Saving for College: Never Too Early, Too Late

Julie Shields-Rutyna, MEFA's Director of College Planning, explains why middle school is a perfect time for families to begin planning for college. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.

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Penny Hauck: Welcome to the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority MEFA podcast. In this episode, MEFA will answer important and frequently asked questions specific to planning and saving and paying for college. Today's featured expert is Julie Shields-Rutyna, Director of College Planning at MEFA. Julie came to MEFA in 2007, after serving in both regional and national roles at several key college access and financing organizations.
As a former Director of Financial Aid with over 25 years experience in the higher education field, she brings an extraordinary level of knowledge to her role as Director of College Planning. Julie’s presented to audiences across the New England region and has served as key planning member of the Commonwealth College Goal Sunday program, FAFSA Day Massachusetts, since its inception.
Julie, thanks for being with us today. Let's jump right in. What advice would you give to a student or family in Massachusetts about planning and saving for college?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Well, you know, Penny, I think middle school is a perfect time for families to begin these conversations if they haven't already, but in a low key and a fun way, as middle school is really a time of exploration and discovery for students.
You know, maybe for the first time they have multiple teachers in school. So it should really be a time that they're finding out, Oh, I like these classes or these subjects. Um, these are my favorites. It's um, they, they get, have a chance to figure out how they study best. Do they study best, you know, in a quiet room at home?
Or do they like to study in a group with friends? And what extracurricular activities do they like and how many can they do and still keep up their studies. So these years are really great for them to be able to figure [00:02:00] all of that out and then set themselves up very well for high school. And for parents, I think we can think of it as also a time of exploration and discovery.
Um, sometimes it's the first time that parents, the reality that their student is getting older and colleges is closer can cause some anxiety for parents. And so I think it's a perfect time for them to begin to learn themselves about and explore different colleges, different college options, and together, keep it fun and light, but keep these conversations going with their student.
Penny Hauck: That’s great. So interesting. Because I have a middle schooler and I actually have to do that. So thank you. That's wonderful. How does MEFA maintain relationships with families who are in this process of planning and saving for college?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Well, MEFA works with families in a number of different ways. And so we have a, we have a number of different resources because we've learned that that different resources work better for different families.
One important resource that we have that I suggest to everyone is that MEFA has an email curriculum and the curriculum really starts for families who have babies, um, all the way through, uh, families who have high schoolers and college students and beyond. We email families with important information that is relative to the age and stage of their student. So that they can digest this information about college saving, college planning, and paying for college in a, in a nice, easy way over time so that they don't feel totally overwhelmed by the time they're their student is, uh, is a high school senior.
So I encourage all families to get on board with that, but we also have other resources, too. We have a terrific website that has, has many resources for families, again, in all stages of this process. And we do in-person seminars at high schools at community organizations all over the state all throughout the year.
And we find that that, that works well for some families and web content works, works well for some families. Um, and, and finally, we, we now are very much on social media. So we, we like to make sure that our information is getting out there in, in so many different ways so that families can, can learn and take it in as best fits their lives.
Penny Hauck: That's great. That's great. So I definitely need to sign up and I know that later on we'll, we'll tell folks how to sign up. Um, but since we're on this topic as a family, how can you stay engaged in the college planning process if it's such an early time for middle schoolers?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes, and I, and I think that's a very good point because, um, because there is still plenty of time and college isn't coming the next year, but I think families can do again, keeping it fun. Can do lots of fun things to, you know, go to a college campus maybe for a sporting event or a theatrical production.
And when you're there and you're there with your students, just make it fun. But, but have them observe the college students, what they're doing? Are they sitting in groups? Are they, are they, do they look like they're having, um, having a good time, all of that. So they just get the students thinking about, um, about their, their own future.
And again, keeping, keeping it light and fun. But Parents really supporting their students to do all of that exploration and discovery.
Penny Hauck: That makes a lot of sense. A lot of sense. MEFA’s mantra is never too early, never too late. Can you give a specific example of how you've seen this payoff for families planning and saving for college, particularly families with middle school children.
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Well, I can, I, I tell this funny story in that it just shows perspective. Um, I was doing a program recently that was entitled planning and saving for college. And at the beginning of the, of the workshop, I had a, a mother come up to me and say, um, Julie, I know I'm very early. My daughter's in eighth grade.
