Some summer writing stuff for DC1

DH pointed out to me that DC1 will allow hir work to expand to take any amount of time allotted for it.  A lot of this is wasted time or hidden goofing off (something I am prey to as well).  Basically during the school year zie steals little bits of time to websurf and forum chat etc. and never has large pockets for things that are actually fun like composing or video games or movies or even books.  We talked about why that might be and came up with the fact that whenever DC1 looks like zie isn’t busy we always have suggestions for things to do (usually stuff zie should be doing anyway, like hir laundry or emptying the dishwasher, but not always).

It also has become very apparent during the last year that DC1 hasn’t been taught any writing skills since fifth grade when we were living in Paradise.  Zie just hasn’t had to write.  And hir first draft isn’t generally that great.  (We only noticed this in the last 6 weeks because prior to that there were few writing assignments and what writing assignments there were, DC1 would work on verrrrry slowly and not get a draft done that zie was willing to show us until they were actually due.)

Sidenote:  some college applications have the option of turning in a graded essay as a writing sample.  DC1 does not have a single thing zie could turn in.  The most writing zie has done (other than lab reports that “don’t count”) were FRQs (aka practice AP test writing) from hir history classes.  I wouldn’t trust hir own English or History teachers to be able to write anyway (with the exception of the late AP US History teacher who was writing rec letters from the hospital before his death).  Hir racist World History teacher wrote a terrible rec letter for my friend’s son which was both badly written and made him sound like a jerk, which he isn’t.  (She started with basically, “He may seem like a tyrannical leader” and then had kind of word salad and ended sort of, but not clearly, saying but that would be incorrect?  It didn’t say what she thought it said.)

My friend’s kid who is going to Brown next year has perfected putting things off to the last minute and then doing a reasonably good job on them in a short amount of time.  DC1 does not have that skill.  My friend’s kid also put off doing college essays to the last possible second which caused my friend a lot of stress (though zie still got into Brown, so…)

So we decided that this summer DC1 will practice personal narrative writing in the form of college essays.  Zie will learn how to brainstorm and how to write a first draft quickly.  And, this is important, once zie has a good essay, zie is done for the week (other than picking out the next week’s question).

We started off small with a short Harvey Mudd Essay about the ideal humanities/art class.  Brainstorming was a little painful– zie still seems to have a bit of that perfectionist streak.  But in the end we got some ideas on paper.  I gave hir I think an hour to get a first draft from the brainstorming.  The first draft was ok, but it wasn’t very punchy and there were a few items that were obviously clear to DC1 but not to the reader.  DH and I went through and cut out repetitious parts, suggested different ways that sentences could be moved around to make the narrative punchier, and requested clarification for the parts that weren’t clear.  The second draft was perfect.  And we were done for the week.

I’m hopeful that this trend will continue as we get into more obnoxious essays (zie has been looking at the Amherst page– the essay prompt back in my year, “Barbra Streisand sings that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, but Sartre says that Hell is other people, which do you agree with and why?” was so sickening that I ended up choosing not to apply; it looks like in 2021 they offered some choice, though I’m deeply offended by the anti-math prompt from a physics professor).

There are a lot of guides for writing essays out there, but these essays have kind of an almost flippant tone that neither DC1 nor I like.  There’s a sort of sameness to them.  I told DC1 that zie doesn’t need to emulate them, but zie does need to have hir own voice come out.  Narrative essays (blog posts, essentially) are not the same as technical writing.  I’m not sure how good my advice is.  My sister’s common app essay, in retrospect, did kind of emulate these essays (she talked about destroying my stuff as a kid and how dance and physics intertwine) and she got in everywhere she applied while mine was more of a “here’s a social problem illustrated by my experience volunteering” and I didn’t get in everywhere I applied.  But… my sister had a better overall application than I did (team captain for award wining all-girls poms and math teams, knew she wanted to do mechanical engineering, etc.) so I can’t just blame the essay.

Ask the grumpies: How do people screen colleges these days

First Gen American asks:

What are the tools people use to screen colleges in this era? Do people still use the us news and world report ranking? I am so out of date.

Yup, same as before for selective schools.  US News and World Reports (which has also become more important for graduate degrees) plus the Fiske Guide plus competitors like the Princeton Review rankings etc.

