Ask the grumpies: Do procrastinators sink or swim come college time?

First Gen American asks:

How many of your chronic procrastinator students sink vs swim come college time? Asking for a friend.

If you’re talking about my students here at the R1 where I work… most of them do just fine.  They’re smart and they’re good at pulling things off last minute.  Sure, they might get Bs instead of As, and maybe the occasional C, but they’re fine.  It’s not that hard for procrastinators who were good enough to get into the school to do fine in my major.  Because generally they’re smart or they couldn’t have procrastinated and gotten in.

If you’re talking about student at say, MIT or Caltech… not so much.  There is a lot of sinking.  The people who do well aren’t necessarily the smartest (smart, definitely, but necessarily super-geniuses) but they’re the ones who can handle failure and know how to work hard and start early.

Which reminds me also:  DH taught in an engineering major at my R1, and his students were definitely sinking.  They’d sunk out of one major and into his and many of them were on their way to Political Science (where they would likely be fine) or just dropping out.

In the above two engineering situations, people were smart enough to get in and had enough flex in their high schools to be able to deal with procrastination, but they couldn’t cut it once they got to college.

Academic Grumpeteers, what’s been your experience with procrastinators?

Ask the grumpies: Will your kids be paying a portion of their college costs?

bogart asks:

[Are] people are planning to have their kids pay a portion of college costs and if so, how much.

Background: I have 1 kid and expect to be able to afford to send him anywhere (this is more a function of an employer’s tuition benefit than household wealth, though we are not comfortably off). Both I and my stepkids (whose college I also helped pay for) graduated college with some debt, not an obscene amount (let’s say 1/3 of our first year’s anticipated salary had we gotten an entry-level college-graduate job). I’m inclined to expect roughly the same for my DC, with him either working summers (or whatever) and/or taking on (sensibly financed) student loans. But at this point that’s just a vague notion, not an actual plan. I’m interested to learn what others’ thoughts are on the pros/cons of college kids investing some of their own current/future $$$ on their education, with a note that I definitely know that needing to work lots while in college creates lots of problems for lots of people and don’t want that for DC. And also whether DC does or doesn’t cover what I’m (vaguely) thinking of as a reasonable amount isn’t going to have a big impact on our household’s financial well-being one way or the other. And that I realize I’m lucky and frighteningly privileged to be able to say that.

Related posts: Should parents pay for their childrens’ college?  You can read this deliberately controversial post for why we think the argument that people won’t care about their own education unless they’re paying for it themselves is not a great one.

We are planning on paying full tuition, basic living expenses, and textbooks/etc. expenses for our kids in college.  Probably we’ll also pitch in for one of those overpriced refrigerator/microwave units for the dorm room.  If there are any loans, we will take them on.

I figure they can pay for any extras (meals at restaurants… not sure what else… concert tickets?  plane tickets to visit significant others?  stuffed animals?) out of their earnings, either summer earnings or work during the school year.  My friend whose kid is at Brown is paying for full dining hall PLUS multiple restaurant nights a week, though she just had a conversation with him about that.  (But Mommmmm, the restaurants are so good here!)

Not sure about masters degrees– we will cross that bridge if we come to it.

I graduated with my parents paying the 0% interest subsidized loans they’d taken out on my behalf (we were very low income).  DH graduated with 10K of unsubisidized debt at ~8% interest that we scrimped like crazy to pay off ASAP.  I worked for spending money for extras during the school year and DH worked over the summers.

Paying college tuition is a great way to transfer money to the next generation while avoiding gift/inheritance taxes.  It also doesn’t have the problem of creating more expenses like giving someone a house downpayment would nor does it teach people to live large when they can’t really afford to like giving them cash or a fancy car would.  So if you can afford it, why not?

Leah adds:

I was super grateful that my mom helped me graduate debt free by picking up extra shifts nursing. I think the path to take depends on your family. I totally understood the value of what my mom did for me. I worked hard in college. I had a work study job, got extra scholarships each year, and worked for the school newspaper. There’s more than one way to teach being fiscally prudent. Do what works for your family.

Grumpy Nation:  Those of you who partook of higher education, who paid for it?  If applicable, what do you plan to do/did you do for your kids?

