Does Your Teenager Need His or Her Own Ride?

Hey Paul: Our son just turned 16 and has his driving permit. He drives our family cars – a Toyota Camry and Chevy Tahoe. We plan to get him an inexpensive car once he earns his full license – what do you recommend?

My daughter is going through this rite of passage herself so I can give you a few insights from our experience. There are many websites that give practical advice on buying a car so I won’t go into the “common sense” ideas that others have penned much more eloquently. USAA has several good posts about teenage driving and insurance. One of USAA’s recommendations is staying away from compacts and SUV’s that have higher crash rates for teens; their top 10 are four-door sedans like your Camry.

For some of my readers money is no object but even if that is the case I recommend starting out all new drivers with a “beater”. My friend, Daniel Wrenne, has an excellent blog post on Navigating Car Buying Decisions. Daniel’s financial planning practice focuses on young physicians who could potentially buy an expensive car. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, right?

His four points fit well with teenage drivers so I’ll modify them slightly to fit your family’s situation. First, start with the “Why”. Is the car to simply take your son from point A to point B? Will having an extra car free up Mom and Dad’s chauffeuring time? Is it a status symbol for him or his parents? Will owning a car teach responsibility or reveal immaturity? Of course it could be each of these to some extent.

The second point is determining the true cost of ownership. The sales price is only the first of many on-going costs. Daniel emphasizes the well known but often ignored high depreciation costs in the first few years. Buying a car at least five years allows the steepest drops in price. In our case we got a great deal on a 2004 Sebring for $1850. Title and sales tax were $138. Registration will be another $50. Of course there is a reason a car is selling for less than 10% of its original sticker price.

Lurking with every used car purchase is the preventative maintenance and the fear and reality of major repairs. Although my wife thinks I am completely over-the-top on this one I think a fitting metaphor is what you experience when you have your first child – it runs through your mind all the ways they can get hurt or worse. Of course over time you learn that that kids are pretty robust and stop sterilizing everything they own and checking on them in the middle of the night. Hopefully I’ll come to the comfort zone with Bethany’s car soon.

The third point is to set your budget. In your case it sounds like you are being very reasonable in looking for an inexpensive car for your son. I encourage you (or him) to be able to pay for the car up-front – NO financing! Living within his means may be one of the most important lessons you can teach him. I find it rather odd when I see luxury car commercials with great financing options. But perhaps that’s the American way. In our case Bethany lifeguarded two summers (pulling one girl from the drink) and her grandparents helped out to buy the Sebring.

An important part of the true cost of car ownership and budgeting is the added cost of adding a teenager to your auto policy. In most cases it is cheaper to add your child to your own policy rather than having them shop independently for a policy. As a rule of thumb plan on your auto insurance premiums doubling with the addition of a teenage driver. And that’s with a good student discount and driving course. In our case adding a third car even of much less value than our other two vehicles added about $35 a month to our premium. Adding Bethany to the family policy added another $75 a month. This took our monthly premium from $91 to around $200.

The final consideration is to beware of the mind tricks. To be honest these can involve important tradeoffs. Do I buy a newer car that has more safety features and less chance of major repairs? Does the gas-savings of a compact offset the risks of every other vehicle that I may run into being larger? Should I finance to truly get the car of my dreams? These issues may not be trivial but often cloud what are the more important decision factors.

So in conclusion look for a car that you can pay cash while doing the standard due diligence on repair and reliability. Bonus advice: Wait a few years until they get their own ride – I was 21 when I got my Honda Prelude and although open to some debate I think I turned out alright.

Dr. Paul Hamilton, CFP will be offering a free Social Security Workshop this Sunday, August 7, at the Jessamine Public Library from 3 to 4pm. It is not necessary but if you have one bring a laptop/tablet/smartphone and your SS questions. Contact Paul at with any questions.


