By Zoe Barker-Aderem
(Estimated reading time: 3 minutes)
When I was seventeen and starting to think about where to continue my education after high school, I pictured a small liberal arts college. I imagined big trees, brick buildings, and long discussions late into the night about Tolstoy. I poured over the Princeton Review and circled dozens of schools with my pen – none of which I ended up attending. In fact, I ultimately applied to just one small liberal arts college alongside three state schools.
This switch happened because of my mom. At one point during my senior year, my mom laid out the financial situation. When I was little, my parents had opened an account with Washington College Savings Plans (WA529). They invested in a Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) account, a prepaid college tuition plan designed to help families save for education expenses. My parents had fully funded the account to pay for in-state tuition. My mom opened the Princeton Review and we flipped through the pages together, stopping occasionally to look at the astronomically higher tuition at the small liberal arts colleges I’d circled and what out-of-state tuition would cost for a Washington State resident at a New York State college.
We talked through the math — how much my parents had contributed, how much the account was worth now based on the cost of tuition at the University of Washington, and how much debt I would need to take on myself if I wanted to attend one of the colleges I’d been fawning over. My mom talked about her experience in paying back loans. Suddenly, a small school did not seem like the best fit.
It’s wild now to think that at seventeen I almost made a choice — a seemingly responsible choice! For school! — that would have landed me in tens of thousands of dollars of debt. I am so fortunate that my parents invested in GET and I believe I am equally fortunate to have parents who gave me the information I needed to make a decision that would reverberate through my adult life.
Deciding what college to attend (and whether to attend at all) is a strange mix of personal circumstances and family values. Here’s what I believe is true: the earlier you start saving for your kids to go to college, the less it will cost; and graduating college without debt is a huge gift.
And you know what? When I attended the University of Washington, there were big trees and brick buildings. My long discussions late into the night weren’t about Tolstoy, but they were about art, equity and were much more interesting than I could have imagined at seventeen. I graduated from college debt-free, and that has given me choice and flexibility; the option to travel, support my friends, and choose a career based on my values. I don’t have kids yet, and when I do, I’d like to be able to offer them the same options my parents gave to me. For me, that will start with opening a WA529 education savings account.