In addition to these, however, it has become easier to screen non-selective colleges.  There are a LOT of online pages that you can plug in your GPA and testscores and get an idea of your chance of being accepted (absent extracurriculars etc.) and other pages that you can plug in all your financials and get a good idea of how much financial aid you’ll get.

DC1 is a little bummed out because the school zie was planning on applying to early has jumped way up in the US News SLAC ratings this past year.  There’s going to be a lot more competition for those slots.

Grumpy Nation residents who have recently gone through this process, how did your kids screen colleges?

Ask the grumpies: How much is too much in a 529?

OMDG asks:

We are also starting to have what… seems like a lot in our daughter’s 529. Any thoughts on what is “too much?” She’s 10.

We are not finance professionals.  Consult with a certified financial planner with fiduciary responsibility and/or do your own research before making any important financial decisions.

Here’s our last ask the grumpies on realistic 529 numbers.  This post also has links to calculators.

Here’s a forbes article on the topic.  They recommend saving 75% of the expected cost of college, whatever that means.

In the previous ask the grumpies, we were talking about a situation in which the oldest of multiple kids hadn’t started college yet.  There’s less leeway to making oversaving mistakes when you only have one person that it can benefit, rather than obvious people you can pass a plan to.  Maybe you our your spouse have additional education you can get that isn’t paid for by your employers? Age 10 is a bit early to know if graduate school is a definite thing.

If you can’t think of any obvious educational use for excess money, then it might be a better idea to stop using the 529 (giving up some of the tax advantages) and put targeted money in another accessible account.  You have to pay a 10% penalty plus any taxes on earnings for anything that you withdraw for an unauthorized use.  Having to pay tax on the earnings is something you would have had to do anyway if you hadn’t put the money into a tax advantaged account in the first place.  A 10% penalty is a lot, but it’s not the end of the world, especially if you’re high income.  So if you do over-contribute, you’ll survive.  But you will also survive if you have to cash flow or take out temporary loans.

Obviously you know that you should be putting as much money as possible into retirement accounts before putting money into the 529.  If necessary, you can stop contributing as much to retirement and cash flow some college expenses with what you would have contributed beyond the employer match during those 4 years.  When you’re high income, there’s no real downside to “over-contributing” to retirement while there is still some downside risk to over-contributing to a 529.

You are in a state with one of the top public college flagships in the world.  There’s a reasonable chance that your kid may end up going to school there and getting in-state tuition.  If you can cover 4 years of that now maybe it’s time to stop contributing to the 529 and direct private school moneys to some other outlet.  (College costs will probably go up at a rate faster than inflation, but it’s quite possible that so will the stock market.)  If you’re certain that only private school (or out of state public) is on the horizon, then you may want to stop contributing once you get to the average cost for four years at a private school.

You can get back money that your DD gets in terms of merit scholarships without having to pay the 529 withdrawal penalty.  You will still have to pay taxes on any earnings, but you would have had to do that anyway if you’d put the money into the taxable stock market.  You’re high income, so unless something changes, you’re unlikely to be getting much need-based aid.

We stopped contributing to our kids’ 529s a while back, figuring we’d rejigger for DC2 if necessary once DC1 started college.

Looking at what we have… DC1 has $256K (a year and some change away from college) and DC2 (currently in 5th grade) has 130K.  If either of them choose to go to a local state flagship and then decide not to continue to graduate school, we have way over-saved.  Given DC1’s age, it makes sense for hir to tack on a 2 year MA after college, so we’re not that worried about having over-saved.  If DC1 goes to one of the most expensive schools out there, Harvey Mudd (not incredibly likely, but it sounds like zie may try hir changes with early decision), their expected 4 year cost for us is something like $330K, so we will have to cash flow some of that (or, more likely, move some from DC2’s account and cash flow some of DC2’s college down the line).  If DC1 goes to my state school for four years and lives at home (the cheapest option), then it would be like $60K and all the excess would go to graduate school and/or DC2.