No One Gets Smart by Watching TV

Hey Paul: My kids are watching too much TV – it seems like it’s on all the time! If not watching the TV they are on their computer or cellphone. They are all great kids with good friends and are doing well in school. How much is too much screen time?

A recent Nielson study found that U.S. adults have broken the five-hour barrier in average daily television time. People over the age of 50 watch the most TV, somewhere in the range of 50 hours a week — over 7 hours a day! By way of comparison the average married couple talks to each other a total of five minutes each day.

The NY Times reports that “The amount of time you spend consuming media — watching TV, surfing the web on a computer, using an app on your phone, listening to the radio and so forth — continues to go up. Nielsen said that in 2015, Americans spent about nine and a half hours each day consuming content this way. This year? The average is 10 hours and 39 minutes.”

The University of Michigan School of Medicine has a concise summary of TV habits among Americans and how screen time competes with other activities as well as the potential long-run detrimental impacts.

UM reports that that children age 2 to 5 spend on average 32 hours a week in front of the tube – mostly watching shows but also playing games. The free baby-sitting may be necessary or at least a huge convenience for the stay-at-home parent but a virtual education is not likely what these toddlers are receiving from serious tube time.

An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18. What starts with Bugs Bunny ends up in Game of Thrones.

71% of 8- to 18-year-olds have a TV in their bedroom. Kids with a TV in their bedroom spend an average of almost 1.5 hours more per day watching TV than kids without a TV in the bedroom. Take the screens out of their bedroom and turn that freed up time into something outdoors.

The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a “better-safe-than-sorry” stance on TV for young children: “It may be tempting to put your infant or toddler in front of the television, especially to watch shows created just for children under age two.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics says: Don’t do it!

These early years are crucial in a child’s development. The Academy is concerned about the impact of television programming intended for children younger than age two and how it could affect your child’s development. Pediatricians strongly oppose targeted programming, especially when it’s used to market toys, games, dolls, unhealthy food and other products to toddlers. Any positive effect of television on infants and toddlers is still open to question, but the benefits of parent-child interactions are proven. Under age two, talking, singing, reading, listening to music or playing are far more important to a child’s development than any TV show.”

Does TV make you poorer or do the poor just watch more TV? The Nielson study goes on to report “when looking at adult users of multimedia devices, black homes making under $50,000 averaged more than 33 monthly hours, Hispanic homes notched about 27 hours, and Asian-American homes had about 41 hours. In homes of these same ethnicities that made over $50,000, the monthly time spent with multimedia devices shrinks to 20 hours (black), nearly 19 hours (Hispanic) and 25 hours (Asian-American).”

I have a few pet peeves regarding television. Most the shows my kids watch not only have animals but talking animals. I don’t see why animals must have personalities and grand adventures. The entire Bible has only two talking animals (the snake in Genesis and oddly a talking donkey). I suppose there is a reason that C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series was made into movies and not The Screwtape Letters.

Another hangup I have with Sitcoms is the need for seemingly every actor’s line to be a  snide remark or comeback to the previous line with each sarcastic reply supported by piped-in audience laughter.  Is that how people should interact? Is it too much to ask to have regular conversations that build-up to the occasional hilarious scene?

Here are my suggestions for gauging the influence of TV on your family:

  1. Can you go without TV for a day? Try to go 24 hours with no screen time for the family – parents included.
  2. Whatever ages your children are spend a full day watching their shows. Count the number of talking animals for younger kid programs or the number of violent acts for older kids. Multiply it by 6000 (about the number of days in 18 years) – do you think that kind of repetition will have an impact on your child?
  3. Try the push-up game: have your child do a push-up every time the audience laughs. That could easily be 150 pushups in an hour program; if they watch five hours a day – look out Herschel Walker!
  4. Get all screens out of any child’s bedroom. Even Steve Jobs enforced this rule.
  5. Have dinner around a table looking at each other not the TV.
  6. Use a DVR to pre-record TV programs. Preferably you don’t have cable not only for the monetary outlay but more so for the time in can drain away from your life. For those with network stations you can get an inexpensive DVR from Amazon that will pause or record shows. Never watch another Cialis commercial!

