Treating Higher Ed as an Investment with Ken Ruggiero
May 10, 2022
Treating Higher Ed as an Investment

Being a parent is hard. Being a parent of a child who will one day graduate from high school and have to make decisions about what to do next is even more difficult. And they’re one and the same.

In the United States, we live in a tragedy of student loan debt. According to Investopedia, Americans hold about $1.75 trillion in student loan debt. And while the government debates on whether to forgive some of that debt or continue to defer it, our youth continue to apply for student loans.

It’s time for a real conversation about the support that’s available to students, what parents’ responsibility should be, and why the school a child attends (if any) is no reflection on the parent. And shouldn’t be.

This week on the podcast, Ken Ruggiero, chairman and CEO of Ascent Funding shares what might be some unpopular (but very realistic) thoughts on higher education. He gets real about why students exit college without a degree or with loans they can’t pay back. It’s an equation, and Ken is sharing his organization’s (free) tool to determine whether the school a teen is choosing is a good investment or if they should look elsewhere.

Be sure to tune in!

About Ken Ruggiero:

Ken, Chairman and CEO of Ascent Funding, is a veteran and innovator in higher education finance with more than 25 years spent managing start-up through Fortune 1000 companies, helping them create meaningful change and improvement in their delivery of financial services. Throughout his career Ken has worked tirelessly to improve access to higher education and he continues to be a passionate advocate for expanded financial literacy and transparency in the space.

During his tenure at Goal Financial, from 2003-2007, the company originated more than $8 billion in student loans and became a top 10 student-loan provider. After the company’s exit from the lending space in 2008, Ken spearheaded the reinvention of Goal Financial into Goal Solutions, a leading provider of asset management in the education finance industry. Under his leadership, Goal Solutions has significantly grown their service and product offerings, eventually reentering the origination space in 2017 with the creation of Ascent Funding.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:40] – The student loan debt tragedy
[3:50] – What support is out there for students
[4:47] – Education spending is an investment
[6:38] – Revolutionizing how students plan, pay for, and succeed in school
[9:08] – The difference between student loans and home loans
[12:30] – There’s almost too much data available to help you determine your future college
[16:15] – The system is designed to get you into debt and get you into school
[17:28] – Maureen’s personal scenario as a mom
[18:40] – Where to start with not relying on a parents’ money for law school
[24:38] – What to pay attention to with young children and kids close to college
[32:59] – Dual enrollment and changing financial trajectory
[35:30] – What parents need to do to be more financially savvy about paying for higher [42:18] – Encourage kids to bring you adult problems
[46:45] – Know your parameters, even if you don’t like them
[49:40] – Combine capital and learning and support for the best results
[51:00] – Ken’s Magic Wand – How Ken would recreate the higher ed funding landscape
40% are first time learners
[58:04] – Maureen’s takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of at active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast, please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:00
For winning, Ken, it is so good to have you on education evolution. Thank you so much for having me. And listeners. today I’m chatting with Ken Ruggiero, of ascent funding. Throughout his career, Ken has worked tirelessly to improve access to higher education. And he continues to be passionate, and an advocate for expanding financial literacy and transparency in the space. And can I think funding post secondary is a big stress for a lot of us parents. So I’m curious, the student loan debt, I feel like as a tragedy we have burdened our youth with how did you become interested in helping families become educated on funding higher education.

