My Boys Would be Better Off If I Abandoned Them

Category: Weekly Columns

I suppose the title of this column got your attention. Of course I don’t mean it in any literal sense but I’ve begun a mantra/rant lately that includes this notion. My older son just got accepted to an expensive private college, The Berklee College of Music. For a number of reasons, he/we do not qualify for any financial aid. Upon consulting with my friend Jodi Okun of College Financial Aid Advisors, who helps families with these issues for a living, I learned the reasons we did not qualify for financial aid.

Before I illuminate those reasons, I have to declare that my son did himself and his family no good – as far as getting any scholarships – because of his lousy grades and failure to even take the SAT or other college entrance exams. His outstanding musicianship and showmanship at the audition, required by Berklee, clearly overcame any deficiencies from his transcripts and lack of college entrance exams. He shines when he does his music and he worked quite hard preparing for that audition. It paid off when he was one of less than 200 applicants accepted for early admission – to the only college to which he applied.

When we visited Berklee for his audition, we were informed on our parent/applicant tour that any acceptance would be accompanied by whatever aid/scholarship help the accepted student was eligible for. When that wonderful “You’re In” letter arrived, it didn’t have a mention of aid or scholarship on it. It wasn’t an oversight, as Jodi patiently and, to some degree, laughingly explained to me.

See, I was just too darn responsible. I’d done things that just didn’t help the family cause when it comes to qualifying for financial aid. My younger son is academic so he may succeed in getting some sort of scholarship. I’m trying to incentivize him to do so with various promised bribes. If I’d done some or all of the items on the following list, my son (and his younger brother who wants to go to NYU and will likely get in) might have qualified for financial aid:

1. Abandoned my boys when their mother and I got divorced.
2. Gotten in terrible debt.
3. Not paid my mortgage, credit cards bills, or rent (we rented shortly after my divorce, for 4 years).
4. Spent every penny I ever earned.
5. Became any sort of addict, especially gambling where I could have lost everything we had.
6. Gotten caught and arrested after committing a serious crime that got me new housing – in jail.

Hmmm, this has to be old 'cause mom and dad may owe SIX figures now!

What was I thinking? Now, I have to scrimp, save, and sacrifice to send my son to the college of his choice. Thankfully, I did save a certain amount for my sons’ college education from the moment they were born. But, the cost of college has risen far beyond any predictions we carefully made 19 years ago. I put away more than enough if they chose to go to community college for two years and then transfer to a state college or university. For that matter, I saved enough for Berklee and NYU based on the projections available for their tuition two decades ago!

In short, I did everything right and consequently got treated all wrong. Yes, private loans are available – at wise-guy interest rates. Jodi asked me a few simple questions about my finances. When I answered that I actually had some equity in the house we bought a couple of years ago and that I had retirement accounts that still held some value, Jodi said we were out of luck.

Aside from my irritation at this ironic fact, I was concerned that if I gave my son a so-called “free ride,” I’d not be doing him any service. I asked Jodi why I couldn’t self-finance a loan to my son for part of his college education. We decided that my son should be responsible for one year of his education. Jodi prepared a loan document, replete with an amortization schedule, and we set it up exactly the same as if he’d received formal financial aid.

His loan is interest-free until six months after he graduates. It then accrues interest at the rate for government financial aid. He then begins a payment schedule that shows him exactly how much he’s reducing this debt in the same way mortgage holders see their loan amount reduced each month by regular payments. Of course, I have no collateral other than his word and signature on the loan document, but I feel it gives him a stake in his education that I hope will keep him mostly centered on completing it.

When did things go so wrong in our country that being responsible seems to equate with being punished? That is how I feel. Yes, I can afford to pay these exorbitant costs for my boy’s college education but it will most definitely hurt our lifestyle to a considerable degree. Their mom is not a factor and the huge amount of money she got from our divorce is evidently long lost, so looking to her to help is not an option.

