By Julie Shields-Rutyna, Director of College Planning and Education, Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority
October 20, 2020
One evening a few weeks ago, I presented an Early College Planning webinar, providing information to families about saving for college. In attendance were over 100 parents of mostly elementary-aged students, with some middle school and early high school parents mixed in. We had a great conversation, as the audience had many questions about how much to save, how savings affects financial aid, and the best options for saving. We laughed (to keep from crying?), and it seemed that many people left well-informed and feeling good about having started to think about a financial plan for college. I was elated—practically jumping up and down with excitement—from having been able to share all kinds of important information about college savings with so many people, and knowing they will all be better off because of it.
As I calmed down a bit after the webinar, I was reminded of a story I tell my children to make them laugh. I tell them how I played shortstop on my high school softball team. That alone makes them laugh. Then I tell them that when I made an out, I used to jump up and down with excitement. On cue, every time, they tell me, “Mom, you are supposed to make the outs. That isn’t something to jump up and down about!”
And so it is with these college savings webinars I present to families. They are free, open to the public, and offered at various dates and times. There are thousands of parents with kids of all ages who would benefit from the information, so it would stand to reason that a free college savings webinar would draw a crowd every time. It should just be another night on the job for me—no elation and no jumping up and down. “I talked with parents about college savings tonight—no big deal.”
The truth is that we have trouble drawing an audience on this topic. When we do a presentation about college admissions or financial aid for parents of juniors and seniors in high school, we get a crowd. We also get a lot of anxious and terrified parents worried about how they are going to pay for college. We help them through as best we can at that point, talking about the financial aid process, looking for scholarships, payment plans, and loans. Very often, I have a parent comment at the end of the webinar and say, “This was great, but you should really give these talks to eighth- and ninth-grade parents, or even earlier!” I tell them I do and that I will, but I don’t get a big response.
Recently, I gave another Early College Planning webinar, again speaking to families about saving for college, and a woman with a seventh-grader said, “I know I’m jumping the gun here, but I just thought it would be good to hear what you have to say.” I had to tell her that actually once she hears the presentation, she will wish she came last year. Later, she told me I was right.
I’m sure there are many reasons people put off thinking about a plan to pay for college. We are all busy. It doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend an evening. But really, it isn’t so bad. What I know is that parents feel better after attending a webinar, and that the earlier you start thinking about this, the easier the whole college discussion is between parent and student. So here is my challenge: Please help me think about ways to build an audience. Please help me to stop jumping up and down when I do. I look forward to the day when it’s “Ho hum, another college savings webinar, another out—no big deal.”
About the Author
Julie Shields-Rutyna is the Director of College Planning and Education for Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA). Julie joined MEFA in 2007 and in her role provides expertise related to planning, saving, and paying for college to families, colleges, and other organizations. For over 35 years, MEFA’s unmatched expertise, comprehensive guidance, and diverse products and service offerings have been helping students and families plan for the future. MEFA’s mission as a non-profit, since its founding in 1982, has been to help students and families access and afford higher education and reach financial goals through education programs, tax-advantaged savings plans, low-cost loans, and expert guidance. All of MEFA’s work aligns with the ever-present goal to support the independence, growth, and success of students and families. Learn more at MEFA.org.