Who Pays for College?

Hey Paul: Our daughter is headed off to college next year. Scholarships and financial aid will cover half the cost of college leaving $15K each year that we have to pay or borrow. We have some savings and ability to pay but certainly don’t have the full amount to cover all her college expenses. Should we pay for her college education or have her take out student loans?

College is the biggest investment most people will make other than their retirement and home. As you are experiencing first-hand the costs of college are staggering – we could buy a ski boat or take an around-the-world vacation each year if we didn’t have tuition payments to make. But then we would fall into one of Jeff Foxworthy’s definitions of “you know you’re a redneck if…. you’ve got more invested in your pickup truck than your college education.”

The decision of whom to burden with paying for college – either along the way out of savings or who is saddled with the student loan debt – is a tricky issue. An analogous decision is how to pay for government programs – should the rich pay higher taxes based on ability to pay or should those who are directly benefiting from the program foot the bill (e.g. toll roads)?

In your case the total bill over four years is $60,000. As I’ve mentioned in prior columns a college degree is worth about $1,000,000 in higher lifetime earnings. Of course the sole reason of attending college shouldn’t be solely to secure a large future earnings and even if that is the goal it isn’t always realized. Based on the premise that college is going to more than pay for itself, your daughter should take responsibility for paying her student loans off out of the proceeds of her future earnings.

It sounds like you have an aversion to debt and also want to limit how much debt your daughter is forced to accrue in getting a college education. Keep in mind that an undergraduate degree is usually just the beginning of a very pricey decade in her life. Many careers require a couple years or more of graduate school where the price tag is higher and the financial aid is sparse. Then she’ll meet some guy (also in debt) and have dreams of a big wedding on your tab. My point isn’t to forgo college or marriage but to keep in mind the bigger picture in how future expenses and debt can mount up.

Since you are willing and able to help pay for college, I suggest that you set up an incentive system to reward academic progress. As much as we talk about college graduates burdened with hefty school loans a bigger problem are college dropouts who have big loans and no diploma. So what we’re working towards is a payment split that balances your daughter being connected to the educational finances but not necessarily fully responsible for paying for college herself.

The first thing to establish is your own ability to pay. The standard advice in financial planning is to fund your retirement first. You can borrow to pay for college but not your retirement. I would add to that if you have any high-interest debt to make that your priority in eliminating before funding for college. Let’s assume you can devote $5000 each year towards paying your daughter’s college.

As I alluded to earlier the biggest problem facing parents isn’t paying for college. The biggest challenge is making sure your financial investment pays off with your daughter completing college. One life event you’ll soon face is that your 18 year old is no longer a minor and various privacy laws mean that you won’t be able to track how she’s doing in school the way you have for the previous dozen years. That is, the school is not allowed to divulge her grades to anyone without her permission.

Given that you will be partially funding her college experience I think it is entirely reasonable to be briefed on how that’s going by asking to see her grades. Most students won’t have any problem with this. If they do you can likely assume poor grades or they have become a Libertarian consumed with “their rights”.

There is no magic formula but a reasonable agreement could be that you’ll pay $5000 and take on half the student loans if your daughter is making progress toward graduating with a B average in four years. College expenses beyond the four years will be her responsibility.

The college experience is certainly intertwined with financial issues and challenges. Although my advice is to approach it as a “business decision” the greatest gains can be found by keeping involved in your daughter’s life. Conversations about hard topics like paying for college or how she’s changing her major (again) will likely be more important than who is signing the promissory note.




Jessamine High Then and Now

Hey Paul: How is high school different today then when you attended Jessamine High? What advice do you have for today’s high school students?