Ken Ruggiero 1:52
I’ve been in that in the industry of student finance for going on 20 years fast and that I really got interested in it. When when I was experiencing going through college by myself, you know, with with a loving family, but no financial support. And then I found myself in 2015 as another loving family and I had saved for college for my two sons, my wife and I had and and and I was being very reflective at the time because they were talking about college and and I’m like, wow, they’re gonna go through college a lot differently than I did. Because when I went through college, there was no such thing as a 529 plan. My parents were first second generation Italians and hadn’t gone to college. So they didn’t really know what going to college was they just told their three sons, you’re going to college and you’re going to pay for it. And, and we were like, alright, as a five year old, that’s a bit of a steep message. But I’m going to work with that I got I was mature beyond my years. And but my dad on an ice cream store. And I worked in the ice cream store from a very young age and as did all the other middle and low middle income families in my New Jersey neighborhoods. And that felt normal. And I earned a bunch of money. And I saved and worked and paid my way through UMass. So I was reflecting on that. And I’m like, wow, what’s the what’s the state of the first time learner? And, you know, if if I were to go to school today, what’s it look like? And then if my kids were to try and work and save and pay their way through, I’m here in California through a UC school or a Cal State School like, like, could they do it? And on the coasts? The answer is kinda No. Right? Like, unless I guess you start working at five. So I started going, Wow. You know, so what support is out there for people who are first time learners for people whose parents don’t want to fill out the FAFSA, even though they can get financial aid because maybe they run a cash business, maybe they’re immigrated here, and they don’t like filing financial documents with the federal government. That’s not normal for people outside of the US to voluntarily give more financial information to governments. Right? That’s, that’s what people try and not do, right? And then you get to America, like, we’ll give you free money. They’re like, I don’t know about that. So. So there’s a lot that hadn’t changed. And on top of that, the DACA population had one it had a name, it didn’t have a name back in the 80s. And, and it had grown as well. And they were massively under Support at the international student community. They were massively under supported. So so we talked about that we talked about how, you know, quote, bad it is and you said burden the generation and, and and I look at I’ve always looked at education spending as an investment. And it has to be like, if you looked at taking a loan from the government or a cent as anything other than an investment, then then you’re you’re probably approaching the next you know, six months to six years without the right perspective, because, because when you make an investment, you expect your money back plus a return. Right? And, and a lot of people, you know, borrow money to invest in a house, and they expect their money back plus the return so, so I’m like, wow, if this is an investment, why aren’t we treating it like an investment? How come you can’t do research on what you’re going to buy? How come you can’t figure out what the utility value the outcome of what your purchase is going to get? You? So education, if you treat it like any other kind of consumer goods, or service, you would look at it very differently. And and so that’s the way we looked at it. We’re like, what, what, what should we be telling families that they’re about to invest in? And how can we easily tell them how they can expect to get their money back, plus a return and, and so that’s what that was the founding ideas and emotions and principles of ascent and, and that that got got us started on this, this journey of really providing access to people who, in some cases just need a cheap loan, because they didn’t save or didn’t qualify, or they picked a school that was pretty expensive. But more importantly, helping helping students whether they’re 18 or 28 year olds going to their first four year, you know, residential college experience, or going to a coding boot camp to upskill and rescale themselves, like that got us started on this journey. And and it’s been fascinating, fun. nerve wracking, scary. All of the above.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 6:32
Yes. So what does ascend offer?