Ponderings on college costs and savings (t-1)

  • As of this writing (which is a month or two before the posting [update: the stock market has dropped more since then]), DC1 has $237,800 in hir 529.  This is a drop from a high of $275,000 last November (and a drop from $258,000 the last time I posted about it), but also it’s the same amount that zie had in there last February, so it’s only market gains that got lost.
  • It’s so weird thinking about “real” vs. not “real” money.  Like, it’s real money when I put it in there because we earned it.  And it’s real money when it comes out, because I can like, use it and stuff.  But while it’s in there… not real.  That’s the only way to stay sane with the stock market I think.
  • I’ll have to think about how to withdraw the money next year, if we get a choice about that.  Like it would make sense, I think, to withdraw from the stable income and let the stock market stuff float, maybe?  But I haven’t really given it much thought.  It will also matter if we’re planning to withdraw everything within 4 years or just a portion and leave the rest for DC2.  (Which will depend on what schools DC1 gets into.)
  • DC1 says it’s a requirement for high school for hir to fill out the FAFSA.  Which is a great idea and totally understandable, but there’s no way that we’re going to qualify for financial aid at any school.  We just have too much cash, on top of having a combined income that doesn’t qualify most places.  Maybe if we move to a blue coast and buy a 2 million dollar house (thus having a monthly mortgage and getting rid of our taxable money).  But not now.
  • Estimated cost of Harvey Mudd over 4 years:  $339,584.  Though that does include living expenses.
  • Huh, the deluxe meal plan only covers 16 meals a week.   I guess they assume people sleep through breakfast?  I feel like I was on a 19 meal plan when I was in college (3 meals/day M-F, Brunch and Dinner on weekends), but maybe I’m misremembering.
  • I’m already mentally planning care packages for DC1.  I really hope zie ends up at a school with a good dining hall because I am not convinced zie can feed hirself otherwise.
  • Estimated total cost of state school over four years:  $120K (but probably actually less than that because living expenses seem pretty inflated in their estimates).  Not including living expenses it would be under $50K.

