The Third Age of Life

In Europe, they have a conception of life as being divided into three distinct stages. The First Age is childhood and adolescence, when your goal is growing and learning and attending school to acquire the skills that will enable you to be a successful adult. The Second Age is adulthood, when your energy is focused on earning a living, making a mark on the world, and raising children of your own.

For most of human history, when life expectancies were much shorter, the majority of people died at some point during the Second Age. These days, however, most of us can expect to live long enough to enjoy a wonderful gift: Third Age of life. The Third Age is just for you.

This can be a time of rediscovering old passions, reconnecting with abandoned pursuits, or exploring fresh, surprising possibilities—all for the sheer enjoyment of it. It’s a time to release your existing preconceptions of who you are and what you do and try on new potential identities. It’s a time to mine your potential, release judgment and face life with Beginner’s Mind once again.

Turning 50 is a perfect time to peek around the corner at what the Third Age may have in store for you. It’s a significant milestone for reviewing how far you’ve come and setting intentions for what you’d still like to achieve and discover in the time that remains. To learn more, check out my upcoming Webinar (Wednesday, April 29th at 6pm EST). In this workshop, I’ll lead you through a series of visioning exercises designed to help you plot a satisfying course forward. 
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Just turned 50? About to?

Just for fun (and for personal growth), I’m offering a free 45-minute webinar on Wednesday, April 29 at 6pm to help you celebrate how far you’ve already come and plan the next fantastic quarter century of your life. We’ll look at the psychology of midlife and I’ll walk you through several powerful reflective and goal-setting exercises. I’m a college professor, trained counselor, success coach and semi-experienced 50-year-old. Click below to register!

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You Can’t Eat Prestige

The admissions offers are in, and the celebrations and/or wringing of hands have begun. If you didn’t get in to your first-choice school, I think you might find some comfort in reading insightful moanings of high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss in her brilliant Wall Street Journal letter to “(All) the Colleges That Rejected Me.”

If you did, get in, great! You’re probably flying pretty high right now, and with good reason. It feels wonderful to be acknowledged by a school that makes people go… wow. That’s what it’s all about, right?

Well, yes and no. Now you’re facing May 1: Decision Day. Suddenly, and for a brief time, the shoe is on the other foot. You’re not used to being in this position. You’re used to being the lowly supplicant, begging for consideration from [insert name of impressive school]. Now they are waiting to hear if you will accept them.

Do take a moment to pause and savor this temporary reversal of fortunes. Feel the power of rejection coursing in your veins instead of theirs. Then try to shake off the intoxicating euphoria of your recent admission and think objectively. It’s time to sober up and be rational.

Here’s what I want you to know: Just because you got in to a particular name-brand school doesn’t mean you have to go there. It’s not a foregone conclusion. As you’re perusing the offers and comparing the financial details, please keep this in mind and please remain open to all the possibilities.

I hate to be a bucket of cold water, but colleges deliberately don’t give you much time to weigh your offers because they want you to make an emotional, impulsive decision. In this economy, however, you must choose a college with your head — not your heart.

If you’re thinking of going to a school that you’re not sure you can realistically or comfortably afford, tread carefully. The reality is that an admissions offer from a fancy school is no guarantee of a golden future and likewise no protection against the economic hardships that life can throw at you. In reality, trying to pay back the loans for four years at a school beyond your means could conceivably turn out to be one of the first economic hardships life throws at you.

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard back in the 1980s, the workers in our dining halls used to wear buttons that proclaimed: “You can’t eat prestige.” I asked one of the servers in the cafeteria line what his button meant. He explained that the workers were trying to unionize in search of better wages from the well-heeled institution that employed them. I found the message interesting, but nothing more, at the time.

I learned the true meaning for myself a short time later, when the stock market crashed right after my graduation and the economy plunged into a deep recession. I was shocked to discover how hard it was to find a decent job — even with my fancy Ivy League degree. I schlepped the New York City streets with my English degree, in desperate search of an entry-level position with a publishing house or magazine. Along the way, I stopped in several temp agencies, to try to churn the cash I needed simply to finance the job hunt. I can’t even imagine what I would have done if I had had to manage student loans on top of paying rent.