Ken Ruggiero 6:37
We started the we didn’t want to start, you know, quote, another loan business, like a bank. So so so our mission statement is to revolutionize the way students plan, pay and succeed in school. So the first six years of a sense life was saying, hey, when people don’t have enough money to pay for their schooling, we got to get this pay thing, right. And, and as we sit here today, if you go to a very, very solid website from an editorial perspective, called nerd wallet, nerd wallet, looked at the answer to the question you just asked me and they rate we’re the only five star rated student loan program in the country. And in front, like not Sallie Mae not so fine not discover student loans, not Citizens Bank, all lenders that are larger than a cent of good companies, but they’re not as good as a cent and, and what NerdWallet, and Forbes and money and bank rate all see in the Ascent program is how much access we’re providing to students at very competitive rates. And, for instance, we’re the only lender in the country that will lend to DACA students if they don’t have a cosigner, and we’re like, hey, this seems like a good thing to do. Let’s find underserved populations who can’t get a federal loan, who can’t get a bank loan, because they’re not technically a US citizen. And, and let’s study the data. And the data on the schools. They attend the data on how hard they work the data on their GPAs. And, and, and they’re they’re one they’re amazing, amazing people. And two, they do amazing things with their education. We’re the only lender in the country that is lending to students who don’t have a cosigner who, who don’t have a credit score and who don’t have a job. I jokingly call it that don’t loan but marketing tells me to hush. So we we’ve been doing that since the founding of the business, because similar to you know, 18 year old can, these students often get into school, they get to their junior year, and either they or their families ran out of money because of life, right? A second child a lost job, a divorce, medical bill, a car accident, like you name it, people are running out of money, and they want to finish and they can so we said hey, if we can predict the outcome of a student two years before, then we can we can lend them enough money to get out of school or get through and get out of school. We’re like saying we’re the only lender in the country because it’s really hard to do things with loans, we’re the only one who predicts the future and only lends the money that we predict the student will be able to pay back. Now I say that to people who understand banking and, you know, in a mortgage, to the the largest type of loan and a human’s life in the country, it’s the largest lending sector, the lenders, they want to make sure you have current income, but they’re mostly looking at the value of your house, right? They’re predicting your ability to pay back based on their ability to sell your house, right. And that’s, that’s and you get a very low rate. I used to get very low rate and you still do but not as low as you used to like last year, but you get a very low rate. But it’s not about predicting whether or not you can pay back the debt with your current income. So so that’s what we do. And and now we can lend safely and we can signal to the students and families what’s a good investment All right, so so we have students who come to us and they say I need $10,000. And I’m uh, you know, I’m not going to pick a major or school, I usually get in trouble with whoever I’m talking to, or probably whoever your listeners are, but, but they say, Hey, I’m at the school, I have this major, I have this GPA, and I need $10,000. We’ll look at what their likely starting salary is, and how long it will take for them to get it. And we’ll say, hey, based on all the debt you got, before you found us, and the debt you’re going to need to get out of school, we think you can afford 7500 For the next two years, you know, what happens when you tell a junior three months in advance that they have to find $2,500 to save over the next four months or five months? They actually like this is what over six years were like, I wonder wonder what’s going to happen. Right? Like, like that, like cuz we were scared we didn’t want we didn’t want him to do anything stupid. We didn’t want them to run up their credit cards, we didn’t want them to like take the loan and then get halfway through and then can’t pay rent or can’t feed themselves and you give the you give some thrifty juniors in college and seniors in college and senior pluses who are in their fifth year of college you give them you give them lead time. And they either find the 20 501 way or another maybe they work a little more maybe they get another scholarship, maybe maybe they add a roommate to their two bedroom, right? Maybe they don’t maybe they don’t go on that ski trip in the winter. Right. So they find a way to save the money and and that’s the column like the habits that that teach the financial, you know, the Thriftiness that, that teachers is gonna be better than some of their classes. And then then they show up and they ask us for more money, and we like, yeah, yeah, you’re doing great, we’ll give you more money. So that’s why that’s why we’re ranked. Because we really put the student first not the parents credit score, not the amount of income somebody makes. We’re like, hey, what does the students need? And we build financial products, and financial safety and financial wellness all around the student and the product itself?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 11:57
Oh, my wheels are turning on the podcast front. And on the mom front here. I just feel like even when we fill out the FAFSA and understand, you know what kinds of money is available? It’s just like, this big black hole and not a really big sense of how much more am I going to need to borrow. And so it sounds like you educate the students all along the way. So they understand big picture, they can set short term goals. And you can tell them kind of what’s realistic as well.

