Top college planning advice; Information on grants from experienced Maine counselor

Today we are in the midst of a full on effort for Maine’s next generation to 1) aspire to attend college and 2) have the means to make it happen.

In Bath, Morse High School Counselor Leslie Trundy is on the front lines of this kind of dream building. The population of that city is a bit of a microcosm of Maine as a whole. Some of Bath’s families have been saving and planning for college since birth. But, in a school system where 40 percent of students receive reduced and free lunches, Ms. Trundy notes “There are many families who are less likely to be saving because they are scraping by.”

It was a full house on June 13 in Bath for Morse High School graduation.She’s working with a grant from MELMAC Education Foundation to increase Bath-area students’ aspirations for higher education – and to help students connect those aspirations to a plan that ensures enrollment in college immediately following high school graduation. As part of her work, she visits parents of kindergarteners to seed aspirations and also meets with parents of eighth through 12th graders to step up the conversation and action.
“My gut instinct, what I see from meeting with these families, is that a big part of the reason kids have aspirations for continuing their education after high school is because of their mothers,” she says. “It’s what mom wants. The earlier the family starts the conversation, the more natural the expectation becomes that college can and will happen.”

Once the aspiration is set, the reality of finances sets in. “In our district we have families who went to Harvard and have Ph.Ds, and others who never went to high school. I speak with both audiences. One of the things I include in my coaching is a discussion of financial resources,” Ms. Trundy says. “It can be overwhelming starting your educational journey, and part of that is saving. I talk about Maine’s Section 529 Plan, the NextGen College Investing Plan® a lot, as a means to help families get started in planning ahead. The program offers matching grants to start the account, as well as for ongoing contributions made to the account, so that can be a big help for families that don’t have a lot.”

Maine families are provided incentives to open a NextGen account with just $25 (in the direct-sold plan), and, in return NextGen® will grant $200 to the account, regardless of income. In fact, NextGen has up to $1,250 in grants available for eligible Maine families. NextGen offers a wide range of professionally managed investment portfolios. When it’s time to pay for higher education-related expenses, withdrawals from the account, including any earnings, are tax-free when used to pay for qualified higher education expenses as defined by the Internal Revenue Code. Such expenses typically include tuition, room and board. Any earnings withdrawn that are not used for qualified expenses are subject to federal income tax and a 10% additional federal tax, and may also be subject to state income or other taxes.

“You’re not going to change behavior with finger wagging lectures to sock money away. Instead, it is about aspiration building,” said Ms. Trundy. “If families embrace the aspiration to attend college and pursue the dreams that are made there, then they will adjust their behavior now, and start planning, which includes saving.”

Some other advice from Ms. Trundy:

  • Drop by any of the campuses around the state for the experience. A lot of families don’t realize the campuses are open to the public. Visit the art museum at Colby. Take in a free hockey game. Walk around Bowdoin’s campus. That helps feed the aspiration.
  • Make smart choices. Do you really need a car in high school or can you put that money toward your college fund?
  • Take advantage of scholarships of all sizes like the Maine College Circle, a nonprofit helping more students, especially younger, rural, and under-inspired students in Maine make more of the opportunity of higher education.
  • Use the latest technology like PossibilityU, an online college admissions counselor that guides students to just get in and get aid.

“I think that it’s never too late,” says Ms. Trundy. The earlier you can start setting aside money, the better off you’ll be.”

About NextGen®
Grants are awarded to a NextGen account. See Terms and Conditions of Maine Grant Programs for other conditions and restrictions that apply at NextGen is a Section 529 plan administered by the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME). Before you invest in NextGen, request a NextGen Program Description from your Maine bank or financial advisor, or call FAME at 1-800-228-3734 and read it carefully. The Program Description contains more complete information, including investment objectives, charges, expenses and risks of investing in NextGen, which you should carefully consider before investing. You also should consider whether your or your designated beneficiary’s home state offers any state tax or other benefits that are only available for investments in such state’s 529 plan. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated, a registered broker-dealer, member SIPC, is the program manager and underwriter.

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About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.