Most likely what will happen if it turns out we over-contributed is that we will just hold onto the excess 529 money and if our kids decide to go to graduate school later, we’ll use it for any unfunded portion.  If that doesn’t happen, then maybe they’ll have kids who want to go to private K-12 school or college and we’ll transfer it over.  (Or potentially we can transfer it to DH’s siblings for their kids.)  Or when we’re in retirement they’ll still have the loophole in which you can learn cheese mongering in someplace like France with the money.  Either we’ll find a use for it or it will get passed to our heirs.

The nice thing about being high income is that these choices aren’t really life or death.  We can still buy whatever we want at the grocery store if we make the wrong decision.  Optimal isn’t as important as satisficing.

Ask the grumpies: Paying for family members’ education?

KGC asks:

I’m a newish follower and know you have written before about paying for higher ed for family members. Do you have a post you could link to where you explain more about that? (if you have explained more somewhere!) I have brought this up as a possibility to my spouse regarding two family members that I think could benefit from someone caring about their education but honestly – I don’t know where to start from a logistics standpoint or how to even potentially broach it with others. I’d love to read more about how this has worked for others. Thanks!

Well, nothing has actually worked. :(

The oldest dropped out of community college after getting pregnant after a year. The second (who turns out to be really bright and should have gone to the magnet school that DH and I went to, but we didn’t know) got pregnant in high school and never got additional education. The third got romantically entangled with a much older adult and barely graduated high school and has kind of disappeared (after getting accepted to a regional state university). The fourth is legally blind and doesn’t want to leave home to go to college even though he could. He’s now on disability. The fifth just dropped out three classes shy of an associates degree.

So basically all we’ve done is decreased the debt amounts of said kids. And it turns out we didn’t even really do that because the first kid took out a bunch of loans because she could.

I am certain that paying for school and making it known that you are willing to pay for school helps some kids. But we haven’t been successful about it.

My parents and aunts on my mom’s side have been more successful with a set of my cousins (these folks: https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/my-catholic-relatives-arent-really-catholic-a-rant/ ) and they’ve gotten university degrees and some of them have separated from their horrible parents.

How to broach it will vary too. DH’s relative is only 2 years older than DH and probably would have had the kind of life DH had if he hadn’t instead gotten married at 16. So it’s really easy for them to talk and for DH to offer to help. Plus DH’s relative is always helping people who are worse off even though he can’t really afford to, so that helping and be helped culture is useful there. I assume we’ll offer to help DH’s sister’s kids when they get older if we’re still super wealthy at that time. I’d like to stealth contribute to 529 plans, but SIL only wants to open one for the oldest (a boy) and not any of the younger kids and that seems really unfair even though all money is fungible.

Grumpy Nation, have you had luck paying for relatives’ kids to get education?  What did you do?

Ask the grumpies: Any benefit to shooting for an ivy?

Chelsea asks:

I would be curious to read your thoughts about choosing a college. Particularly the perceived benefits of trying to go someplace like an Ivy or MIT or Williams. My DH and I both went to our flagship state school and have well-paying jobs and live happy, quiet lives. Honestly, is there any reason to do anything other than that if we think that’s what’s in store for our kids? Meaning, we hope they have well-paying jobs and happy, quiet lives. I have one child who has special needs and I’m not sure what higher ed will bring for him, one who loves math and science and may be interested in engineering, and a 3-year-old. Obviously, I would not try to stop a kid from going to a prestigious school if said kid really wanted to go, but it seems like so much stress for… I’m not sure what benefit.

Disclaimer:  We gave DC1 a Fiske Guide and said you can go to any college you want to with the following rules:  1.  It has to be in this book.  2.  It has to have at least 4 little academic desks out of 5.  3.  No out of state state schools– if you go out of state it must be private.  (This bummed DC1 out because the UCs are attractive, but we’re not paying private school tuition for a public school when zie can go to the honors college at our flagship at a fraction of the cost.)  This is such an important and personal decision that I don’t think we can make it for DC1.  Plus I feel really guilty for all the people I pushed into Caltech when I was a teenager.  (One of them is now a nurse, another is mid-level management at a large brewery after a stint in the marines, I’m not sure what happened to the other, but she also almost dropped out.)

