Ep 16: Getting College Paid For

Episode Summary

Jeannie Burlowski, author of LAUNCH: How to Get Your Kids Through College Debt-Free and into Jobs They Love Afterward, reveals some incredible tricks for helping your teen get an early jumpstart on a college education that is completely paid for by the time they graduate.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

With the soaring cost of a university education these days, many parents wonder how they can get their teens free college tuition at a top school.

To get answers, I sat down with academic strategist Jeannie Burlowski. This lady is like the Einstein of college finances.


Her day job (the one she works when she’s not writing books and speaking at conferences) is literally coaching college students to set extraordinarily high goals for themselves, and then strategizing to help them figure out the fastest, least expensive way to get to those goals.

If your college student daughter wants to go to Johns Hopkins for med school and get a PhD at the same time, for example, your family might hire Jeannie to figure out all the steps to make that happen—with an emphasis on getting it all done as inexpensively as possible. Most often without scholarships.

Because inexpensive is one of Jeannie’s primary focuses, she’s written a book specifically for parents of kids and teens who’ll one day be going to college: LAUNCH: How to get Your Kids Through College Debt Free and into Jobs They Love Afterward.

LAUNCH has become one of the most well-respected books on this subject (it’s the go-to reference book for financial planners and college consultants) because Jeannie isn’t just about doing college cheap, she’s about doing it debt-free and so effectively that it results in a great, satisfying career after college is over.

So, when it comes to landing a free college diploma for your teen, she kiiiiinda knows what she’s talking about.

Avoiding Undergraduate Student Loans

In her grad school and medical school consulting practice, Jeannie’s seen students who graduated from four years of college with over $180,000 in student loans. This kind of debt is crippling.

Her advice to parents is clear: DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN to help your kid avoid taking out undergraduate student loans. No matter your income level, if you strategize well enough early on, you can get your teen through four years of undergrad without borrowing a dime. You could investigate a handful of easy scholarship opportunities, or get creative by looking at merit-based aid, AP credit, and more!

During her 23 years working as an academic strategist, she’s developed some extremely creative strategies to bring the cost of REAL, high quality, high value college down, down, down, down…down to such a bargain basement level that even ordinary families can have it 100% paid for by two – four years after the kid graduates from high school.

So What’s the Secret to Free College Tuition?

Well, Jeannie says you need to be very careful here because the idea is to get your teen a GOOD education that leads to a real job after college. Landing your teen free college doesn’t do any good if the education he or she receives is sub-par. So set your aim high, look into accessible scholarships, and ensure there’s no debt.

The goal should be to get your teen a debt-free college education, not necessarily 100% free college tuition.

Um…what’s the difference?

Jeannie explained it to me like this:

“Everything you purchase that has high quality and high value has a cost. When you purchase something that can literally change a family’s life for generations, it’s going to have a significant cost. That just makes sense. But if you take a number of very strategic steps early on, you can completely sidestep paying the sticker price for college—even if your family makes too much to qualify for financial aid and your kid’s not getting any scholarships.”

I was surprised to hear that there are tax breaks for parents of college students that can save them thousands. Who tells parents about this? Savvy parents are finding out about them in Jeannie’s book.

In this episode

Jeannie reveals a few of the trade secrets she has uncovered over the past 2+ decades. This is not hard stuff to apply and the benefits are astronomical.

For example, teens often hear this about AP classes: “If you do well on the test at the end of an AP class, you’ll get college credit for that subject!”Really?

Is that statement really true? In reality, less than half of teens who take an AP test are actually awarded the promised college credit. Jeannie says that there’s a far more effective way to earn college credit in high school, and she covers it on pages 91-96 of her book.

Debt-Free College Education

Of course, one key to getting some free college tuition money is to land merit aid awards from colleges and universities. Merit aid is free college money that does not ever need to be paid back, and your child can be eligible for it even if you have a million dollars in the bank.

The problem is—many parents assume that students have to be geniuses with perfect GPAs and test scores in order to get merit aid. “Not so,” Jeannie says. “The key to getting merit aid is to get your teen started early (in middle school and high school) focusing in on fewer activities than most students do, in greater depth than most students ever have time for.”

Commitment and depth to fewer activities can impress admissions offices into offering these students loads of free money later.

What kinds of activities are we talking about here?

It’s all covered in this episode.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. How to help your teen start networking and building business relationships

“Let’s sit down together and make a list. Who are all your friends’ parents? Who are the adults in your life that know you and like you? This is is the bus driver who drives you to your youth retreats. This is your baseball coach. It’s your football coach. It’s your friends mother. It’s any adult in your life who is a caring presence to you. And your friends’ parents is a great place to start looking. Also, what about any of my and your mothers’ friends?”