 A lot has changed since I graduated from Jessamine High in 1987. The classrooms are nearly identical but the athletic facilities are first rate – I ran on a gravel track. We started school at 7:50am before scholarly studies showed that teenagers are not awake then – something that I could have told them a long time ago.

In my class we had three students graduate with a 4.0 or higher – No, I wasn’t in that select group. Two of them are surgeons. In recent years with the explosion in popularity of AP classes about 30 students graduated with above a 4.0 – evidently in the future we are going to have a lot of doctors in the area.

We had basically the same problems that students get themselves into today. Human nature hasn’t evolved but the technology certainly has that amplifies our ability for good and bad. On that note I will say there is one trap that many students are falling into that is disastrous to learning and positioning themselves for academic success.

According to my reliable sources in many of the classes the majority of students are spending class staring into their cellphone. Are they just checking a score or news story? Is the technology being used to engage the students? I doubt it.

So my one piece of advice to high school students is to do whatever it takes to stay off their cellphone during class. I anticipate this sage advice that I conservatively value in the hundred of thousands to students will not be well received. I may become identified with #ProfNoseNuttin to which I’ll counter #DropoutsLiveInVanByTheRiver.



The Inside Scoop on the Local Schools

Hey Paul: We are looking into buying a home in Jessamine County and have three school age children. Where will they go to school? What are the best schools?

 I grew up here and the three schools I attended no longer exist at least in their original form. Wilmore Elementary, Jessamine Junior High, and Jessamine High school are now Providence High, the Early Learning Village and West Jessamine HS. As you likely know Jessamine is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and this has lead to the addition of schools and periodically rebalancing the schools by shifting the district boundaries.

The ELV enrolls all 900 Kindergartners in the county and then they are dispersed to one of the six Elementary schools based on where you live. A school district map can be seen at the Jessamine schools website Nicholasville, Rosenwald-Dunbar, and Wilmore Elementary students head on to West Middle and then West High. Brookside, Warner, and Red Oak Elementary students feed into East Middle and East High School. Middle school is grades six through eight.

If you look purely at the numbers such as students at proficiency level then there is a distinct advantage to Wilmore Elementary and Rosenwald-Dunbar Elementary that carries on to West Middle and West High. You can see all the statistics you want at the state school report card website,

But let me advise you to look beyond the aggregate numbers or better yet don’t look at them at all. Why do I say that? Well stats can be misleading in that they attach the success (or lack of there of) to a school rather than the student or the student’s family. Unfortunately this type of school report cards has sullied many good administrators and teachers when the blame lay somewhere else.

Laura Callisen on the Family Share blog describes the “hard capital” factors as forces largely outside of the family’s control whereas “soft capital” factors were harder to quantify but were to some degree choices a family could make to improve their child’s success rate. Your home purchase will largely dictate the quality of the schools and the neighborhood influences upon your children. But other factors such as the parent’s involvement in the child’s education, reading with your child, eating meals together and overall providing a stable family life trump the school influences. In other words if your kids turn out “bad” don’t put the entire blame on the schools.

Our local schools are across the board good schools with dedicated teachers who know their stuff. Okay probably with a few exceptions but that’s true at any school. Unlike many counties in Kentucky where the schools are subpar due to challenges such as finding quality teachers, we are fortunate not to have that problem in Jessamine County.

I would suggest focusing your house search on factors other than trying to place your children at the so-called best schools as they’ll be shaped more by the home than by where the house is located.




My Personal AP Journey

Hey Paul: A couple of follow-up questions on AP exams. One, how many AP classes did you take? Two, did you help your daughter study for her AP classes?

 Sure, I don’t mind sharing a bit of personal history. I graduated from (the real) Jessamine HS in 1987 when they only offered three AP courses. I took AP Calculus from Mr. Barnes and passed the exam. So by US News standards I was college material but only barely. I also took AP US History but memorizing facts is not my thing. AP English was offered but as may be apparent from the occasional grammatical errors in my columns, I didn’t take AP English.