Most ivies are pretty easy and have lots and lots of grade inflation. The education is about the same as at good Flagship state schools. But you get cachet and connections. In terms of the academic research, going to an ivy over a state school benefits life outcomes for low SES kids but doesn’t have any effect on life outcomes for high SES kids.  (There’s a lot of research on this topic going at it from a lot of different directions.  I think the Carolyn Hoxby/Sarah Turner field experiment has an extensive literature review.)  Ivies also tend to have extensive support networks in place and just more resources more generally.  (They may also cost less if you’re eligible for financial aid!)

Top graduate programs like taking students from ivies, but they also like taking them from top SLACs and top flagship schools.  If you’re in a state with a good flagship, it’s still possible for your kid to get into the #1 program for whatever graduate field they are interested in.  It may not be possible from a regional state school or a less prestigious SLAC.  But it will still be possible to get into a top 10 program and definitely a top 30 program, most likely.  Life is easier when you’re graduating from one of the top schools, but if you work hard and demonstrate awesomeness you can still do very well from a top 30 program if you’re in an in-demand field.  (I cannot make any claims for Humanities where the labor market is much weaker.)  Basically working harder in high school and going to a top ivy can make the rest of education easier if you plan on going that route.  But most people don’t.

I didn’t get into Williams (waitlisted *sob*), but there are benefits to (prestigious) SLACs in terms of the college experience.  It is NICE to have small classes and professors who know you and all the cute little traditions these schools tend to have.  I have school spirit for my undergrad even though our sports sucked and nobody cared about them.  One potential problem is that they sometimes have limited classes and if you want to take a specific course if only one (married) professor (with adult kids) teaches it and goes on leave or has a fist fight at a local restaurant with another professor because he’s sleeping with that assistant professor’s extremely young wife* and you can’t handle taking a class from him, you’re kind of SOL.

I also think that consortiums are really great– if a bunch of small schools get together and allow cross-enrollment, you can get the benefit of a small school but also not have to worry so much about getting the classes you need for your major in the exact semester you need them into your schedule (this is also a problem at large state schools– classes you need can fill up and make it difficult to get required classes when you need them).

We are not honing our kid to get into an ivy. If we were, we wouldn’t have skipped. Zie would have taken high school classes during middle school (meaning we’d have to drive every day to drop hir off). We would have forced hir to do competitions. And I’d probably be forcing hir to coauthor papers with me or DH would be pushing DC1 to get programming things out into the world. Not having those special things doesn’t mean a person can’t get into an ivy, but having them makes it more likely.

A small part of me wishes I’d gone someplace like MIT or Caltech as a college student (though not really Caltech because it’s so brutal). In high school and college I was searching for like-minded peers who just loved learning for learnings sake. These two engineering schools have lots of them as undergrads. Students at my fancy SLAC were way more interested in the OJ Simpson trial than in thinking or tinkering. (Not all of them– I did have my people in the math major, but not the econ major.) Any large enough school is going to have like-minded people, but you have to find them– you won’t necessarily get placed with them, and if you’re like DH or me and tend to hang out with people who are geographically close you may not connect with them.  It’s easier if you go to a school that draws more people who share your interests.

Grumpy Nation:  Are there any benefits to choosing an ivy?  Do you have a better answer for Chelsea or any interesting reminiscences?  

*Did I mention that drama may be a problem at small schools?  (I think it’s hilarious that Wikipedia has locked said professor’s wiki page with a note about slander– if no charges were pressed, it couldn’t have happened, right?)

Ask the grumpies: Has applying for colleges changed in the past 20+ years?

First Generation American asks:

How has searching and applying for colleges changed since we went? I am realizing my experience may not be relevant anymore and I don’t even know what the metrics are. Like this whole new trend of many kids not being accepted into their “safe” schools.

So, for us, we were right on the cusp of the common application revolutionizing college applications and early decision/early action were just starting out as things at top schools.  Weighted GPAs and more credit for AP and honors classes were also starting to catch on.  If you’re just a little bit older than us, then YES, the application process has changed a LOT.  If you’re our age or younger, then it’s like what you went through, just more so.

So what does that mean?