I know, I know I'm so early to be thinking about this, but I just thought I'd be here to get a sense. And I said to her, no, you're not early at all. In fact, this is perfect. And when the workshop finishes, you will be glad that you were here so that you could start your plan now. And then I have had other people say to me with a student in that same stage in seventh or eighth grade, say, uh, we are in trouble.
We haven't done a thing. So we're just, it's over for us. And I don't know how our kids are going to go to college given up, you know, there's students in seventh or eighth grade and I'll say, no, that's absolutely not true. This is still, this is, this is the perfect time and start right now.
And you still have plenty of time to put a plan in place and save before, before it's time to go to college. So, so again, it's perspective, but the bottom line is that at, at this middle school stage, you should start a plan right away because college is they're coming in the future. And yet don't panic because you do have plenty of time to put something in place.
So it's really the perfect time and families should feel very relaxed and ready to start a plan at this point.
Penny Hauck: Definitely getting me motivated. Um, can you talk a little more about how younger middle school audiences can better be motivated to continue to save?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Sure. Well, I will say, you know, I wrote a blog post recently, um, on, on the website, I, it was about saving for college as a new year's resolution.
And I just talked about for four parts of a strategy that tend to work for a lot of families. And, uh, so I'll, I'll just, I'll mention what those are right now. And I guess the first one might sound simple, but it is just to get started because I do talk with a lot of families who procrastinate. Either because the whole topic is overwhelming or because they're really trying to come up with an exact number of an amount that they should be saving every month or finding the exact perfect savings vehicle.
And while those, those things are really important, the most important piece is just to start. So to decide to save some amount, can be a small amount to start and make the decision to save. And the key is to save it in an account that, that you designate as for college savings. And then we find that once families get started, things seem to move into place.
So that's my first tip get started. And the second. Is to be even more successful if they can get started, but make their savings automatic. So find a way to have money going into their account on a monthly basis. So they're not having to make a decision at the end of every month about where to put the extra $25 just have it happening and that's so hard to get started.
Penny Hauck: That's a great tip.
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yeah. And we really find that, that it works. Families who are able to make it automatic save more. And then the third is to tell the student. Parents, tell your students that you are saving money for them for college. Because research shows that students who know that a parent is saving for college for them tend to become more engaged in their academics.
It is a motivator. And so that's positive. It's sort of a circle and a cycle that the students are more motivated and then the parents can be motivated to save for them. And so that we find is very important. And besides telling the student. Tell your family members and your friends, uh, because if you do have a college savings account open for your students, then maybe at birthday time or holiday time.
Yes. The gifts. Yes. Uncles and grandparents. Everyone can be on board to help contribute and make that college savings account grow. And then the final tip part of the strategy is to just monitor it on an annual basis. So at least an annual basis, um, you don't need to be, you don't want to be thinking about your college savings every day, but on an annual basis, just be making sure, okay. Is there a way that I could put 20 more dollars a month into that account, or, um, is there a way that when my students maybe gets a babysitting job or is mowing lawns or something, I could talk with them about putting a piece of their earnings into their college savings.
Penny Hauck: Great. So like retirement, you're keep you're, you're watching your money add up. So it's sort of the same concept.
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Exactly. And I think that can be a great motivator for both the student and, and the parent.
Penny Hauck: That's great. There there's been a lot of discussion regarding planning around college costs, researching your EFC, et cetera. Why is MEFA the expert on these issues?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Well, I will tell you, you, you mentioned my background, um, and just that, you know, I've been working in this field for almost 30 years and, um, come from a financial aid background. And there are many people at MEFA with, with similar and extensive backgrounds in this, in this field. And so, so we've had experience with this. We've worked with thousands and thousands of families to be able to see what tends to work, um, better than, than other things.
Um, and then other than that, we have terrific partnerships here at MEFA. So MEFA works with all of the colleges here in Massachusetts and outside of Massachusetts as well. And those partners help us and keep us up-to-date on things that are happening on their campuses. And again, that close partnerships with, with them really add to our expertise.
We have financial aid administrators who present and co-present to families. And we also work with high school guidance counselors, community organizations, lots of folks who are working directly with students and parents, um, in high schools. And they keep us informed about what's most confusing to families, what what's most helpful, and that allows us to have a greater reach.
You know, we, we can hear a story about how maybe in, in, um, some smaller towns, and the Western part of Massachusetts, um, maybe we need to be in person because travel, you know, it's harder for people to, to travel to a high school that's 30 miles away. So we make sure that we're where we need to be. So those families can, can have the information that MEFA offers and there may be other places.