When my daughter, Bethany, was studying AP Biology she asked me something like “How does the endoplasmic reticulum communicate with the mitochondria?” My answer was that I didn’t think they were on speaking terms but the medulla oblongata is important. That was the last time she asked me a tough science question that if I ever knew the answer, it was forgotten shortly after the exam a few decades ago.

I was able to help her work through a few Calculus problems but even there my skills were a bit rusty. So Bethany was like every other AP student – she was primarily on her own learning the challenging theory these classes present.







Advice for the “Average”

Hey Paul: I am average – in school, sports, size, and just about everything else. I won’t be going to Centre College as a pre-med major. I don’t take the advanced classes in school. I am not on a varsity team with the dream of a full-ride college scholarship. I am not a leader of any group. What advice can you give me?

In writing an “advice column” I wrestle with many factors – sounding authoritative but not a know-it-all, suggesting simple solutions but not over-simplifying complex issues, and suggesting paths to success with the realization that some paths are closed to many people.

The last few weeks I have focused on questions related to college with a focus on AP tests and other high-end academic pursuits. According to US News and World Report’s high school rankings, WJHS and EJHS have 46% and 28% of students who take at least one AP class. So you are in good company with a half to three-quarters of the students who are not taking an advanced class. By my estimation it is only the top 10% of students who are regularly taking AP classes at the local high schools.

US News goes on to assign a College Readiness Index based on AP participation to high schools. WJHS was a 35.5% and EJHS at 18.7%.  My suggestion in last week’s column on stringing together a half dozen AP exams probably appears unfathomable to the majority of students. So dialing back a bit – how about one (or two) AP classes as a goal?

Sports are big part of American culture with the victories of our local teams shared each week in this newspaper. As a former athlete, tortured fan of the Bengals and Reds, and semi-retired coach after dozens of rec league seasons, I have seen the upside and downsides of sports participation. Sports, somewhat like academics, favor the naturally gifted with fierce competition for playing time among the teammates (and occasionally their helicopter parent).

I do believe that some participation in sports is excellent at all ages and ability levels. By sports I mean exercise with an elevated heart rate. The addition of archery, bass fishing and bowling to the local high school teams don’t count. My personal bias is towards running – cross-country or track. The comradery of the local high school teams is terrific with the opportunity to measure your improvement and success against the clock.

A college admissions form once asked applicants to check a box if they considered themselves a “leader”. The story goes that a young man perhaps much like yourself couldn’t honestly identify any leadership skills so checked the no box. On his acceptance letter the admissions committee thanked him for his honesty and noted that he would be joining 5475 self-reported leaders at the University. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.

Seriously I think the role and perceived importance of being a leader is over-rated. Yes, we need leaders in our homes, schools, and communities but a leader without contributors won’t accomplish much. I wouldn’t worry about not having a list of leadership roles to put on your resume’ – focus on adding value wherever needed.

A final note on being “average in everything”. I think you are selling yourself short. While college admissions or even society is fixated on a small number of metrics – test scores, points scored, or leadership – these are not all there is to value a person.

Someday you will likely be celebrated on Father’s or Mother’s Day as anything but average or ordinary. Let your family and close friends be the measure of your greatness.



Getting a Jump on College

Hey Paul: I am starting my junior year of high school. I plan to take a couple of AP classes to earn college credit. What other ways can I get college credit from high school classes?

You’ll be busy with a couple of AP courses and the rest of your course load. Although AP courses and the associated tests receive the most attention there are a number of paths to college credit while in high school.

CLEP exams are similar to AP tests with many of the same subjects with a total of 33 tests. You don’t have to take a specific class to take a CLEP exam – potentially you could take the CLEP exam that matches up with one of your AP classes. If you are ambitious you could even combine a “regular” class with self-study and take the CLEP exam. The tests cost $80 that is slightly less expensive than an AP exam. I’ve heard they are a bit easier but don’t plan on an easy exam! See for more details.