1.  If your kids are aiming for a top state school, look at your state laws/rules to see if they have a top X% rule.  IIRC University of Michigan got sued for affirmative action policies and that spurred some states to try automatic acceptance for people who are in the top % (initially top 10%, but that number has dropped in many states for their flagship universities) of their high school graduating class.  This change has caused some parents to move their (privileged, white) kids to lower income districts for high school or the last few years of high school in order to maximize the chance that they’re in that top X%.  I’m not sure if that’s overall a good thing or not.  Class rank is thus more important for getting into a top flagship school than it used to be.  Currently because that X has been dropped at most schools you can still get in if you’re cool in other ways, but when it was a binding constraint, flagships could only let in people who met that criteria because they took all available slots.

2.  Early decision/Early action is very important for selective schools.  This has basically moved when kids apply for colleges much earlier than it used to be.  (At the same time, a lot of lower ranked schools have been struggling and have rolling admissions, so you may be able to wait until May if you just want to go to any college.)

3.  If you’re aiming for selective schools, you’re going to want to apply to LOTS of colleges if the early decision thing doesn’t work out.  (And you may be applying to lots of colleges early action.)

4.  There are still some selective schools that require you to do their special application, but many let you just do the common app.  That makes it easier to apply to many schools, but also you get judged more on a single essay rather than having the chance to answer different questions and maybe have one of those stick.  Still, many selective schools now have add-ons to the common app.

5.  If you’re in a school district with weighted GPAs, you have to be careful about what classes your kid takes in order to keep their GPA up.  For DC1, it would have been GPA optimal to do marching band instead of orchestra because the first two years of both are 4.0, but marching band *also* counts as the PE requirement, whereas DC1 has to take another 4.0 PE semester which will drag hir GPA down even if zie gets 100% in it.  (The guidance counselor told DC1 to take a study hall instead of another PE so as not to hurt hir GPA further.)

6.  All the other stuff about having to be excellent at extra-curriculars and competitions, sports being helpful, being famous for something, your parents donating a building, etc.  All those things still help just like they did before.  I haven’t heard about students not getting into their safety schools, unless that means they’re not getting into the flagship state school because they’re ranked 10th percentile at a super fancy public school in a state where only the top 6 or 8% of each public school get in.  There are cases in the past where people have gotten into Harvard but not into Berkeley.  But maybe they’re misjudging what a safety school is (not uncommon in the past either!)

7.  One really big thing that is different:  before the pandemic a lot more schools were starting to drop standardized tests like the SAT/ACT in the hopes of encouraging more diverse applicant pools.  This process accelerated during the pandemic and subject tests are disappearing/have disappeared.  I don’t know if this is going to stick or if it’s going to continue, but for someone wanting to go to a selective school, you still want to maximize those SAT/ACT scores.  You’re still going to want to try for National Merit.  (And National Merit has gotten harder to get in many states because it’s been hitting ceilings.)  But DH’s relative’s kids can get into state schools now that they were prevented from getting in before because of low standardized test scores.

Otherwise, I’m not really sure what’s different.  We will find out in a couple of years!

Grumpy Nation– do you have any better knowledge?  Have any of you recently been through this process on either side of the market? Do you have any suggestions for new books on the process? I know that we have an occasional commenter who is an admissions officer at my alma mater…

Ask the grumpies: How to pick a college?

CG asks:

How did you pick a college? Do you think you made a good choice? How have your children picked their colleges (if they are old enough)? How did you advise them?

#1:  I knew I wanted to go to a SLAC, and I read the Fiske Guide to Colleges and picked some good midwestern SLACs.  Then I took my list to the guidance counselor at our fancy school and he suggested a few more higher ranked SLACs not in the midwest.  I was waitlisted at my first choice and got into the second.  I think it was a great choice– I could go into detail about why but that would make it clear what my undergrad was!  Suffice to say that I’m a fan of highly-ranked SLACs generally.

#2:  Went to the state flagship R1 along with most everybody else, which happened to be a top school for her major and also where her now husband was going.  It was an excellent choice.

Our oldest hasn’t picked a college yet, but we will be giving hir a copy of the Fiske Guide* to colleges when it comes out in July.  I’ve already vetoed a few schools as we’ve been getting mail every since DC1 took the sophomore PSAT.  (No, you are not going to this over-priced meh-ranked local religious private school!)  I have no idea where zie is going to end up, but we’ve saved for an expensive private school.

