Illustrations by Jon Krause
Three local families break down their strategies for paying tuition for colleges and universities in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
From building supplies to produce, prices are going up—and college costs are truly soaring. According to CNBC, they ballooned more than 25 percent from 2009-19. Back in 1978, a typical private college education cost the current equivalent of $17,680. Forty years later, the average tab is $48,510. In 2021-22, a student attending Princeton University will pay $77,690, all in.
Not every kid is going to Princeton—but that doesn’t mean paying for college is easy. Here are the stories of three families who made it work.
Better Late Than Never
In early 2013, Ann D’Antonio’s son was a junior at Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown, Pa. Like most kids his age, he starting to think about where he might want to go to college. But when Ann and her husband, Joe, saw the price tags of the schools he was considering, they were worried. “We had a little bit of sticker shock,” says Ann. “We were thinking we were OK and would be able to figure things out.”
Even so, the D’Antonios needed a plan. “After some sleepless nights worrying about how we would do it, we decided to do something,” Ann says.
Around that time, the couple came across a mailer from Elite Collegiate Planning. Part of the Chester County-based Paradigm Financial Group, Elite was founded by David Kozak, who’s also the CEO of the nationwide College Planning Group. When they contacted Kozak’s firm, it was a little late for their son. Their daughter was graduating from Shanahan in a few years.
It wasn’t easy, considering the timeframe involved. The D’Antonios also had some debt issues to work out, and they didn’t have a mountain of savings. Truth be told, they were living almost paycheck to paycheck. Originally, they assumed they’d incur some debt to pay for college—even if it had to come with high interest rates. Kozak convinced them that this was a poor strategy, and he set about putting together something more reasonable.
The D’Antonios refinanced their mortgage several times, taking advantage of better rates on each occasion to lower house payments and gain some capital to put toward college expenses. They also got rid of all credit cards but one, which they used to purchase everything they needed and take advantage of cash-back opportunities. They paid the full balance every month.
Before, the family didn’t think much about purchases. Now they assessed every expense. They made hard decisions about what was necessary and what wasn’t—and it wasn’t a short-term program. Kozak convinced them that it could also be applied to their day-to-day lives and retirement planning.
Both D’Antonio kids graduated in four years from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. The couple had each taken out a small loan, so they’d have the impetus to succeed in the classroom and work hard to find jobs after graduation. Their son finished in 2018 with a degree in politics and communication, and their daughter majored in psychology. “We’re miraculously debt-free,” Ann says. “And we paid for our kids’ tuition in cash.”
Ivy Aspirations Met
Sue and Gary Hughes were doing everything they could to save for their son’s college payments. But there was one problem. “We’d put money away—but not at the Cornell University level,” Gary says.
In 2016, the the East Coventry, Pa., family realized that there was a chance that their son—a junior at Owen J. Roberts High School—would be accepted to the Ivy League institution, leaving the Hughes in a financial quandry. “Cornell was on the radar, but not guaranteed,” says Sue.
Until it was.
Their son was accepted to Cornell, where he studied environmental and sustainability sciences. Meanwhile, the Hughes family handled the monetary load in a responsible way that enabled them to pay for Eric’s four years without taking on massive debt or saddling him with ugly student loan payments. With help from Kozak, they maximized the amount of aid they received and knocked down their contributions to their son’s education. “Part of the plan was that we didn’t want to compromise our retirement to pay for college,” Gary says. “We had a two-pronged plan that put our money in places that were good for retirement but also optimized the money received for college.”
As a result, their son was able to realize his dream of graduating from Cornell— and the Hughes didn’t have to sacrifice their golden years.
It was about 2 a.m., and SAS Becker was having one of those moments that has to be familiar to any parent facing the prospect of paying for college. Rather than engaging in some serious REM sleep, she was on her computer searching for ways that she and her husband, Rob, could get their two children through college without accruing the sort of debt that can cripple a family.
Her search led her to Judy Sciaky, founder of AP&G College Planning. Little did the Beckers know how huge that moment would be for their family. Sciaky helped clarify the college financing process, and her common-sense strategies and advice have led to some overwhelmingly positive results for the Beckers.
Their daughter is currently a sophomore at McDaniel College in Maryland. Their son is a junior at Conestoga High School. The Beckers are handling their current and future college payment obligations without taking on a mountain of debt. They expect the same conditions to prevail when their son heads to college. And because they’ve learned so much, SAS has become something of a resource for friends. “A lot of people now come to me for consultations,” she says.
A high level of planning was key to the Beckers’ success. They aren’t exactly able to write a check that covers whatever fees a school requires. SAS is a self-employed photographer, and Rob is a seventh-grade science teacher in the West Chester School District. “When you’re a public school teacher and an artist, you’d better be looking at the bottom line,” says SAS.
The bottom line includes more than just the cost of college. That in mind, it’s crucial for families to clarify expectations with their undergraduate, so the proper choices are made.
After all, a four-year commitment could easily turn into six (or more) years of college down the drain—something that could cause plenty of sleepless nights for even the most financially equipped parents.