One educational opportunity I highly recommend for any local high school student is to strongly consider enrolling in a free or highly discounted college course at Asbury University. Yes, that’s the college that I teach at but I don’t get any bonus money for touting “Asbury Academy”. The AU website describes the program as follows:

Asbury Academy is a dual enrollment program for high school juniors and seniors. This program provides opportunities for high school juniors and seniors to take general education requirements at the University level (100- and 200-level courses), enabling them to complete high school and earn University credit through dual enrollment.

What courses are offered? There are over 80 courses including Art, Biology, Communication, Greek, Psychology, and even horseback riding and weight lifting. I teach ECN 100 Survey of Economics and have had several Academy students in this class all of whom have done well.

What does it cost? Here is the good news. Seniors can take up to 4 hours of credit (most classes are 3 hours) tuition FREE! There may still be some course fees and certainly textbooks to buy but this is about $6000 of college tuition waived for one course in the fall and spring semesters. Juniors can take in-person classes but the cost is about $1500 per class.

Juniors and Seniors can take an online course for about $400 – about 80% off the sticker price. The online classes are fast paced courses that run over eight weeks. Online classes are not for everyone as you’ll need to hold yourself accountable to study independently although the courses are designed for interaction with the professor and your classmates.

What do I need to get accepted into the Academy? There are five components – a short online application, official high school transcript, official ACT or SAT scores, a recommendation from a high school counselor or other adult familiar with your academic ability, and written permission from one of your parents to participate in the Academy. The ACT scores are needed only if you wish to place into certain math or English courses. I don’t think too many students are denied admission to the Academy; the only quantitative requirement is that Juniors must have a 3.25 GPA and a Senior a 3.0 high school GPA. Most Academy students come for East or West Jessamine High but I have had home-schoolers and students from surrounding counties in my classes.

Do I need to be a Christian? As part of the application I believe you have to agree to abide by the Community Covenant that prohibits various vices and promotes virtues associated with Christianity. Surprisingly to some people, a student does not have to profess to be a Christian to attend Asbury University. Of course the vast majority of students who attend full-time are Christians but many of them came to Asbury with an inherited religion or perhaps no strong spiritual leanings.

What are the benefits of dual-enrollment? Many Academy students take their English or math requirement that doubles for high school and college credit. Unlike an AP course you won’t have to take a high-pressure comprehensive exam at the end of the school year. Also you will earn a letter grade for the course rather than just credit for passing. If you do not attend Asbury as an undergraduate you can still transfer the credit to virtually any other college.

One thing you’ll notice about college course is that there is less time spent in-class and more time expected to be spent out-of-class studying. Typically college courses meet three times a week for 50 minutes or twice for 75 minutes. The rule of thumb is that you should study about twice as much as class time. That brings the total time invested in a course up to about 10 hours a week.

What do you recommend? I think the benefits of exploring subjects that are not offered in high school and getting a feel for college are too good to pass up for anyone considering pursuing a college education. For starters I would definitely consider taking the two FREE courses as a senior. The half-off price for Juniors is still a bit pricey for most but I’d consider an online class for around $400 each semester. For around $800 in combined tuition you can have almost a semester of college credit. If you take 12 hours of dual enrollment credit and earn a 3.0 GPA you will earn a $1500 Academy Scholars scholarship equaling $6000 over four years of college.

Academy Contact Information

For questions regarding the Academy application process, please contact Kim Okesson at or (859) 858-3511, ext. 2506.


AP Classes Are Not for the Faint Hearted

 Hey Paul: I am beginning high school next year with plans to go on to college. How helpful will it be to take AP [Advanced Placement] courses in high school?

 There is a growing national trend and in particular a strong emphasis at West and East Jessamine High Schools in promoting AP coursework. My daughter just completed her junior year at WJ where she took five AP courses as did many of her friends. Guitar was her only “regular class” – I guess she won’t be ready for college level jam sessions.