On the other hand, my second wife – who is my boy’s step-mom – has to suffer our downsizing of lifestyle. She has accepted this fact with incredible grace given how she’s come to love the boys so much. I just can’t help but feel there is something seriously wrong with this scenario!


  • Tedrubin

    I totally relate Bruce. There is so much wrong with this system, and in my eyes the worst part is the mortgage-like debt so many are graduating with, and no hope of repayment. It is an albatross hanging around their necks, and another financial crisis waiting to happen for the banks. 

    So excited for you and your son. Look forward to future posts about the adventure.

    • Bruce Sallan

      I think we are the first generation of parents that are worried that our kids will do at least AS well as we have – rather than better than we have!

      • cutemonster

        Being that my oldest is now finishing up kindergarten, all this gloom and doom talk of college tuition cost is sobering to say the least.  I started a 529 plan for him soon after he was born and opted to invest in specific stocks for my youngest.  Nonetheless, I can’t envision costs coming under control in any meaningful way until the profit motive has been eradicated.  Depending on one’s profession, hard work does not always translate into financial independence.  A chasm in college education s growing  which will further erode the ability of the United States to prosper as a nation.

        • Bruce Sallan

          I couldn’t agree more. Good that you have begun to save/invest. DON’T stop. It may seem that you have enough but you likely won’t. Also, I believe that for MANY kids, going to a community college for the first two years is wise, especially if they don’t really know what they want from college or have a specific career direction yet!

  • College $$ Advisor

    what a great Dad you are ..your boys and wife are so luck to have you. All kidding aside…your post is lovely and your family amazing..I am lucky to know you and watch you travel the next milestone proudly…Bruce you are a great dad!!

    • Bruce Sallan

      I am so grateful we met, Jodi…it’s the magic of Social Media. TY for your kind words!

  • Brian Vickery

    Hit the nail on the head with this one, Bruce. All we’ve done is save responsibly, switch to a 15-yr loan when people were taking advantage of low interest rates to upsize their houses (we have 5+ years left on it), and we carry no credit card debt.

    Then my oldest graduates Salutatorian (missed Valedictorian because she was editor-in-chief of the paper and it brought her average down even with an “A”). She blows away the standardized tests with ivy league scores, she has volunteered at Vacation Bible Schools and as a vocalist, and she doesn’t get a penny even for “merit”. CU actually has some Chancellor’s scholarship for the top student in a high school class. She was 2nd (and the highest ranking to go to CU out of that class), and she gets zero!

    She got a Chancellor’s scholarship from a private school, but the subsidized amount would be more than what we are paying for CU as a public university.

    I’m with you – they do not reward MERIT or fiscal responsibility when it comes to scholarships. And I have a 2nd daughter that is taking a very similar path. She has one more year left of high school. So I can have two highly performing daughters not getting a penny for their efforts. They could have skated by and made the entrance requirements for most colleges. Instead, they are high achievers with no noticeable benefit other than personal satisfaction. The good news is that we are immensely proud of them, and that work ethic and desire to be on the top of their game will bear out in the long run.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Wow, that is yet another chapter to this story, BV. Congrats on your daughter’s success. It WILL serve them well in life. We can only hope our country starts appreciating hard work vs. rewarding no work indefinitely!

  • Janet Callaway

    Bruce, unfortunately it does seem that those who are “responsible” are punished. Since I could stand on my soapbox and go on at length on this topic, suffice it to say “rant, rant, rant.”

    You have done an excellent job of laying it out, giving much food for thought as well as a guide with recommendations for parents with children who will be going to college soon or in two decades.

    Wishing you a terrific week ahead, Bruce. Aloha. JanetP.S. BTW, I also look forward to your son’s enormous success and to reading of the lavish gifts he gives his family.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx Janet. It is so weird how the world has turned upside-down!

  • Kyle Bradford

    Bruce, you’re a better man than I am. I’ve been pretty vocal on my stance about paying for my kids college. Certainly I’ve saved and am setting aside some for their college expenses (should they decide to go, they’re 8 and 10). But I continue to struggle with simply writing them a blank check. I’ve already told them, at their young age, and not in so many words that they will need to pay for their own college, or the major bulk of it. 