This is where we find guidance. Counselors will tell us families are too busy, so they really are not able to come out and do another program at seven o'clock in the evening. And so that's why we record all our webinars. So they're always on our website, so families can digest the information, um, at, at a time that's best for them.
I will also mention that, um, you know, one, one piece that MEFA likes to talk about because we have expertise in both saving for college and the financial aid process and financing college is that there is, there is this myth out there that tends to be pervasive. And, and sometimes we think we've gotten all the information out there and that we've solved it.
And then I do a program and someone raises their hand and asks the same question. And that is well, if I save for college, isn't that going to hurt me in the financial aid process. And it's, I can almost guarantee that there's someone in a room who's, who's going to ask that question because it is, it is a thought out there it's a fear out there.
And the truth is that no, in this day and age saving for college, um, has very little effect on the financial aid that someone will receive. And yet. It is a huge benefit and it is very helpful for families to have college savings when it comes time to paying that college bill. And so we really, we really like to talk a lot about that and also show some charts show why that is the way it is so that families can, can have a greater understanding of that. And I, I do think that MEFAs expertise on all of these different topics allows us to pull all of that together and, and, and give that good, solid information to families.
Penny Hauck: That's wonderful. That's a lot of information, Julie. That's just, I, I can't wait to get on the website and sign up. Uh, what can you tell families in middle school about why academics matter.
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes. Well, you know, in college admissions, um, really the, the most important factor for college admissions is academics. You know, grades are an important factor and how students perform in high school is an important factor that colleges look at during the admissions process.
So that in and of itself causes a lot of stress for families, but I would say, or for students, I should say, um, and maybe for families helping and supporting their student. So one thing we talk a lot about here at MEFA is options and choices. And the truth is there are so many paths to too many careers for students.
And so the more that students can learn about themselves, see all of the options that they have and work toward them, the easier that whole college admission process is going to be. And so I say that in that, um, all students will have options for higher education after high school. Um, even if they're not the best academic student.
But the more successful a student is academically in high school, the more options and choices that, that they will have. And that, that, that is a fact. So families should support their students to do the best they can in high school, but also understand their student, know who their student is, know their students' strengths and help them look at the variety of career paths.
Uh, one thing is we talk about college, but college is not one thing. College does not necessarily mean a four year bachelors degree. It does for many families, but there are other options. There are, there are two year community colleges. Um, there are lots of transfer programs that students can do an associate degree and then transfer it to a bachelor's degree.
Uh, there are in-state out of state, public, private colleges. So really taking the time to, to look at all of that and support students academically, but not to a degree that there's so much stress that if they don't achieve all A's or all A's and B's that there's going to be no, no hope and no future.
There, there are, there are, there are options for everyone options and choices. So, um, I think keeping that positive attitude and always looking at the options, looking at the choices is, is the best way for families to see this going forward.
Penny Hauck: Can you also explain how MEFA’s financing expertise gets woven into these areas?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes. Well, you know, and, and, and I didn't mention this in your last question, but it is true that not only are options and choices greater, um, for a stronger student on the admission side of college, you know, also on the financial side, it can make a difference too. So the stronger student academically may have a number of merit-based scholarship opportunities as well.
So we, we, when we're talking to families about financial aid, uh, we do make sure that they know that as well, that, that if a student works very hard academically, there may be some positive financial benefits to that as well. So I guess we weave that into our college financing information that we, that we give to families.
We have families starting to look for scholarships earlier so that they at least have a plan ready when that crunch busy time arrives of, you know, fall of senior year. So we have them thinking about that. And also allowing them to know and allowing families to know if your student is on, on a path for a certain type of college because of their academics, you know, in a positive way that it's, it's wise for families to start looking at the financing piece of it. Because when students are making choices about the college to attend, they definitely want to make a good academic choice, but they also need to make a good financial choice that's good for them, for the family. Really think, think about those things earlier and not wait until the last minute when they're, when they're deciding, deciding on a college.
Penny Hauck: Well, Julie you've really inspired me. It seems like I have a lot of homework to do this weekend, or maybe even today. That concludes this MEFA podcast episode. We thank today's expert Julie Shields-Rutyna. To get more information on how to plan, save, and pay for college, visit, email, or call a MEFA expert directly between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM Eastern standard time. MEFA experts are here to answer your questions one-on-one, invite you to upcoming events or seminars, or steer you to an online webinar, packed with the information you need.

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