RBOCollege Applications

  • DC1 spent some time listening to Yale admissions podcasts about what not to do in personal essays and went to a Pomona webinar that directly contradicted everything the Yale people said.  What’s in right now (but not at Yale) are essays that start with hooks.  Like the Pomona example of an excellent essay started something like:  “Watermelon.  I wasn’t to know that day that the pink-red and green fruit was going to change my life forever.”
  • DC1, DC2, and I had a great time coming up with ridiculous sounding hooks.  ‘”How did I get into college at all without an essay hook,” my mother wondered.’  or ‘”Perhaps this is why I didn’t get into Williams!” my mother gasped while reading advice on essay hooks.’  DC2’s suggestions were more off the wall and had a fish theme.
  • Eventually we gave up trying to help DC1 brainstorm and hired someone from Outschool to help brainstorm.  It seemed to be less painful for DC1.
  • I am of two minds about this– on the one hand, I never thought I would be one of those people who paid someone to help with college admissions.  I am a big believer in finding a good match for a school and DC1 is in a range where a good essay will help some places but a mediocre essay won’t kill hir chances.  It’s possible there’s some amazing essay that would make hir a shoe-in, but being honest, all hir life experiences are privileged White upper-middle class (but not like, directed a movie as a teenager kind of privileged like one of Angelina Jolie’s kids) and are mildly interesting.  On the other hand, she just seems to be doing the whole brainstorming thing we were doing before but with more knowledge about when an idea isn’t great (only she says it positively, DC1 notes) and without the feeling of pulling teeth.  Zie got more done in a half hour session with her in terms of just putting ideas out there than zie did in half a day with DH and me tag teaming.  (Although it did help that DC1 had done some of the exercises with us before– they’re commonly suggested on the internet/in how to write college essay books.)
  • It’s not even the writing that DC1 is having problems with.  DC1 just has a really hard time choosing or having opinions.  (This is a common theme with DC1– hir only big opinion is that we should always have sushi for meals, and never have raw tomatoes, but also zie would rather have me pick which sushi.) For the questions that are very specific for the State School application that zie has already turned in, zie didn’t really have that much trouble.  But this whole “you can write anything for the common app” is just too much.  Especially since hir first idea would be identical to HMC’s new essay prompt.  (This is the, “I know what I want my career path to be” style essay.)
  • After one session, DC1 had a much better idea for the HMC prompt that zie had already made good progress on, but was still stymied on the common app essay.  So DC1 asked for more sessions.  Which we will pay $50/30 min for once a week until DC1 feels comfortable with hir essays.  I feel #richpeopleguilt about this, but also I’m hoping it will save everybody’s time and my frustration.
  • The even richer economists I know hired actual people not from outschool to give full service college navigation.  So… we’re not really there yet.  (DC1 didn’t even do SAT coaching because I assumed zie wouldn’t need it, which zie didn’t.  Though zie did take some practice PSAT/SATs from previous years and brushed up on forgotten math based on those.)
  • It’s crazy to me how much DC1 hates introspection because when I was that age, if the internet had been more developed, I would so have had an angsty live-journal page.  (Actually I probably wouldn’t have because I was already super leery of aol chat and IRC– my roommate (not #2) hung out on channels that seemed to be mostly gross people looking for under-aged girls to sext. So I was pretty leery even then.)
  • Though to be fair, my common app essay wasn’t particularly introspective– it was about how implicit discrimination by K-12 teachers hurt girls and Black kids and how insisting that the teacher use a quantitative measure for my 4th grade math-pullout sessions (we had Wednesdays off to volunteer or do internships at my boarding school) added really smart Black and Hispanic girls to my group, and it was heartbreaking how they’d been overlooked before. And I wanted to study education and put in systemic changes to help kids like these girls.  In retrospect, probably too white-savior (but I was only 17! I can cut myself some slack!), but I did get into a top SLAC, even if it wasn’t Williams.
  • My sister’s common app essay was amazing.  It was about how physics informed her dancing and vice versa.  She’s still mad at me for her not applying to Stanford even though I suggested she do so.  She said that I was too negative about her chances because I’d seen so many top people not get in and told her it was all random after a certain level.  (Again, I was like 22, what did I know?  But I still stand by the, “it’s random after a certain point.” But even if I was wrong, she shouldn’t still be holding a grudge about it.)  Still she got into lots of amazing schools (all of the ones she applied to, including an Ivy) and loved her college experience, so …