    I understand the various ways that could go in my favor or back fire on me. But in my own experience I’ve seen far too many examples of kids given totally free rides only to end up working the second shift at the Gap. 

    With all that being said, there is clearly a discrepancy in getting into and paying for college. Not to mention I’m not entirely convinced we understand why college is just so expensive and growing seemingly out of control. 

    I hope your son recognizes the sacrifice you are making for him. 

    • Bruce Sallan

      You are just as good a dad. This is a very difficult decision parents face. IMHO, college is mostly a waste of time these days. IF a kid has true focus – as my older son now does with his music – then maybe it’s worth the so-called sacrifice. But, if they don’t, let them spend the first two years at a local community college. Have them get a job, take their pre-reqs, and party and has all the sex they want at those fees – after all, isn’t that much of what the first two years of college is all about? THEN, if they WANT an education beyond that – that is the time to encourage/support and reach in our wallets. Nonetheless, I believe they should have a stake in their education which is why I chose to loan my boys 1-year of their 4-year tuition – in a formal loan – to force them to look at how much it costs and maybe appreciate it/me a tad more! We’ll see. 

  • Even with you having him sign a ‘loan’ document, it still seems like you are bailing him out a but. You clearly stated that while he shines musically, he neglected his studies and any hope of academic scholarship. Seems like you let him off the hook more than a little. Applied to only 1 school, the cost of which was known to be above your budget? Yikes! I hope your son realizes how lucky he is, because most of us can’t afford to be that nice. I didn’t go to my dream school, but I got to go to a good one. Not going to the 17yr olds school of dreams isn’t a dealbreaker for life.

    • Bruce Sallan

      You are right, but there are more details and I’m NOT being a pushover, trust me. He went through a great deal and came out pretty strong. Yes, he slacked academically, but he SHINED musically. Getting in to Berklee was quite a coup. While it means a sacrifice of sorts for us, we can handle it. No more BIG trips and other lifestyle downsizing, but that is the price of being a parent, I believe.

  • Meg

    I think this problem is definitely worse but not new. I didn’t qualify for financial aid back in 1989, and I was being raised by a single mother making a mid level salary. Her crime was owning our home out right. I did get some scholarships, but my experience was that it’s tough for an, “average,” kid to get scholarships without some unique combination of skills/abilities/attributes. It sounds like your kiddo has some for sure, so it’s too bad his academics weren’t up to par (I’m sure he knows that-not trying to rub it in). Anyway, kudos to you for helping him. My mom and other relatives put me through, and I’ve never had to move back home, and I’ve always appreciated it. My husband and I know people absolutely crippled by student loan debt who have had to take jobs they hate to pay them back. I know not everyone agrees, but we are trying hard to save what our boys will need because we don’t want them to have to be in that position. I do think there is something to be said for ,”Managing expectations.” Your son would be a tricky case, but our boys already know it’s state school or state school. 

    • Bruce Sallan

      TY Meg. My son is a tricky case and his getting accepted to Berklee seemed a long-shot but when he did, I felt it was one I wanted to gamble on. The “Hit” to our finances will be hard but not crippling.

  • Amberr Meadows

    I am glad you were able to at least find some way to work through it. That’s ridiculous that it takes poor credentials to be worthy of a federal student loan. 

    • Bruce Sallan

      Yep…the world is Upside-Down now, it seems!

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  • Ted Rubin

    There are no set rules here. Paying for college for our kids works for some of us, and some kids, and not for others. This all depends upon circumstances, personalities, and specifics. Generalities belong in a different conversation… IMHO. 

    Bruce… I support your decision 100% and will do the same for my girls. I is not about “what” we do for them, but “what” they do with it… and that only time will tell 🙂

    • Bruce Sallan

      Yes, time will tell Ted…it feels like parenting is a real-life on-going Soap Opera!