The best offer I was able to finagle was as an editorial assistant (glorified photocopier) for a paltry $13,000 a year — the equivalent of about $27,000 today. Despite the low pay, it was a prestigious company, so it pains me to admit I seriously considered taking the job. Ultimately, it was my father who talked me out of accepting it. He calculated that, after paying for rent and transportation costs, I would probably qualify for food stamps and that it could actually wind up costing me money to work there.

That’s when I realized: It’s not just the employees of Harvard who can’t eat prestige. It’s the graduates, too! We have to make our way in the world the same as everyone else. Even if you could eat prestige, I’m pretty sure it would be a thin, watery gruel.

Daniel Gulati of the Harvard Business Review makes a compelling argument for why your accomplishments in life will matter far more than your affiliations. He cites the decline of prestigious companies, the rise of social media allowing for independent personal branding, and the emergence of new online measurement tools (such as Klout) to assess and quantify your skills and influence levels. Gulati points out that “distinguishing yourself through real, tangible accomplishments shows the world what you’ve actually done while de-emphasizing who accepted you into their organization. The latter is a superficial vanity device designed to boost confidence; the former is a validated, objective measure of your skills and experience.” In other words, your prospects in life don’t begin and end with your college degree.

So, to those of you with the prestigious admissions offers, a hearty, well-earned congratulations. Your hard work and accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. But I want to offer you permission to think beyond the U.S. News & World Report rankings to make the best possible college decision for your future. If you feel like you’re being asked to sacrifice your family’s financial security on the altar of elite higher education, think it over very carefully.

You don’t have to be an alma martyr.

Some Favorite College Planning Websites


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EFC Calculators:


College Major Selection: Majors and Careers Central

Admission Predictors:



When it comes to college, the rich get richer.

I thought I couldn’t get much more discouraged about the current state of higher education.

I was wrong.

This year’s Inside Higher Ed Survey of College Admissions Directors makes one message abundantly clear: when it comes to assessing college applicants, many schools value money, first and foremost.

So much for fair-minded visions of colleges and universities as elevated bastions of fairness, equity, and leveling of the playing field — separate from the material concerns of the rest of society.

Instead, colleges are now freely admitting the open secret that they tip the odds and open the door wider to welcome the well heeled.

According to the survey, 54 percent of admissions directors indicated that this year they will increase their school’s efforts to recruit “full pay” students, who do not need any financial aid. This stated interest in wealthy students was highest at private four-year colleges, at 59 percent.

Colleges want these deep-pocketed students so badly that in last year’s survey, admissions officers at 10 percent of colleges acknowledged that they are admitting full-pay students who have lower grades and test scores than other admitted applicants.

Think your local public university will at least help even the odds and give your hardworking middle-class kid a fair shake?

Guess again.

Among public institutions, an overwhelming majority of admissions directors indicated that this year they would again be increasing their efforts to recruit more out-of-state students. Why? They pay higher tuition, of course!

Silly me. I thought colleges were looking for good students, regardless of their provenance. At a time when affirmative action admissions policies are under review by the Supreme Court, it appears that the race argument may be moot. The only color these schools seem to be interested in is green.

Goodbye, meritocracy; hello, plutocracy.

I often wonder how wealthy students admitted under preferential policies must feel about themselves and their putative accomplishments. It can’t feel good to wonder if the admissions rep really liked you… or just your parents’ money. That’s got to exact an emotional price.

When a degree is something you buy with money rather than something you earn based on merit, how much weight can it realistically carry? The answer is that it shouldn’t carry much.

It’s not just in-state students feeling the brunt of these materialistic policies. All Americans should be saddened to learn that these preferential policies extend to recruiting students from abroad. Of course, the priority in recruiting more international students once again focuses on targeting those who are “full pay.”

Colleges generally defend these practices by arguing that they use the “extra” money they receive from wealthy students to award more financial aid to the needy students they admit. In other words, they redistribute it.

