many scholarships and financial aid opportunities as possible. One way to improve their chances for an award is to have your child create a leadership and service portfolio. “Scholarships and college admissions offices are looking for students who have demonstrated leadership skills and who were involved in giving back, starting from an early age,” Oleson says.

Step 3: Borrow smart

Your family goal should be to borrow as little as possible to pay for school. Look at education as an investment and calculate your return on investment: Your family’s total borrowing should be less than you expect your child to earn in the first year out of college.

Step 4: Look at the loan payment

If you decide to take out a loan to help your child with the cost of education, the loan payment should not be more than 10 percent of your income, and you should be able to pay it off in 10 years or less. Staying within this guideline will help you and your child be realistic about what schools to consider.

Nik-Kia has been resourceful at finding the support she needs for this journey. She began a private Facebook group, called “Thinking Ahead: College Scholarships and Beyond,” and encouraged friends to submit ideas, articles and encouragement. She’s even helped Janaya get a head start on the college essay writing process. “Every time she wants a new phone, special summer camp or another extra expense, I make her write a persuasive essay about it. I’m saving them all. It gives her good experience, and I’m hoping we might find some topics she can use as building blocks for her college admission essay.”

Julie Kendrick is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.