-Jeannie Burlowski

2.  Help your teen find a cause to be passionate about:

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3.  How to get your teen to start thinking about the future and investing money:

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4.  When your teen’s (already lavish) allowance is not enough to cover all their expenses, say:

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5.  What to say when your teen asks you for money for something important (like prom):

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6.  When your teen gets a report card, here’s how you can start with empathy:

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7.  How to start a talk about topics you have never discussed before:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Developing a Family Sense of Purpose:

Jeannie recommended coming together as a family to decide on a humanitarian cause that you all care about. Complete the following exercise as a family. Take ideas for causes from everyone in the family and write them on index cards and stick them on the wall. Then spend some time discussing all of the ideas. Now give each family member three of those circular colored dot stickers. You can all silently spend a few minutes voting by sticking dots near the ideas you like best. If you love one in particular, you can stick two or even all three of your dots there. Feel free to vote for your own ideas. When voting is over, take the one or two items with the most dots and select them as your family cause or causes. Write a brief mission statement together about your new cause. Decide on small actions you can all take this week.

2.  Calculate a Budget for Your Teen to Avoid all Arguments About Money:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Can you just walk me through this here? Okay, so you do this grad school admissions thing. So that’s like people come to you and say, “I want to go to medical school. How do I do it?” Or what?

Jeannie: Right. So I am, what’s called an academic strategist and I’ve been doing this for 23 years. So I help college students to set extraordinarily high goals and then figure out what is the fastest, least expensive way to get to those goals. So, for example, if you were applying to Johns Hopkins for medical school and you also wanted to get a PhD, there are a lot of hurdles between where you are as a junior in college and where you actually get to that point, where there are 200 applicants for one slot, and you’re offered the spot.

Jeannie: And so parents hire me to help package their kids so that they look amazing in whatever application it is that they have to fill out to get where they’re going. And then I also throw in a specialty in helping kids figure out how to get other people to pay for that.

Jeannie: I’ve been doing this for a very long time. And in all these years, I have never had a medical school applicant or a law school applicant or a grad school applicant that I didn’t love. I just love every one of them. And one of the questions, one of the conversations I have to have is, what’s your debt look like right now? And how are you going to handle the added debt of medical school or law school or veterinary school or whatever it is. And I would have students tell me stories that just broke my heart. Sometimes I would have to say, “How is it that you got $180,000 in debt from undergrad?” And a lot of times the answer was that well-meaning, guidance counselors, educational consultants that were actually paid by the family or parents had given the kid erroneous mistaken advice. And here’s a great example.

Jeannie: A parent would tell a child, “You better go to that college, that’s real fancy school that didn’t give you any financial aid, because if you go there, you will probably have a better chance of getting into medical school and achieving your dream of becoming a doctor.” And then from where I sit in my chair, I’m thinking that is not even true because two days ago, I just got a kid into a top 20 medical school who went to Joe blow drinking party, school, state university, right down the road. And I can tell you, it is not any harder or easier for me to help people get into medical school or law school at the highest levels. If they went to Joe Blow state university, or if they went to an Ivy league school, as a matter of fact, sometimes kids who went to Ivy league schools are hampered in this process.

Jeannie: Well, you’re sitting in a chair, helping people apply to law school and medical school, I kept thinking if I could just reach these kids parents, when they were in seventh grade, I could plant seeds and I could do all kinds of things. In seventh grade, eighth, ninth, 10th, and 11th, it wouldn’t take the parents very much time at all. Then, when they get to me for applying to high level medical school, law school, graduate school, MBA programs, wow, there will be all this groundwork laid that will make my job so much easier of getting them not only into the program, but getting it paid for.

Andy: Okay. So I love this idea of planting the seeds. Let’s talk about some of those seeds that parents should plant when their kids are in the teenage years. And one thing you talk about is service and why service is important. And you have this cool idea of helping kids early on to find one humanitarian cause and then one extracurricular activity to focus on and just nail those two things. So I wonder if you could just expand on that and talk about what led you to write that.

Jeannie: Okay, this is critically important. When kids are in middle school, their brains are growing faster than at any time since infancy. So anything that you show a middle schooler, anything you expose them to, is going to imprint on them like little ducklings being born and looking up at their mother for the first time. Things imprint in a way that they just never forget decades and decades later.