*all amazon links listed give us tiny payments if you purchase through them

Grumpy Nation, what are your answers to CG’s question?

What does it take to go to college: An update on DH’s relatives

One of the things known by economists is that a lot of people have some college, but only ~30% of people in the US have an actual college degree from a four year school.  People go to college or start college or take classes at the local community college.  Most don’t finish a full four years.  Many don’t finish any sort of terminal degree (like an associates or vocational degree).  There’s some controversy in economics right now about whether starting and not finishing is worse than not starting at all– the answer seems to be complicated.  Some college does increase earnings even if there’s not a degree… probably causally, but not as much as finishing, and the disruption that going to school can do to finances in terms of loans and earnings potential in terms of not working is real.  It’s hard to say if it’s worth it.

DH has a relative with 5 kids.  We have tried to get all 5 to get a degree.

The oldest dropped out after having a baby a year and a half into a two year degree.

The second, who was the only one who was state flagship eligible (close to a 4.0, high SAT scores, a full year of dual credit from the high school under her belt) got pregnant at 17 and again at 19 and college was out.  She’s currently married, living in another state, and the family breadwinner (and had baby #3 a couple weeks ago).

The third is legally blind and has not started any education yet at 21, though this year his friends have been taking the train with him to places with public transportation and it’s figuratively opening his eyes to worlds where he doesn’t have to be driven everywhere, which is helping with his depression.  We still have some hope that he’ll go to college.  He has high grades and reasonable SAT scores — maybe not flagship eligible (though with an essay he might be) but should get into any of the regional schools without having to write an essay.

The fourth is in the middle of her second year at community college.  Her SAT score was too low to be able to go to their closest state schools– she just needed 10 more points to make their minimum cutoff.  There was a kerfuffle with one of her required math classes last semester and the school gave everyone their money back and struck the class from their transcripts, but now she’s behind on credit hours.  We asked about transferring to a 4-year school as had been her initial plan, but she says she wants to do a sketchy sounding program at a private school that would enable her to get all of her classes at the local community college but call it a four year degree from their school.  She has some friends who did this 10 years ago and are teachers at the local elementary.  I wonder how much this will cost compared to finishing at a state school.  (Her father wonders if this program still exists.)

DH’s relative had told us a couple years ago that it wasn’t worth trying to do anything with the fifth.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to even graduate high school and ran with a bad crowd and was flirting with getting in trouble with the law.  But a couple months ago he went to a presentation at school that clearly laid out how much people without high school diplomas make compared to those with and to those with bachelors degrees.  He decided then and there that he was going to be staying in school.  DH and I naturally pounced on this.  Unfortunately, we don’t know what his GPA is– he thinks somewhere in the Bs since he gets mostly As and Bs on his report cards (but who knows), and his SAT score is pretty low.  Fortunately for him, one of the state schools nearby no longer requires the SAT and if he does have the GPA he thinks he has, he should get in.

So this break, we dragged him over to our in-law’s house and pulled out my laptop and sat there while he applied to the two closest 4-year colleges.  Then we paid for his applications.  He talked about how he decided on a business major because everyone said engineering was too hard but there are still jobs in business.  He talked about the dorms.  He seemed excited and to have done a lot of research about the school closest to them.  We talked a little about the second closest school as well.  Then we printed off the checklist for what he needs to do with his counselor after school gets back in session to complete his application in time to be eligible for financial aid.  (We will be sure to check on that with his dad as well.)

It’s especially important for him to go to one of these schools instead of the local CC like his siblings because he’s been being preyed on by a married woman more than 10 years older than him.  There has been some drama there and the police somewhat got involved but won’t prosecute etc.  But removing him from the situation will be a good thing.  We pretended we knew nothing about this situation and just focused on the $$ and jobs and learning etc.

I hope he gets in.  I hope he completes a degree.  I hope he drags his brother to school with him.