  • Got bivalent boosted and flu shot.  Perhaps should have waited since I probably got BA5 back at the beginning of July but it has been 2 months.
  • As soon as I got home from getting the shots, I got an email from a colleague I’d been sitting next to in a meeting a couple days before saying he was Covid positive.  (I was the only person possibly in the entire building wearing a mask.  I have no regrets.)
  • Did I mention that neither the university nor K-12 are collecting, much less reporting, covid data?  All we have now are county level pcr numbers (weekend cases not reported) and (as of this writing) they are high: 150/100K.  Hopefully it’s just the college kids passing it around and not a new variant.
  • My covid shot arm was sore the next day, but other than that no reaction.  DH had sore arms the day of (he’s all muscle these days, which he says hurts more when it gets poked).  DC1 took a mini-nap the next day which is really unusual for hir, but no sore arms.
  • Someone else in my building came to work in a mask (who usually never does, because nobody ever does).  I wondered why until I overheard her telling someone, “I got a negative yesterday, but I’m feeling worse today.”  But it’s good that she’s masking!  If everyone masked when they felt sick, a lot fewer people would get sick.
  • I wear literally no makeup.  I do basic hygiene and that’s it.  If I’m planning on being outside I will put on sunblock.
  • this is not because I’m naturally beautiful.  I’m fairly sure I have rosacea. Also my face is very round.  If I were bald I’d be a sphere.
  • why not?  1. I’m allergic to everything.  2. I just can’t care. 3. It seems like work. 4. It seems time consuming. 5. It seems like an additional expense. 6. Wouldn’t know how, can’t take the time to learn. 7. Badly applied makeup looks worse than none and I would apply it badly.  8. I resent the patriarchy.  They can get me to shave, which I hate, but they can’t get me to do this.
  • I do, however, remove beard and moustache hairs from my face.  I guess that’s more vanity than hygiene.
  • DC1 is a national merit semi-finalist.  The cutoff for our state was low enough this year that zie had some room– in fact, DC1 would have had room in CA or MA this year.
  • Dumbing of Age (the comic strip by David Willis) has been doing an interesting storyline where there’s a girl (Joyce) going through identity crises (long story, but she used to be a fundamentalist Christian and now isn’t) and there’s another girl, Dorothy, who has a “fixer” personality who is trying to help her, but she’s doing too much and it’s affecting her as well.  This storyline is just SO REAL.  Except that usually people with Dorothy’s fixer personality (*waves to self and to revanche*) do not come from as stable homelives as the one she has and aren’t as mature as she is at age 19 (not saying Revanche wasn’t as mature as Dorothy at 19, but I sure wasn’t).  There are some people in the comments who have always hated Dorothy because in the past she’s seemed too perfect and good and they would say the exact same things people would say about Hillary Clinton, which was irritating.  But now they’re angry when she doesn’t do everything Joyce needs/wants but they’re also angry when she does.  They basically seem to be saying that Dorothy should do everything Joyce asks her to and nothing more, even though Joyce is asking for some pretty ridiculous stuff that she really should be doing herself.  But… it’s hard to see a friend in pain who isn’t taking steps to make it better and not know what to do about it.
  • Our internet went out because someone across the street switched to our internet provider and their box squished one of our lines.  Now our yard has more dug up spots in it since they fixed it by rerouting us with new cables.
  • DC1’s chemistry teacher made a joke whose punchline involved “hoes” and was disturbed by it, as were other students.  Other students said there would be a similar joke coming up in AP stats later this year.  So I emailed the stats teacher (not giving info on who my kid was– it’s a big class and we have different last names) and suggested a different mnemonic that isn’t slut-shaming for hypothesis testing.  (If p is low, reject H-Oh!)  She was nice about it.  I hope she remembers… but hypothesis testing is likely many months from now.
  • I think I may be starting to get arm muscles.  Which I haven’t really had since I used to carry a French horn home from school.

Myths about the value of college

ARGH, I’m seeing so much misinformation going around in twitter because of student loan forgiveness.  It’s driving me crazy.

Myth:  The value of a college degree is not worth it.
Reality (based on recent work of David Autor, but also many many other people): Even with the high costs of a degree and student loans, the additional earnings make it worth it for most college graduates.
Sub-Reality (I don’t remember a big name on this one, but lots of people are studying it with mixed results): The benefit of going to college and not finishing– we’re not as sure about that. Depending on the loans that you take out, it may not be worth it to spend a couple years in college and then not have a degree (though 2 years at community college with a degree is worth it). And lots of people go to college, take out loans, and don’t finish. That is a problem that lots of people are studying.
Sub-Reality (David Denning and several other papers): Even a degree from a for-profit college usually does result in higher earnings, but you are no better off with a for-profit degree than you would have been with a community college degree (worse given student loans, though the worst offenders have thankfully been addressed in the new Biden thing). They provide the same benefits, it’s just the for-profit degree is stupidly expensive by comparison.

Myth: It is better to go to a low tuition regional school (or community college) than to the best school that you can get into.
Reality (Hoxby and Turner in an amazing RCT, and other papers that are not experiments but use clever regression discontinuity designs): Schools with better endowments 1. Give more and better financial aid, meaning that for poor kids who can get into them, a state flagship or a highly endowed private prestige school will cost less. And 2. More prestigious schools do a better job of retaining low income kids– this seems to be through a variety of methods– better financial aid means working fewer hours, but also they just have a lot more resources devoted to keeping low SES kids, offices, sometimes mentorship programs, short-term loans etc. That means for low income kids, the more prestigious school means that they’re more likely to actually *graduate.* And, we also know among graduates (through a lot of different papers, though no RCT to my knowledge), prestigious schools help low SES kids make more money as grownups than do less prestigious schools.
Sub-Reality: For middle/upper middle/rich class kids, it doesn’t matter. They just need a degree.  (And the rich probably don’t need a degree.)

