Bunny Wilson, a California-based motivational speaker and author, was visiting my church a few Sundays ago and said something during her sermon that really moved me.
One day, Wilson recalled, her 18-year-old daughter was sitting around with her older sister discussing college.
"You know what? I could have gotten a scholarship if I had just worked a little harder in school," Wilson quoted her daughter Christy as saying. "Just a little bit harder and I could have gotten a full scholarship. And now Mom and Dad have to come up with $34,000 to send me to college for just one year.
"I've decided I don't want them to pay for my college education. I've decided to take responsibility for my own life."
Christy Wilson, who is now a freshman at New York University, concluded that she was not somehow automatically entitled to college at the expense of her parents. To raise money, Christy decided to publish a collection of her poetry with the help of her older sister, Launi, who designed the eggplant-colored book.
The result is the 53-page "Limited Vision: Reflections of a Teenager," which is beautifully designed, beautifully composed and truly inspirational because it is the authentic testimony of a young person, with insights from the heart. It also shows a person who has come of age financially and, more important, as an individual.
In the introduction to her book Wilson writes: "Now I can't go to college unless I pay for it. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I started thinking about what my parents could do with my educational fund. Perhaps invest in their retirement or income property, maybe include a vacation they so desperately need or better educate my seven-year-old sister. They shouldn't have to use it on me."
Wilson self-published the book, paying for the printing with the $5,000 in donations she and her sister collected.
To date Wilson has made $9,700 in profit from her $10 book of poetry, all of which is being used to make the payments on the $18,000 her parents borrowed to pay her first semester's tuition and expenses. A Los Angles school has ordered 1,000 copies of the book, which sells on Amazon.com for the discounted price of $8.95. Wilson is also being offered speaking engagements to tell her story to students.
I can't help but be motivated by this young woman's story. After all, what's scarier these days than trying to figure out how much you'll need to send your children to college?
Tuition costs continue to rise faster than inflation even if that rate of growth is slowing, according to recent figures released by the New York-based College Board, a nonprofit company whose data on annual tuition costs were released earlier this month.
The board also released a second study showing that student aid hit a record $64 billion in 1998--85 percent more than a decade ago, after adjusting for inflation. Fifty-eight percent of that aid was in the form of loans, compared with 40 percent in 1980.
Such news concerns me. What happens if I don't save enough to send my two kids to college? So many kids graduate with huge debt loads that take years to pay off. What kind of start is that?
That's what inspired me about Christy Wilson's story. While we struggle to save and invest money for our kids' college fund, it becomes imperative that as parents we teach our children that this is not an entitlement.
As Christy herself pointed out, students have a responsibility to do as well as they can in high school to qualify for scholarships to relieve the financial burden that college carries.
"I knew there were full four-year scholarships available but I had phone calls to make, new hair styles to fix, and the desire to win the coveted 'best dressed' award at my school," Wilson writes apologetically in her book.
There are, of course, many ways to reduce the cost of college. Students and their parents also need to recognize that it's not necessary to go to a pricey, brand-name college to get a good education or good-paying job--but that's a topic for another conversation.
Whatever the cost, families have to be creative in finding ways to finance it. And certainly your little darlings have a role to play. College is a privilege, not a right.
"We are blessed that our daughter cared enough to start this project," said Bunny Wilson from her California home. "The fact that she has completed it and is earning money to pay her college bill is over and beyond what we expected."
But this isn't just the story of how her daughter is paying for school, Wilson feels.
"When most people think of paying for college they think of scholarships, savings and loans," she said. "But I'm sure there are many teenagers who have gifts that could be shaped toward generating an income that would pay more than minimum wage. And I'm sure those gifts could generate enough funds to help pay for their college education. What Christy has done can be an example for others to follow."
Michelle Singletary's column appears weekly. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. To discuss today's column, join her on Monday at washingtonpost.com for a live discussion at 1 p.m. She will also be discussing this column tomorrow on the "Insight" program with Herman Washington on WHUR (96.3-FM) at 6:40 p.m. Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.