I don’t know if going to a 4 year school is better than starting at a 2-year in terms of completing (there’s a lot of selection into who does that so the correlation is that it’s better but we don’t really know).  I know his siblings have gotten horrible homesickness when they’ve been away from home even for a week (the second is the only one who has moved out of the house!).  And he didn’t want to apply to any of the farther away schools, even though we’re told that he’s been threatening to move out once he turns 18.  I hope he pays attention to his schoolwork and doesn’t have to drop out.  I hope that the kid his dad thought least likely to start a four year degree finishes one (not first– I’m still hoping for kid #4 to complete and she has a 2 year start on him).

But other than paying for it and these periodic nudges, I’m not sure there’s much we can do.  As my MIL reminded us, they’re not our kids.  We can only do so much.

Should I put lump sums in the 529 instead of dollar cost averaging?

One of the reasons this blog seems to have become a spendapalooza is that there’s really not any obvious place for extra money to go.

But there actually is one place for extra money to go– the kids’ 529 plans.  (A 529 plan is an awesome way to save for college or vocational school such that the earnings are tax-free.  But, it’s a good idea to max out your retirement before setting money aside in 529 plans because retirement accounts aren’t included in college financial aid calculations and you can take out loans for college but you can’t for retirement.)

In the past, I’ve always said, “and the kids’ 529s are on track to pay for the school of their choice [by the time the graduate college].”  What I mean by that is that we’ve been putting away $750/month in the accounts, even in the summers when I don’t get paid.  (It used to be $500/month, but we increased it when we paid off the mortgage and stopped paying for daycare.)  But we haven’t *actually* put enough money to be able to cash flow the remainder of the cost of (a four-year private) college yet.  We’re just on track to.

Over the next 4 years before DC1 starts college, $750/mo works out to $36,000 (actually a little less than that since it’s November, but it’s an estimate).  Over the next 8 years before DC1 ends college, it would be $72,000.  (That’s a LOT of money!)

We could just put in $36K (instead of $9,000) over the course of this year and then either start contributing again once we know where DC1 is going to college or not based on the cost of hir chosen school.  (Given hir struggles in English, it is likely that HMC is out, but also out with HMC is its insanely high $72K/year tuition.  I told DC1 we could get hir a unicycle anyway.)

Doing it this way loses some dollar-cost averaging benefits, but it gains the benefits of a longer period of untaxed earnings.

There are some wrinkles to doing BIG 529 account transfers.

The first is that even though the account is a custody account and doesn’t actually belong to the child, it still is subject to the annual gift tax.  For 2019, the amount that can be given annually without tax is $15,000.  Each parent can give that amount, so a married couple can give $30,000 in one year.  $36K is more than $30K, but there’s a loophole with the 529.

This wrinkle has its own wrinkle:  An individual or couple can give a larger lump sum, so long as the total given in that five year period is still less than 5 times the annual exclusion.  So DH and I *could* give $150K this year so long as we didn’t contribute again for another 5 years.  (Of course, that’s a moot point because we don’t actually *have* $150K to give, but you get the idea.)  That means when DC1 actually gets into college, we should be able to continue to contribute to hir 529 without penalty.

So our plan is to do a lump sum of $36K this month to DC1’s account (this gets rid of all our excess cash and digs pretty deep into our emergency fund, but the emergency fund doesn’t actually have to be full until May since we can cash flow most emergencies when we’re both being paid).  Then we will stop contributions to hir account entirely.  We will continue as normal with DC2’s account (contributing $750/month) until we build up excess cash and I start to feel like forcing DH to buy all the Apple products again.  At that point we will re-evaluate and decide whether we want to do a lump sum to DC2’s account or if we just want to increase the monthly contribution.  I’m sure I will post about what we end up doing.

In ~4 years when we know where DC1 is going to college, then we’ll decide whether or not to start contributing to that 529 plan again, and we will have a better idea about how much DC2’s account can bear without going over.

Grumpy Nation, I don’t have a good question for this post.

Honors English and ponderings about the importance of AP tests

At the beginning of the year, DC1 was signed up for all the hardest classes zie could be signed up for as a Freshman.  AP World History instead of Human Geography.  Algebra II pre-AP honors.  Biology pre-AP honors.  JV Orchestra.  Honors Computer Programming… And Pre-AP honors English.