Jeannie: So right around sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, this is the time for parents to present the idea to their kids. “Let’s do something exciting and adventurous. Let’s identify a cause that we care about, some sort of an injustice that’s going on in this world right now that we could do something about.” And maybe it’s a cause that touches your family in some way. If your aunt Mary died of cancer, maybe your family decides, “Let’s do something for people who are battling cancer.” And if your family will identify one cause that your family cares about and then kind of come together as a family project and say, “What could we do? Let’s do something.” And maybe it’s raise money, or maybe it’s write letters, or maybe it’s partner with other organizations that are working on this.

Jeannie: And what I love about what I’m prescribing about the service is, I’m not asking the kids to do a 10 service projects. I’m not asking them to dilute their efforts and do a little bit here in a little bit there out of obligation and guilt and shame and because we should. And here’s the worst reason to do service, because it’ll look good on a college application. There’s nothing less inspiring than that. I’m asking kids not just to look good, I’m asking them to be good.

Jeannie: And what will happen is that at first, the kids will just go along out of obligation. “Okay, my family’s doing this.” It’s just like how kids are roped into going on family vacations. “Okay, we’re all going to the grand Canyon. I guess I’m going too. I guess the whole family is doing this service thing, I’m doing it too.” But then when the service is focused and then when students start to get invested, then their heart starts to enter into it, and then they start to care. And when they start to care, this service takes on new life. And we have kids who start in sixth grade or seventh grade with their parents, and then they keep on thinking about new ways to help the same need, the same injustice. And they keep doing it through seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade.

Jeannie: They’re applying to college in the summer after 11th grade. They have this long, long, detailed list of these community experiences that they’ve done, and they are able to write with passion and heart about wanting to change the world and scholarship applications. And they have evidence to support what they’re saying, because they’ve been doing all this. But that is not, what’s most important. What’s most important is the kids gain a sense of meaning and significance. They gain this feeling like what I’m doing can truly impact and help the world. And because you’re starting this early, it can impact how they behave and how their families behave decades into the future. The fact that it looks great on a scholarship application is just a very minor part of the picture. That’s minor compared to everything else that you get out of this experience.

Andy: Yeah. I love that you talk about the sense of purpose. I think that’s so important, teaching kids to live a life of purpose. I like that this is like a tangible way to do that and to set them on the path. It’s really cool.

Jeannie: And then you asked me about why would I prescribe one main extracurricular activity? Why? The conventional wisdom says that if you’re going to try to look impressive to colleges or scholarship applications-

Andy: You need at least eight, right? You need four or five sports, you need drama, the chess club, you got to be president of something.

Jeannie: So, right. The conventional wisdom says, you need at least eight things and you have to have been the captain of this and been on the speech team. Do you know how many applicants colleges see that exact profile? People like that, students like that are giant yawners. Whether you’re applying to Harvard or you’re applying to some private school or a state university, admissions people are yawning because here’s another kid punched right out of the cookie cutter. But you take a student who has identified one thing that they’re kind of naturally good at, and they’re naturally interested in, and they go after it with purpose and determination and commitment, and they start in it early, maybe ninth grade when they’re in high school. And then they commit to it and they go through it with greater drive and greater purpose, and they assume a leadership position in that. And then here’s the really brilliant thing, if that kid can actually take their extracurricular activity and intersect it with some sort of community service.

Jeannie: This is just really, really icing on the cake. So the 12th grader who’s been in the accounting club all this time and is now leading the accounting club, figures out a way to lead the accounting club into community service of some kind or any club can do this, the chess club, the drama club, the speech team, any organization can enter into service if they put their minds to it.

Jeannie: And then Andy, what happens is these kids stand out amazingly above the crowd. Whether they’re applying to top schools or mid range schools or schools that aren’t fussy, it does not matter. And these kids are really candidates for scholarship money too.

Jeannie: So I’ll tell you one quick story. A student that I know in ninth grade kind of decided video games were more important than studying. And for that reason really, really ran the grade point average into the ground. And even after some maturity came down the pike and the student learned how to study in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, and actually did college classes in high school for college credit, the GPA was still terrible. But a fairly decent ACT score, but nothing that is going to make someone fall off their horse. And this person got into their number one first choice school and got $72,000 in merit aid, scholarship money, which is free money the college offers. It’s not tied to financial aid. You can be a millionaire and get merit aid from a college. It needs never be paid back. It’s not a loan. It’s just a free handout of money that essentially says, “Please, please, please come here. We think that you will greatly enrich this campus experience here at our college for other people.”

Jeannie: Why? Why did that student get that with the bad grades? I think it was because of his four years on the high robotics club, never missing a meeting, increasing levels of involvement, growing up to the point where he was a captain and the head of the programming department with 12 people under him. I think that colleges looked at that and said, “You’ve really got something to contribute here.” And I know for a fact that that kid beat out hundreds of students with grade point averages much higher than his.