Of course, the need to extract as much money as possible from the wealthy students is one of the main drivers of high, unaffordable tuition, but that’s another issue. It sounds to me, however, as though the wealthier students will soon be crowding out more un-wealthy ones, rendering this argument largely theoretical.

It also seems as though the implied role of the poorer students admitted on their own basis is to redistribute their hard-earned merit to the students admitted on other grounds. Students accepted because of their full-pay status, rather than because of their grades, must hope that some of that hardworking group cred will rub off on them so they look better on paper.

Unfortunately, when college becomes a luxury purchase for wealthy families, this undermines the prestige of the very product they thought they were acquiring. By weighing privilege over accomplishment, these colleges are discrediting the degrees they award and diminishing themselves.

At some point, these financially-motivated biases have to begin to backfire and stigmatize the degree holders and the schools that practice such need-aware admissions. Employers need to recognize these changing admissions practices and in response focus more of their own recruiting attention on locating qualified applicants of real worth… not of mere wealth.

“The Lost Graduation”

By now, news of the recession and its terrible impact on the younger generation has reached pretty much everyone. Most people, however, don’t realize that the college class of 2008 was probably hit hardest of all, graduating, as they did, at the peak of the financial meltdown. Many of these graduates are still reeling from their failed launch into adulthood and still trying to regain their tenuous grip on self-sufficiency.

One enterprising grad, David Vranicar ‘08, has endeavored to turn his personal batch of life lemons into lemonade by penning a gripping memoir describing his struggles to land on his feet during this difficult era. I believe this is what is called a “primary source” and historians may someday be turning back to this book to better understand the impact of these events on millennials.

If misery loves company, then struggling grads will LOVE The Lost Graduation: Stepping Off Campus and Into a Crisis. Aside from his “strangely unquenchable urge to chronicle what had happened,” Vranicar could be Anygrad, as he struggles to make sense of what has happened to him, and his generation, and tries to work out a coherent strategy for making the best of the options that remain open to him.

Vranicar delivers a compelling first parent narrative of the historic wreckage that the financial crisis caused for hapless graduates caught in the devastation. The story is eloquent, heartfelt, and bittersweet. From “carpet bombing” job applications to doing drudgework to teaching English in China to contemplating journalism school and somehow winding up in Denmark (really? Denmark?), Vranicar puts a human face on this economic tragedy and juxtaposes his personal story against the national backdrop of a crumbling economy. He even explores the difficulties of choosing a major as an undergraduate while the wider economy implodes, and the surreal nature of watching it all happen from the cocoon of college.

Vranicar makes poignant observations throughout, such as when he describes his reluctance to update anything in his childhood bedroom because it might give the appearance that he planned to stay “more than a few days.” It’s a compelling story written by an incredibly bright young man who deserved equally bright prospects, but it is all delivered with such intelligence and optimism that you come away feeling pretty confident that things are going to turn out just fine for him in the end.

This is an important, significant story that is representative of an entire generation. It’s also a compelling read. You can pick up a copy of The Lost Graduation on ebook here.


“I Made Every Possible College Mistake”

A Twitter follower recently contacted me and offered to tell her personal story in order to help other college-bound students. Since she claimed that she had “made every possible mistake,” I couldn’t resist the offer.

Kathleen chose to attend a private, for-profit art school, with relatively high tuition. According to Kathleen, her father “didn’t go to school but had a great paying full time job as well as many side businesses but he choose not to pay for my education because he thought that I would get more government aid that way.”

He was wrong. Unfortunately, the way the financial aid system works, your tuition is based on your parents’ income whether they offer to help you pay for college or not. Having high income parents who don’t help pay is a worst-case scenario and ruins your financial aid eligibility. The only ways around this are to get married, have a baby, join the military or wait to go to college until you are age 24 and considered independent of your parents.

So, that’s strike one against her.

Kathleen qualified only for an abysmal $900 in merit aid, based on her good grades in high school. Not only did she not qualify for financial aid grants, but she didn’t even qualify for many subsidized, federal student loans. So, she turned to the private student loan market.

Strike two.