Ken Ruggiero 12:27
Yeah. When I go back to the 18 year old kid, when I went to school, it was very hard to understand what school to apply to. I went to my public high school’s library I one year old Peterson’s guide to college book. And that’s the way I found UMass because they had a good accounting program. I found accounting because my parents said, everybody needs an accountant, you’re good at math, you should be an accountant. And like, like I’m not I’m seriously not joking, I did not have an internet and I did not have a lot of pretzels I had loving parents, you fast forward to today, there’s an enormous amount of data, you could argue there’s almost too much data to synthesize as you’re looking at the entire landscape. And, and sometimes all the data doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you want to major in, and then you don’t know what that major leads to what type of employment so so the good news is there’s a lot of data the bad news is, is it’s very hard to synthesize as the student and as the parent and and then the federal government and the schools themselves don’t make it any easier. Right? So so the fashion is very complicated. My dad did not want to tell three sons how much income he made, you don’t talk about lots of stuff. You know, like money, right? So so the first thing you’re supposed to do is tell your tell your tell your your teenage kids how much money you make, and what your house you know, what your house and stock portfolio was worth. Like. That’s, that doesn’t fit like, I don’t know, any adult, any parent. In, in, you know, I don’t know any parent in my world and other people’s worlds that think that nothing can go wrong. And nothing can be awkward with letting your kids see your financial condition. I think it’s healthy, but I also don’t think they’re equipped to process nor do they need that information in their lives. But that’s what the FASTA opens up the opportunity to do so. So you’ve got this this by the way, it’s there’s there’s other ways to get after that data, and there’s work being done on it. But so you’ve got this this FAFSA thing, which is like hey, get the free money, and everyone should fill out the FAFSA even if you don’t think you’re going to qualify because you’d be surprised. And then you’ve got the letter you get from the school. And and I don’t know if you’ve seen some of these letters, but even those are what I would call deceptive. And there’s again, there’s movement afoot that says hey, maybe you shouldn’t call the letter, you know, financial aid package when you’re Putting loans in the calculus of how much the family owns. And I’ve read articles, I’ve seen people go, the borrower, or the parent will go, I didn’t know I had a loan. And people are like, Oh, that person’s lying. I’m like, did you see all that? Did you see the way? The, the the packaging and the signing of the documents goes? Like? Like, yes, maybe they should have read everything, and maybe they just kind of click to the E signature part of the program. And that’s, you know, shame on them for not reading but but the letter is, is sometimes very deceptive. Right. Direct Stafford Loan directs SAP subsidized Stafford, you know, yeah, Department of Education, like, yeah, those are all words that are normal to me, because I live in this world, but they’re not normal words, subsidized on subsidized Pell Grant like, like, you know, they’re all bundled in something called estimated family contribution, which people don’t understand what an estimated family contribution is, or how that number was arrived at. But there it is. And then, and so yeah, so people are very confused in the purchase process. And sadly, some of it is by design of the system itself, because they kind of don’t want you to know you’re taking a 4% loan, or an 8% loan from the federal government. Because if you study any kind of consumer purchase behavior, the more questions the consumer asks, the more likely they are not to buy the product or service they’re looking at. Yeah, so the system designed to get to get you into debt. And to get you into school. Like that’s, I mean, that’s just the facts of the situation, because the schools want you in and the schools want their money.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:48
That’s designed to get you into debt and get you into school. Ouch.

Ken Ruggiero 16:53
By I mean, I don’t know if my school clients are gonna like that. But it’s the way if you haven’t saved for for school, or you picked a school that maybe you saved for, but couldn’t afford that school, which happened sadly, to a lot of parents and and families alike. That’s, that that’s the that’s your last option. And and it is very hard to peel apart all of the elements of of your, your financial aid package. Yes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:21
So let me give you my personal scenario, because I just as an educator, I want kids to pursue their passions, and I want all doors to be open to them. So as a mom trying really hard to single mom, most of the time, I contributed to a 529. And my, my 25 year old back in the day, she did dual enrollment, I got an aide from the community college and a lot of that was free. I had a 529 she had roommates. So yes, bachelor’s degree and life experience. Now she’s 25 and saying, Okay, I’m ready at my undergrad was law, justice, diversity, go on studying for the LSAT, and I want to go ahead and go to law school. So she’s researching, she is doing all this. She is not my dependent. And I don’t have another 521 529 for graduate school. She’s just like, how does this work? I know it’s gonna mean debt. So where would you start with her? If she came to you and said, Hey, here’s my scenario, where would you even start, because she’s not gonna have my money. And she knows she’s gonna have to fill out a FAFSA, but she also is just kind of depressed, like, Yeah, our generation is just going to be saddled with horrific debt. And I guess I just have to bite the bullet. What would you do?