In one word I would describe her daily schedule as brutal. English Language wasn’t too much work outside of class. Biology and US History were a significant amount of reading and watching videos. Calculus had daily homework. After sports practice and supper, she worked diligently from early evening often to midnight with usually a break to watch The Voice or a UK game. So the central question is does the tremendous time and energy investment in AP high school classes pay off in college and beyond?

StudyPoint, a national test prep and tutoring company, summarizes the benefits of AP classes as being challenged in high school classes to improve college admissions chances, win scholarships and arrive at college better prepared. Passing AP exams typically earns college credit that then can save money by completing college on time or even early.

While I don’t disagree with these potential benefits of AP coursework, it is entirely possible to get into a great college, receive a solid financial package, and graduate in four years without a single AP class! Yes, it helps to have a few AP classes and if you are aiming for Centre or Vandy then go ahead and take the full AP suite – although Vandy does not accept AP credit.

The AP course offerings vary slightly from year-to-year based on what teachers are willing and able to offer. The following list are the typical AP offerings at the local high schools with the national percentages of students scoring a perfect five, passing the exam (scoring 3+) and completely blowing the exam with a score of one:

% Scoring a 5 % Passing % Scoring a 1
Biology 6.6% 64.2% 8.7%
Calculus AB 24.6% 58.9% 30.5%
Calculus BC 48.4% 81.1% 13.6%
Chemistry 10.1% 52.8% 21.4%
English Lang. 9.6% 55.8% 14.1%
Envir. Science 8.3% 47.3% 27.2%
Physics B 15.8% 60.7% 22.3%
Psychology 18.7% 65.5% 20.9%
US History 11.0% 52.4% 19.6%
World History 6.6% 54.5% 17.7%

I didn’t include in the summary table the foreign languages tests that tended to have the highest pass rates (Chinese had a 95% pass rate). The College Board notes that a high majority of those doing well in the languages actually learned to speak the language at home not in a formal set of classes in school.   Many colleges will give credit for two or three college courses if you can pass a foreign language test.

Returning to the table we can see that Calculus BC is a cakewalk with almost half the test takers scoring a five and over 80% passing the exam. Well not quite a cakewalk. Not everyone is taking the same tests with the high IQ, over-achievers taking the tough math and science courses. This brings up the central critique of the benefits of AP courses – Is it the top students taking AP courses or are AP courses producing top students? In statistics jargon, are we seeing association or causation? – which, by the way, is a good response to any study when you want to sound sophisticated.

Note again that these scoring percentages are national averages. From what I hear some of the local AP classes are doing much better than the national average passing rates.   Let me give you my thoughts on a good approach to AP classes and high school coursework in general.

Freshmen at EJ and WJ can take AP Psychology – a class that fits in well with many college majors and is not overly technical. Although I have my misgivings about 14 year-olds taking a college equivalent class this is one worth a shot. From what I hear the pass rates are very good for the local freshies.

Freshman can also take AP Physics. As a Mechanical Engineering major I am all for studying the science of motion. The problem is that you need a good foundation in math (ideally Calculus) to study physics something that the vast majority of freshmen don’t have yet. Freshmen have no business in big-boy AP Physics.

The other sciences – Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental Science – are great classes if you have a curiosity about these areas of study and are thinking of pursuing a science-based career. My daughter happened to take Chemistry in the dreaded zero-block when high-schoolers are not awake even if their eyes are open. The pass rates on these AP tests are mixed.

The two major history classes – U.S. and World – are reading intensive. I would suggest if you are going to take either of these courses you get the book and read it the summer before classes. Yes, that’s the kind of dedication an AP class takes.

Calculus has the reputation in college as the most likely to be failed course. Calculus AB has the highest percentage (30.5%) of test-takers who bombed. Fortunately I am proud to report that WJ has two elite Calculus teachers – Mr. Barnes who I took Calculus from 30 years ago and Mrs. Peters who I was in high school with three decades back. The pass rates are very high for students in both AP Calculus tests.