Jeannie: So that answers your question about why does Jeanie kind of suggest one main community service that captures your heart, that you pursue with passion and purpose, and one main extracurricular activity. If the student wants more, that’s fine. And the student can certainly try some out and then quit them. There’s nothing wrong with that. But this whole culture that we have of pushing kids to achieve and do every single thing to show they’re superior to everyone else, it actually doesn’t work. It fries kids. And even the Harvard admissions office is just decrying, these kids who they described as teacups, so fragile and brittle, that they would arrive on campus seeming as though they would be shattered by the least tiny bit of adversity. Kids who had never in their entire lives made even one mistake. And it is just not a way to start a life.

Andy: I had never really thought before about preparing your teenager for the business world. You think like you’re preparing your teenager for college, and then once you get to college, then you’re starting to do internships and kind of prepare for the business world. But you got stuff in your book about early on preparing them, like something I never even thought about, which is kind of starting a LinkedIn profile with your teenager. Isn’t the teenage years too early to have a LinkedIn profile? Why would a teenager possibly need a LinkedIn profile?

Jeannie: I love that you’re bringing this up. Actually the book says, get your kid a LinkedIn profile when they’re 14. Well, right after the book came out, LinkedIn changed the rules and you now cannot get a LinkedIn profile till you’re 16. Age 14, age 16, why would I care that your kid is on LinkedIn? Here’s why?

Jeannie: When students come to me for help applying to medical school, a big problem that they have is they have never written anything down. So these premed applicants who are the most organized obedient people on the planet, they do all this volunteering work and job shadowing and clinical experience, and they don’t write any of it down. And so I have to dig and using sketchy clues piece it all together.

Jeannie: Well, if I can get people to start writing things down when their kid is in seventh grade. In seventh grade, the parent has to write it down. The kid doesn’t have the presence of mind to write it down. Well, instead of a spiral notebook, why not just use that space on LinkedIn, where you can just have a little separate entry for every little thing that you’ve ever done.

Jeannie: Here’s the real magic of it though. Students who are in seventh grade don’t even realize it, but they are making future business and future career connections with the people that they associate with every day.

Jeannie: A kid named Jason who’s on a little league baseball team, he doesn’t even realize that his volunteer little league coach is also a vice president for the target corporation. He doesn’t. He goes over to his friend Ben’s house and he plays at Ben’s house, and the dad comes down to the basement and laughs and jokes with them. And Jason doesn’t even realize that Ben’s dad is a software product manager at one of the largest software companies in his area-

Andy: They’re not even thinking about it, it’s not even on their radar at that point.

Jeannie: They’re not even thinking about it. But when I’m able to get ahold of parents when kids are in seventh grade and I’m able to say, “Just for fun, just sit down with your kid and make a list of who are all your friends parents, essentially, who are the adults in your life that know you and like you.” So this is your volunteer… The bus driver that drives you to your church youth retreat, this is your baseball coach, it’s your friend’s mother, it’s any adult in your life that is a caring presence to you. And your friends parents, that’s a great place to start looking.

Jeannie: But then there’s another place too. I encourage students to also look at their parents friends because the whole family knows the guy that golfs with Jason’s dad. But you’re not thinking when you’re in seventh grade, “That guy that golfs with my dad, he’s the president of a bank.”

Jeannie: Andy, just imagine this. Imagine Jason grows up and he’s a junior in college and he wants to get an internship for the summer. And he’s been following me a long time. So he knows you start looking for those in January. So he looks at who do I know on LinkedIn who works for a software company? And Oh, LinkedIn says, you know this guy who works for a software company. And so this kid, Jason, now a junior in college calls this guy up or messages them on LinkedIn because there’s a connection. He can get straight to the guy. And he says, “Hey, I used to play baseball with your son, Jake when I was in middle school. And I’m a computer science major at the university of Illinois Champagne Albama, and I’m wondering if you could hook me up with a great internship for summer.” That is an amazing connection.

About Jeannie Burlowski

Jeannie is a full time author, academic strategist, and speaker. She is the author of LAUNCH: How to Get Your Kids Through College and Into Jobs They Love Afterward, a 344-page book that clearly lays out the easy-to-follow steps parents need to know about when working toward their most important life goals for their teens. Jeannie’s work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, USA Today, NerdWallet, and US News and World Report.

Jeannie also helps students apply to law, medical, business, and grad school at her website GetIntoMedSchool.com. You can find her online at JeannieBurlowski.com and follow her on Twitter @JBurlowski.