I'm a Mom and an Academic Advisor, Here's How to Get Your Teen Through College Debt-Free

As an academic strategist for 25 years, Jeannie Burlowski helped students prepare to get into elite graduate programs. Now she also guides parents on how to help their kids avoid crushing post-graduation debt—here's how.

For 25 years, Jeannie Burlowski has worked as an academic strategist, helping aspiring young lawyers, doctors, and business people prepare for their admissions exams. Along the way, the mom of two from Minneapolis learned that not only did she love supporting students' long-term professional dreams, but that she wanted to support their ability to start a life without crushing debt.

"Most people read about college debt and they think of it as massive numbers that are terrible, but not that much to worry about," says Burlowski. "But when you have a job like mine, where you're meeting every day with people who are applying to highly competitive law schools, medical schools, graduate schools, business schools, you have to see what that college debt is like up close and personal in the life of someone you care about."

Burlowski says she constantly encountered students who couldn't afford to pay their rent because their student loan debt was too high or who were paying off student loans for college careers that didn't even get them to where they really wanted to be—and it struck the mom of two from Minneapolis as heartbreaking.

No parent wants to see their child saddled with that kind of financial stress, yet the thought of saving up enough to cover their undergraduate degree, let alone higher education, feels impossible to many families. "Parents who are in debt or who are living paycheck to paycheck look at the cost of college and think, 'Why would I even try to save for college? I'm not even going to be able to make a dent in it,'" says Burlowski.

That's why she was inspired to help them get creative, whether parents are starting to think about their child's college education when they're still just a toddler or already a teen. "For families who cannot put any money into a college savings plan, it's OK," says Burlowski. "There are lots of other strategies that don't involve getting scholarships, don't involve saving up money in advance, or getting financial aid from the government."

Armed with ideas and fired up to support families, the veteran academic strategist wrote Launch: How to Get Your Kids Through College Debt-Free and Into Jobs They Love Afterward, a guide that aims to empower parents looking to take action at any stage of the game, as each chapter offers strategies based on a child's grade level. She also offers a free weekly newsletter to provide readers with ongoing support.

Here, she shares some of her best advice for parents who want to set themselves and their kids up for financial success.

Focus on Your Debt First

While the pressure to put money away for your child's academic future might seem like a priority, especially if their high school graduation feels dauntingly around the corner, Burlowski says the first step parents should take is contending with their own debt. "Moving toward that goal is the best thing you can do for your kids," she notes.

Ideally, parents will want to start focusing on this when their kids are 4 or 5, says Burlowski. Not only will eliminating debt help you model healthy financial habits for your children, but it can set your child up for less college debt. "When your kid is a senior in high school, the whole financial aid process is trying to tabulate how much you can probably afford to pay for college; they do not take your debt into consideration whatsoever," explains Burlowski. "So if you are debt-free, you can greatly enhance the possibility that your child will graduate from college debt-free."

Save For Retirement

Another "put your oxygen mask on first" rule Burlowski swears by: preparing for your retirement. "You can borrow money to pay for college if you absolutely have to, but you cannot borrow money to pay for retirement," she points out. "It is a parent's primary responsibility to make sure that they have taken care of their own lifestyle and their own finances for years when they may not be able to work or no longer want to. It is no gift to a child to sacrifice and give everything to help pay for their education when you have not prepared for your own life from the ages of 60 to 90."

A Super-Pricey Degree Isn't a Must

Burlowski urges parents to realize early on that their child doesn't have to attend an Ivy League school to have a great life. "That doesn't have to be a goal," she says. "There's this lie that permeates our society, and kids hear it from the time they're in elementary school: 'If you don't get into a good college, you won't be able to get a good job after you graduate.'"

But busting this myth can serve to relieve pressure for everyone involved, especially parents who might find themselves spiraling on being unable to afford the ultimate education. "I don't want unreasonable fear to cause people to disengage from the process of gently, consistently walking through getting family finances in order," says Burlowski.

Make Frugality Fun

Parents can reframe budgeting as a playful challenge in which the goal is to figure out how you can save money. "If your child needs a pair of ice skates, do you check on Craigslist first?" asks Burlowski. "No matter how much money you have, you can make a fun game out of frugality, and kids will think of it as a normal way of living. They grow up this way, and they can live on a small portion of their income. This is the kind of thing that can change the course of life for generations."

Consider Dual Enrollment

If you would love to see your child be able to graduate from a high-level private school at the age of 20 and go straight to their dream job, dual enrollment is a smart way to make it happen, says Burlowski.

"This is where students take real college classes for real college credit in high school," she notes. According to Education Week, courses could be free or as much as $400, but most frequently, the cost of dual enrollment is absorbed by postsecondary institutions, followed by parents and students, high schools and school districts, and the state.

This gives kids a jump start on acquiring their college credits for a reduced bottom line. "Students who take full advantage of this are, many times, able to walk across the stage at their high school graduation with two years of college completely done," says Burlowski.

Investing a Little Time Can Translate to Major Rewards

Parents worry that preparing to set their child up to be debt-free post-college will take too much time, says Burlowski. But she urges them to put in just 90 minutes with Launch before a child reaches ninth grade.

"Typically, people who follow me are reading a few pages in a book every month—sometimes four to seven pages—and they're on track," says Burlowski. "And you don't have to do everything I suggest. It's not like a cake where if you leave out the flour, it's going to flop. Each strategy that you're able to do is going to help."

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