By Michael Roberts, Principal, Head of Retail Marketing, The Vanguard Group
January 12, 2021
I can speak from experience about assumptions because I lived with a powerful one right from the start.
My parents both assumed that my siblings and I would go to college—no ifs or buts. Embedded in that assumption was an interesting balance that saw a college degree as a way to align the practical side of college with our other interests—all based on a love of learning. This twofold assumption gave my sisters, brother and me the freedom to explore our passions. And, in a way, we all did just that, pursuing what we really wanted to do within the arts, medicine, theology, history and law.
The idea of college as inevitable can be traced back to two key influencers in my parents’ lives who assumed goals for each of them. Both my mother and father came from modest means in Jamaica and had to make significant sacrifices to get an education. My grandmother (against my grandfather’s wishes) squirreled away enough money for my father to attend high school in Kingston, miles away from his family home in the countryside. At age 4, my mother was sent to live with Teacher Williams, the head of the local primary school, and she thrived under his guidance. So it’s safe to say that my grandmother and Teacher Williams gave my parents the confidence and zest for knowledge they needed to set assumptions for themselves.
Ultimately, my parents met and married in Jamaica and then migrated to Canada, where my mother worked as a nurse and my father shined shoes on Canadian Pacific’s overnight trains between Toronto and Winnipeg—to give himself the chance to take ownership of his future. Dad was determined to pursue something meaningful and relatable that he loved. He began with philosophy, switched to the more practical history, and then went back to philosophy via theology, earning a bachelor’s degree, 3 master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. Eventually, he followed a calling to the ministry, a vocation that turned out to be the most relatable of all for him.
The broader assumption
I realize I was fortunate to have parents who instilled the idea that higher education wasn’t a “maybe” but rather a “must.” And it wasn’t necessarily to be the means to an end but more of a start toward a beginning. For many young people, college can be utilitarian—an end unto itself―and that’s OK if that’s your goal. But college can also lead to self-actualization—to following “that something that leaps in you” as actress Viola Davis has described it. That “leap” is something our dad—and mom—wanted us all to have a chance to try out.
I believe it’s especially important to make higher education an assumption within historically disadvantaged communities—whether disadvantaged based on race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status. The positive psychological effect that it offers can help combat the nihilistic attitude that often befalls young people in particular. To set such a goal from the get-go creates a mindset that college isn’t a slim-to-none possibility but an expectation that can lead to greater fulfillment, regardless of background or bank account.
OK, I guess by now, you’re thinking, “Michael, this is all well and good, but simply assuming a goal isn’t going to drum up the dollars needed to get there.” And you’re right. There’s an obligation to start saving for education too.
Opening a 529 college savings account is one of the best ways to increase the odds that a child will get to college. Just knowing there’s a plan in place is a powerful motivator. It shows that you support and believe in your child, and you’ve established a special account specifically for education to prove it.
And you don’t have to start out with a big balance to inspire your child. In fact, you can open some 529 plan accounts with no initial investment at all and add to it as you’re able. Research has shown that even with savings as low as $500, children are approximately three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to graduate than those with no savings at all.* The odds get better as savings increase.
How did my parents’ assumption eventually pan out for me? Very well indeed. I did pursue my passion for music and funded my way to two music degrees (no 529 plans back then). Then I enjoyed a brief career in opera before turning to the business world where marketing has now become music to my ears.
I also have two young daughters, and I’m assuming the same for them as my dad and mom did for me. I’ve opened a 529 account for each of them, hoping it’ll help give them more freedom and confidence to climb any mountain they choose. However, I’m supplementing my assumption with the hope that they’ll include a love for music within their paths. In the meantime—no assumption here but an absolute given—I’ll see that music lessons are a regular part of their routine. I may even slide in some opera now and then. Never hurts to try!
About the author: Michael Roberts joined Vanguard two years ago as principal of Retail Marketing. He earned music degrees from Dartmouth College and Boston University and began his career as an opera singer before transitioning to the business world where he’s proven to be as adept at climbing the corporate ladder as the vocal scales. Before starting at Vanguard, he worked in management consulting at Ernst & Young and Capgemini and held leadership roles at Citigroup, AlixPartners, TIAA, and Bank of America Merchant Services.
*Source: Building Expectations, Delivering Results: Asset-Based Financial Aid and the Future of Higher Education. In W. Elliott (Ed.), Biannual Report on the Assets and Education Field. Lawrence, Kansas: Assets and Education Initiative, 2013.
All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.
For more information about any 529 college savings plan, contact the plan provider to obtain a Program Description, which includes investment objectives, risks, charges, expenses, and other information; read and consider it carefully before investing. If you are not a taxpayer of the state offering the plan, consider before investing whether your or the designated beneficiary’s home state offers any state tax or other benefits that are only available for investments in such state’s qualified tuition program. Vanguard Marketing Corporation serves as distributor for some 529 plans.