This English class quickly had a detrimental effect on our entire family.  After four years of zero homework (other than the Year of Crafts) and taking half a year to read a simple YA novel in middle-school English, zie was suddenly getting nightly essays, heavy reading assignments, and lots of things zie had never been trained how to do.  Instructions were vague and confusing.  Grades were low and seemed capricious.  English was taking all of DC1’s time and all of our time too trying to figure out what the teacher wanted.  (This is in heavy contrast to AP History in which the teacher is scaffolding essays and giving clear instructions about what she is looking for in every assignment– there’s a lot of work but it doesn’t seem so random.)  One of my work friends had a kid in AP English I with the same teacher the previous year and said it never got any better in terms of time, though hir kid did eventually figure out how to earn As in the class.  She spent all last year complaining about the class and is not really sure what was gotten out of it (other than the ability to do assignments quickly at the last minute and to use tiny words and very simple sentences so as not to get points taken off for spelling/grammar/usage).  So it’s not DC1!

The final straw was an essay on why DC1 wanted to take English Pre-AP.   What zie came up with was that zie wanted to get into a good college and taking an AP English class and getting a high grade on the AP English tests would help.  And… as an educator, I kind of think that’s a piss-poor reason to be spending all this time in such a terrible class.  In fact, if it lowers DC1’s grades in other classes more related to hir interests, or keeps hir from inventing something or exploring extra-curriculars or even just getting enough sleep, then it might hinder DC1 from getting into a good college.

So, we found out that there was a second level of English class that is still honors English, so still on the 5 point scale.  Sadly, it had had fewer assignments and they had all been easy 100s (ex. sign up for turnitin.com), but DC1’s low grades transferred over instead of allowing hir to do those assignments for credit, AND the weighting was different so DC1’s grades dropped even lower. But it’s been slowly moving up, though not to an A.  This English class also seems to be equally capricious on subjective things and there have been several quiz questions in which DC1 picked the correct multiple choice or T/F question but the teacher said it was incorrect even when DC1 backed it up hir answer with textual evidence.  So DC1 is still getting a B, though the B is now higher than it was in the previous class (and hir grade is literally 10 percentage points higher than the class average, which is a C).  I have resigned myself to the more and more likely possibility of not having to pay for MIT or Harvey Mudd.  DH’s alma mater and my sister’s alma mater both have very good computer science/engineering programs and if DC1 keeps up As in all hir other classes, never getting an A in English might still be ok.

Although the grading is still capricious, the instruction is much better.  They’re taught things before they’re asked to do them in an assignment.  They spend a week on things that the other class would do in a day before moving on to something completely different, so there’s time to review and reflect and apply feedback.  There’s also more choice in assignments and MUCH more literature written by people who aren’t dead white dudes, and the literature for the non-pre-AP class has been updated since 1970 (I’m looking at you A Separate Peace).  They’re still cramming what seems like all of Midwestern 7th and 8th grade English into a single semester along with Freshman English (minus the two Shakespeare plays– they only do Romeo and Juliet this year, which we also did as Freshmen), but it’s not at quite such an insane pace.

My friend says English Pre-AP II is almost but not quite as bad as I, so we’re not sure if we’re going to have DC1 switch back in the future.  Non-Pre-AP English II sounds pretty good– they do a big section on modern World Literature that I think could broaden DC1’s horizons a lot.  It is true that getting 3s or higher on the English AP exams would allow DC1 to waive English requirements if zie went to a state school, but they’re pretty useless most of the places zie is looking at applying.  Or if they are useful, zie would need 5s for them to help at all.  I did take one of the AP English exams despite not having AP English (it was an accident– I’d meant to cancel the exam for a refund but somehow didn’t when I cancelled the other AP tests that the college I was going to didn’t accept), and somehow managed to get a 4 even though I guessed most of the multiple choice answers since they were full of terminology I had never heard before in my life.  (This is what I was supposed to be learning all those years, I thought.)

In the mean time, we will keep trusting the AP history classes to teach DC1 how to write.  We’ve heard amazing things about AP US History which zie will be taking next year.  I have to say, I learned a lot more about how to write clear and concise essays in my history classes than I ever did in an English class.  Probably because I never had a deconstructionist history teacher.

Did you take AP exams?  Do you think they’re useful?