  • Mark Anthony Dyson

    This is good stuff. Overall, despite the financial pain does exceed the joy of their independence, and yours. My college bound son will hopefully bear the guilt of his father when he send his son to college, just slightly better circumstances like straight A’s and higher SAT scores. 

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx Mark…and, good for you and your son with the straight A’s and SATs!

  • Stan Faryna

    I appreciate your sacrifice and savings, Bruce. I appreciate your frustration and anger. I hope it works out for you and your boys.

    University/college cost has gone to hell. Will your boys be paying for the education they get or do those costs subsidize other unrelated activities and the universities of the university or college?

    For example, Harvard University bought up quite a bit of forest in Romania under a separate corporate name. It’s an investment, of course. I suppose they plan to illegally deforest, make a killing, and take that killing and put it into other high return investments. 

    Makes you wonder what some of those colleges and universities are really about. Education. Or money? No one can serve two masters…

    • Bruce Sallan

      It’s more of the damage of the sixties now that those that run colleges and universities are products of that terribly destructive period in American history…only good thing to come out of the sixties was some good rock ‘n’ roll!

  • Keith Tipton

    You did well.  How could your kid do so little in return?  Bad grades, no fallback school, just motivation for a single music school?  Is there a way the kid might get something next year, a 3-year scholarship of sorts, for his music?

    • Bruce Sallan

      I obviously (and I’m serious) didn’t do so well…or he’d have turned around and taken a bit more responsibility for his actions that limited ANY scholarship options. On the other hand, do I punish him for that? I say that is my “little boy” coming out and ultimately harms him and does no good. His younger brother is already on a better (academic) path and understands that he can win bigger if he gets some help in the form of scholarship – e.g. we help him with a car, a down payment on a home, etc. That AIN’T gonna be available for his big brother and he knows it!

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  • SchoolmarmDE

    I know what you’re talking about. I have a Junior in college, and a Junior in High School, visiting colleges. No financial aid. I feed and clothe and buy toilet paper for 7 people on less than $200 a week, and it’s a good thing they like potatoes. 

    My father wouldn’t fill out forms for financial aid. He was just like that. So I couldn’t even get merit aid I was entitled to. Surprising that I didn’t finish college, when I was paying for it by working the graveyard shift? That’s what abandoning the kids looks like, in financial aid terms. it wouldn’t help. 

    My eldest did the 2 years at community college and transfer thing. He’s dean’s list, in a tough school, and it still ain’t free. We let him know that the money we’re spending on his expenses MUST be back in the kitty for the younger sibs. All of them know their futures absolutely depend on being high achievers and helping each other. It’s a team effort.

    Still, I didn’t have to have a big family, particularly late in life. I didn’t have to be looking at  college for these kids. I could have spent my money on spa vacations and liposuction.

    But I bet on the future. I invested in the greatest thing ever, strong citizens for a better world. Education is expensive, but it beats stupidity, 6 ways from Sunday. 🙂

    • Bruce Sallan

      Good for you; good for your kids, and good for OUR future with people like you!

  • Stephen Abbott

    It may be small comfort to anyone facing large college fees, but instilling responsibility and work ethic will likely be more valuable to them than the skills learned in college. Work ethic isn’t something that is learned from a school. Your kids are better prepared for life’s adversities and challenges than anyone who feels a sense of entitlement.

    • Bruce Sallan

      I fully agree, Stephen. Not only do most colleges/universities NOT prepare our kids for real life, they often tear down the values they were taught AND believed at home. And, we parents are paying through the teeth to send them to radicalized schools (NOT ALL schools, Professor Weber – just some – like UC Berkeley). 

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  • David Weber

    Nightmarish stuff.  I don’t know what must be done to reduce college costs…and I’m a college professor!

    • Bruce Sallan

      It is a nightmare for so many families. Did you know that most dentists graduate with a half-million in debt? And, most will NOT be able to pay it off! DENTISTS!