Myth:  The skyrocketing cost of college is caused by financial aid accessibility.
Reality: The skyrocketing cost of college is caused by decreased federal and especially state investment in state schools. (And to a much smaller extent: better quality education, gambling on fancy sports programs that don’t pay out, fancy dorms at private schools, etc. But this is like nothing compared to the effect of how much the government has stopped subsidizing higher education.)

And some stupid Republican propaganda:

Myth:  Non-college training is free.
Reality: Truck driving requires CDL training. Hairdressing requires training. Nursing requires training. Plumbing requires a TON of training. So many professions that don’t require a college degree still require technical training which still costs money.

Myth: Working class people don’t have student loans
Reality: A lot of people drop out of college and have student loans. A lot of people get student loans to pay for technical training.  Plenty of working class people have student loans.

It still boggles my mind that only 30-35% of US adults have college degrees.  But a big percent start but then drop out without an additional degree.  (You can get exact numbers from


  • DC2 has forgotten how to swim since the pandemic started.  Zie can still float and stuff, but zie had gotten to a pretty decent ability level with strokes previously.  DC1 doesn’t seem to have been affected.
  • I am concerned about monkeypox once colleges start. I think it is insane that the US isn’t moving heaven and earth to get more vaccine doses ready.  And it’s ridiculous that they haven’t learned from the Aids epidemic about branding things “gay diseases.”  If something isn’t done, college campuses are going to be hit really hard.
  • Talked to a former admissions officer from a top (but not top 10) SLAC and she said that yes, they are less likely to accept 16 year olds, but they do accept them if they’re good enough otherwise, or at least that was the case when she was working (admittedly before she got a PhD!).  I’m starting to be convinced that ED (early decision) to HMC (Harvey Mudd) is DC1’s best option (not that I have any say in the matter, and I’m trying to keep out of hir decision-making processes, but for my own peace of mind).
  • Told everybody I met at a recent conference that I want to move and that DC1 is graduating from high school.  One of them said, hey, I’d been thinking about you for this dream job because my dean wants more economists.  And everything about the job sounds perfect for me– lower teaching load, in one of my favorite cities, hard money but encourages grants, kicks back a large percentage of overhead as unrestricted research funds for the next year, lots of classes directly in my specialty (I haven’t been able to teach any classes in my specialty), tons of people working in my area across the entire university.  And it’s a private school.  I can’t get my hopes up though– I’m not sure I’m amazing enough for it.  But I sent in my cv and my grants chart.
  • Retire By 40 mentioned that he tells his kids that minor setbacks build character.  My mom used to say that a lot too.  DH and I really don’t say that much if at all.  I’m not sure why.  We both do a lot of solutions oriented stuff (though if it’s something like a cut finger, there’s sympathy, and an offer to kiss it and make it better which is invariably refused these days) and possibly some gentle teasing/reminders on how to avoid the situation next time.
  • In the end, the admissions office at our local university were awful and after giving us faulty or missing information several times, decided that DC1’s application was not complete (there was a waiver not in the instructions that needed to be on official outside letterhead rather than the form they gave us, so we would think the application was complete when it wasn’t and we got a lot of conflicting information from them), so DC1 will not be taking Calc 3 this coming semester.
  • The research teacher also basically said it was too late to do the research class, plus DC1 would need to find a lab and all the other students had started looking for a lab back Spring semester.  The email was kind of mean, so we’re thinking maybe a good idea to not get a rec letter from that particular teacher.  After some prodding DC1, zie revealed that this particular teacher also strongly suggested that DC1 not do the research class when zie asked her about it last Spring.  DC1 did get an A in her physics class, but the last six weeks grades were lower than the previous weeks.  I’m not sure what happened.
  • So DC1 is taking a study hall.  I can’t say I’m not relieved.  A little extra time will be helpful both with college apps and with DC1 being able to devote time to 5 AP classes, varsity orchestra, and who knows what else.
  • Hopefully DC1 can wow either the calc-based physics teacher or the AP chemistry teacher.  People say great things about AP Chemistry.  [Update:  Calc-based physics is the same teacher… hopefully DC1 can redeem hirself in her eyes.]
  • If you run out of scheduled posts on wordpress, it no longer shows the “scheduled” menu option.

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.