published Sunday, May 20th, 2012

First Things First: Planning for college is all about the process

Julie Baumgardner

At the beginning of Brentan Edwards' senior year, his parents were concerned he wasn't taking college planning seriously.

"Brentan was smart but lackadaisical about his college plans," said Calvin Edwards. "We decided to give him some motivation, so we crafted a College Assistance Agreement."

The Edwards presented the document to Brentan stating that while they believed it was their responsibility to assist him with college, funds were not unlimited. They were establishing an education account, which included money to cover tuition, books and materials, as well as things like medical insurance.

"We explained that we had a designated amount set aside for college, whether he finished in three or six years," said Mr. Edwards. "The criteria for obtaining the funds were outlined. We included things like taking a full course load, treating family members respectfully, having a paying summer job, not getting any tattoos or body piercings and avoiding illegal activity."

The Edwards added financial incentives such as additional monies for applying for scholarships that their son had a realistic chance of obtaining. They gave helpful hints for obtaining college assistance but did not complete the applications for him.

"This was not meant to be a heavy-handed thing," said Mr. Edwards. "We wanted our son to learn through the process. Once we presented the terms to him, we had his attention. We could almost see the wheels turning. His attitude changed, and he was much more motivated to figure out where he was going, what he wanted to study and how long he might take to do it. At every turn, managing the money became a factor. We were very impressed with his creativity."

The Edwards told Brentan that if any money was left in his account when he graduated, he would be allowed to put the funds toward graduate school, a new house, starting a business or going on a mission trip.

He attended Berry College in Georgia, but by taking advantage of summer educational opportunities at Georgia Tech and abroad at Oxford, Brentan completed college in three years. He attended Emory University, and today he is an anesthetist.

"I definitely believe our contract made a difference in the life of our son," said Mr. Edwards. "If we had it to do over again, we would have made [it] a special celebration and presented it to him during his junior year. We did that with our daughter, and the timing was much better. One thing we did not anticipate was the difference in personalities. Our son took the contract and basically didn't need any monitoring. He kept us informed and even asked for advice. Our daughter, on the other hand, is more of a free spirit. She needed semi-annual meetings to review how she was doing."

The Edwards' daughter also finished college in three years, went on to complete her doctorate and provides mental health services to the poor. Looking back, the Edwards believe the contract brought structure, clear expectations and helped their children avoid the pitfalls that create strife around college funding.

Email Julie Baumgardner at julieb@firstthings.org.

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