I wish that someone would have told Kathleen at this point that this school was simply beyond her financial reach. She needed to look at lower-priced state schools. Instead, she signed the private loans and graduated with $92,000 in debt in 2010, at staggering interest rates of 14.25%, 11% and 9%.

“As of today,” Kathleen explains, “I have accrued over $18,000 in interest and the loan providers expect $1200/month for 10 years or $1050/month for expending my biggest private loan out to 24 years. I have about $365/month in forbearance on the federal loans but the others are all private, resulting in limited repayment options. I am also quite at a loss with the high interest rates because nobody in the world is consolidating private loans right now. I did the math and if I can pay everything off in 10 years, I will have paid a total of $175,000 and if I pay the rest of my private loan off in 24 years, I will have paid $244,000.”

Ouch. This is an absolute nightmare, and at this point—as she perceives—her options are limited.

The good news is that she does have a job in her field that she likes, and is earning a respectable living, but these debts are killing her and are simply unsustainable.

Her best bet to avoid striking out? Try to get the income-based repayment adjustment on the federal loans. Then, talk to Dad. See if he is willing to help her deal with the high-interest private loans. Since he didn’t help pay tuition earlier, and earns a good living, perhaps he would be willing to make a contribution now. If he would consider paying off the highest interest loan, that would be a great start. If not, maybe he would be willing to give her a loan to pay them off, at a more reasonable “family” rate. That way, more of the family’s economic resources could stay within the family, rather than going to fund faceless, uncaring, and predatory lenders.





The Merit Aid Lifeline

If you’re in the middle class, as most of us are, you’re struggling to keep your head above water, financially. Families are already reeling from the economic blow of the financial crisis, they’ve seen their homes decline in value, and many are struggling with unemployment or underemployment. It can feel like an endless game of one-step-forward, two-steps-back.

Then, your child reaches college age, and it can feel like you’re suddenly supposed to mortgage your home, or turn over all your accumulated assets, just when you’re right on the verge of retirement!

For many families, especially those who earn barely too much to qualify for much need-based grant aid, your best bet in managing college costs is going to be merit aid. Merit aid, as its name implies, is awarded to your student based on merit and, unlike loans, it does not need to be repaid. You definitely need to get in on some of this action. In recent years, in response to the recession, many schools have increased their merit aid awards, but most haven’t been very good about advertising this fact.

The two most familiar forms of merit aid are probably athletic and academic, but schools sometimes award merit aid for artistic or musical talent, or for community service, or even for representing geographic diversity or bringing some other desirable attribute to the school. In short, merit aid is awarded to students who will make the school look good. If your student can do this, then be sure to seek out as much merit aid as possible.

Until recently, it was very difficult to find out about merit aid opportunities across the country. Families would often learn about these opportunities through word-of-mouth or stumble upon them accidentally. This weekend, however, the New York Times did families a big favor by publishing their comprehensive list of the best merit aid schools. (You have to click on the multimedia graphic titled: Colleges and Universities That Award Merit Aid.) No, you won’t find Harvard, Yale or NYU listed among the most generous schools, but if you’re willing to step away from the most obvious name brand schools and broaden your search, you can turn up some hidden gems, like Trinity College in CT, the University of Richmond, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and—who would have guessed it?—Johns Hopkins. Each of these schools awards roughly $30K in merit aid on average, with Trinity College proving most generous with an average of nearly $42K in aid at a school charging $44,000 in tuition.

Schools get to set their own parameters on what constitutes merit and they get to select the recipients. At some schools you have to apply deliberately, while at others, you are automatically considered with your application. It can take a little bit of sleuthing to figure out which schools require a separate application for merit aid, but the NY Times has just done us all a huge favor, and saved us a considerable amount of legwork, by compiling this list.

Remember: to get the best deal on college you have to consider not just what schools you really want to go to; you also have to consider which schools really want YOU. Happy Merit Aid hunting!

The College Tuition Bubble Exists!

A couple years ago, when I used to mention the possibility of a college tuition bubble in public speeches, I would get some weird looks from members of the audience. Parents, students or high school reps would frequently question me—or even argue angrily with me—contending that college is always a good investment and that borrowing to pay any tuition costs is a good decision, because it will pay off down the line with higher earnings.