So is giving up your evenings to study college level classes worth it? Let me suggest a balanced approach. Take at most two AP courses a year. Pre-study in the summer for the courses and focus on subjects that you’d actually enjoy reading! Say you knock out Psych, Environmental Science, U.S. History, & English Language. That’s a semester of college credit – Booyah!


Getting over College Sticker Price Shock

Hey Paul: Our high school son is looking at colleges in central Kentucky. He is a junior at WJHS. The Transylvania University website lists a “total cost” of $45,690 – about what we paid for our home a few decades ago! Your school, Asbury, posts total costs of around $35,000. How can college be worth these sky-high prices? What kind of “deal” can we expect?

When I attended UK about 25 years ago I believe the tuition was around $3000 a year and total cost around $6000. A student could combine relatively modest scholarships, financial aid, a summer job and a bit of help from parents and have no student loans. For this coming school year UK lists the total costs at $24,278! The magic of compounding growth is working against us. The typical annual increase of around 6% has doubled the costs every dozen years.

I have compiled some core information from four local colleges that may help clarify what you really are facing in terms of college “investment” (note the subtle change in wording from “cost”) as well as what a student can take from the college experience. This information is from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s College Scoreboard. See for complete information on these schools and any other colleges of interest.

Centre Transy Asbury UK
Family Income AVERAGE COST
$0-$30,000 $17,161 $15,256 $18,677 $9,743
$30,001-$48,000 $17,024 $16,435 $19,565 $11,831
$48,001-$75,000 $20,676 $19,470 $24,526 $15,416
$75,001-$110,000 $23,685 $23,085 $26,365 $17,779
$110,001+ $28,445 $25,716 $29,741 $18,220
Debt $26,063 $27,000 $26,000 $20,500
Starting Salary $45,000 $41,100 $34,100 $41,500
Graduation Rate 85% 73% 70% 60%
ACT Range 26-31 24-30 21-27 22-28

The first thing to note is that virtually no one pays “sticker price” – Even wealthy students that attend Transy get around $20,000 knocked off the sticker price. Your family’s income will be a major determinant of your financial aid package. For each of these four schools the lowest income students received about $10,000 more in financial aid.   Of course even the lower income student is looking at around 17 grand a year to attend a private college and around 10 grand to attend UK.

Keep in mind that these costs are averages – some students will receive more generous financial packages due to academic scholarships. Others will be eligible for further financial aid due to their specific financial situations. The College Scoreboard provides a link to each college’s Net Price Calculator that gives more precise estimates of potential financial aid packages.

Typically the “deal” includes the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES), Kentucky State Grant and the college’s financial grants. Note that a grant is essentially a gift with no payback! The offer may also include Federal loans that like all other loans need to be paid back but often have no interest until six months after completing college.

The median student loan at the three private schools was around $26,000 – think about it like a car payment for the five years after college with a diploma in hand rather than a vehicle. Again that’s an average figure. I’ve known a few students with $100,000 in undergraduate debt and many with mid-five figure debts. That’s a heavy burden even before you start throwing in graduate school costs, a wedding, first home, and the first baby.

So, is it worth it? Yes, I think the college experience can be “the best four years of your life” and a springboard to a career that is not possible without a college degree. Over the years I know many college graduates that question the utility of their college degree but very few who would forgo college if they had to do it over again. On the other hand I know many people who regret they didn’t take advantage of continuing their education through college when they had the chance.

The one catch is that if you are going to invest tens of thousands of dollars a year than you better complete college – unless you are an NBA first-rounder. Half a degree is worth zilch. As I mentioned in last week’s column, college success is more about grit and wisdom than smarts.

Finances are important but don’t let money be the sole factor. The smaller classes and collegiality of a private college may be the difference between college success and dropping out.   Admission teams will work with you to “make it happen” and then the rest is up to you boy!