People generally don’t question me when I discuss the college tuition bubble, anymore. Most people have come around. Instead, I generally see glazed nods of agreement, as so many parents have now either witnessed a casualty of the higher education cost crisis or experienced it firsthand, with an older son or daughter.

Amazingly, I just ran into a very highly-educated and adamant tuition bubble-denier; now, I’m the one shaking my head and giving weird looks to this flat earth believer. This Ivory Tower inhabitant has clearly lost all touch with the real world and those live there.

In any case, after having experienced “pushback” on the notion of a college tuition bubble, it’s nice to get some vindication on the subject. Yesterday, that vindication came in the form of a short, just-released book or “broadside” by Instapundit blogger and law school professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds. In The Higher Education Bubble, Reynolds covers some of the ground I covered in The New College Reality, and gives his own terrific spin on the subject. The Higher Education Bubble is a short, approachable read, and it reminded me why I’m so angry about the subject all over again.

In it, Reynolds correctly identifies the source and extent of the problem, points out that college has only recently come to be seen as a way to “get ahead,” and places the problem in proper historical context. He analyzes the federal government’s role in shaping the current form of modern higher education, rightly tracing it back to the Morrill Act, and explains how the housing bubble actually contributed to it through the so-called “Wealth Effect.”

What I really like about Harlan’s contribution is how he gives us a peek into the future by offering his thoughts on where the bursting of the bubble will lead us, and how it has the potential to transform the future of American higher education. Hopefully, a new array of educational, training, and certification options will prove to be the silver lining in this dark, turbulent, and frustrating period of American higher education history.


Student loans, not drivers licenses, are the new teen rite of passage

Recently, in the Huffington Post, I argued that student loans are replacing driver’s licenses as the new teen rite of passage. Instead of offering freedom, however, this milestone represents a loss of freedom. (As we learn in Proverbs: “The borrower is slave to the lender.) Instead of giving them the ability to go anywhere they want and do whatever they choose–like a driver’s license–student loans clip their wings and keep many of them from going anywhere…for years. Some can’t even afford to leave their parents’ houses at all, much less afford a car or the gas to put in it.

The New York Times is now reporting that 94 percent of bachelor’s degree students borrow money to pay for college — up from 45 percent in 1993. Oddly enough, during the same time frame, the number of teens with driver’s licenses has fallen dramatically. It doesn’t seem coincidental to me.

There are many calls for reform of the student loan industry, but until any of these hoped-for plans materializes, you’re on your own  in preventing a personal student loan disaster. Here are some suggestions for reducing the debt load in your family.

Choose a school you can afford. This sounds fairly obvious, but you would be surprised how many families get in way over their heads by choosing schools that are beyond their financial reach. Families tend to become emotional when it’s time to send a child to college, and hesitate to limit their choices. It doesn’t help that the financial aid system is so convoluted, and that the final financial offers don’t come out until spring of senior year. By that point, many students have their hearts set and parents are loath to say “no,” even when they really should.

To avoid this trap, resist committing to a school until you have had a chance to compare the final financial aid offers from each, so that you know the bottom line costs involved.

Choose an in-demand major. Today, majors matter more than ever. When 1 out of every 2 college grads is unemployed or underemployed, you’d better believe it’s going to be hard to find a self-supporting job as a poetry major. Be practical and look at labor force projections before committing to a major. This is particularly necessary if you are borrowing money to finance your degree.

Work your way through college. It’s certainly not as easy as it once was, but if you slow down your course load, you can still attend college on the  “pay-as-you-go” plan and reduce debt.

Wait until you are older to attend college. This is a tough one, but if you can wait until you are 24 to enroll in college, the parents’ income and assets will no longer be considered for financial aid purposes and college may be a whole lot more affordable. Even better, you will likely be more mature, with a firmer grasp on your career goals and some working experience. There are a lot of sadder-but-wiser college dropouts, who weren’t ready to attend college, who would have been better off waiting.