Ken Ruggiero 18:39
Yeah, that’s, that’s, I mean, you pick law. That’s, that’s, uh, I will, I will choose my words carefully. Because there’s, there’s a lot there. I just think there’s a lot wrong with law schools in this country today. And if you look at the price of a law school, and then you look at the way that lawyers are educated, and then you look at the skills that they have when they get into the market. It’s, it’s one of the greater it’s one of the graders like mismatches of value to knowledge to skill applicability. So, I mean, I’ve seen articles that suggest that law school can be done in three years. And I mean, two years, and I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers who are in violent agreement that you can get your law degree in two years, not three years and not really miss anything. On the employer side, I’ve talked to employers and law firms and said, hey, when a lawyer graduates, like, you know, are they ready for work be thrown into the mix, and they’re like, now we got to train them to actually, you know, do the practice of law in, you know, in a corporate legal setting, because they didn’t pick up those skills in law school after three years and $80,000 a year so, and you’ll read lots of articles on how the law schools are trying to To like, lower their price, and get graduate students with less debt, but you’ll also see articles that say they’re not trying to change the curriculum. They’re not trying to change the bar requirements. They’re not trying to they’re okay. When a law school graduating class, only 50% of the lawyers pass the bar exam. Like, what did you do in law school when you’re producing students and only 50% has the only exam they have to pass in order to become a registered, licensed lawyer, like shame on Shame on those schools for either letting the students in because they were unqualified to handle the curriculum or not, and not kicking them out. Once they got in and realized it and saddled them with debt, or graduating them and go and good luck getting a job, you’ve got, you know, hundreds of 1000s of dollars of debt, and you can’t pass the bar exam, and now you feel horrible. So, see a lot law schools do not have a shiny spot in my world. So my advice to your your daughter, if she’s still listening, my advice to your daughter, and my advice to you is is go back to the earlier thing I said, what is the outcome she’s seeking to achieve? There’s a lot of social justice majors who say, hey, I want to, I want to go defend people who can’t defend themselves. So my advice to the daughters out there and the moms and dads is, you really need to figure out what you want to do with that law degree. Because if you say, you know, my goal was to get to be a white shoes law firm on Wall Street, and I want to go into a top 10 bulge bracket firm. And, and that will like, I think I can make it and I think that will be a great job for me and I and I’m comfortable working 80 hours a week for that money. That’s my passion, then I would say you do you. And what that means is, you’ve got to go to a top 20 If not top 10 Law School. And if you don’t get into one of those, if you look at who those firms hire, they only hire lawyers, they hire the top lawyers from the top 20 law firms. And every once in a while, you know, law firm ranked 21 Oh, sneak in there. But mostly, they just they just use the you know, the sorting hat and go Well, it’s easy to go fishing for the best lawyers, the best law schools sort through though the academic quality, right, they just let the law schools sort, and then they just sort by school rank once they’re in there. So now you’ve sorted the you know, the best the cream of the crop, the labor market, by the way, those law schools are super competitive to get into super competitive once you’re sitting next to somebody wants the same job you do, right. And this is kind of like saying I want to be in the NFL, because my kids are really good travel ballplayer, right. Like, you might not get a scholarship on baseball, softball, volleyball, football, whatever. And if you do, that doesn’t mean you’re going pro. So, so let’s not plan our life on you know, like getting a scholarship and going pro. So I’d say the same thing to to her. That doesn’t mean you don’t like if you’ve got the skills and the will, and you got the time and you’re okay with the debt, then like I would say, go for it. But make sure you’re scoring on the LSAT at like the 90th percentile, because those are the people you’re going to be competing again. So but if she says, Hey, or he says, Hey, or they say, Hey, I want to be a social justice, you know, I want to go into public defender I want to go in to, you know, to a law field that doesn’t pay very well. I think starting starting salary for a public defender is $60,000. You cannot pay $80,000 a year for law school and come out and afford those debts on $60,000. I mean, it’s math, and I don’t think I need to explain that math. So. So in that situation, I think you’re, you know, kind of the way your daughter found her way to a bachelor’s degree, you have to find that that type of school and that type of cost into a law program. And, and even with that, it’s still not cheap. And, and I mean, instead of 80,000, you can maybe get it down to 40 or 50,000. And, and that math is really hard to make work. But But what happens very often is those public defender jobs for $60,000 people, they do burn out in those roles. And then they do go into the private sector and they they turn out just fine. They go work for private law firms, and they do other types, whether it’s environmental work or other types of public defense work. So so that side, I wish I had the magic bullet for that one. But I don’t I’m sorry.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:25
No, no, that that’s really helpful. And that’s on one end. So it’s graduate school. It’s not as Kansas dependent syllabi as as if my kids were freshmen or sophomores in in high school or actually, if you could talk to a parent when they conceive, and they know they’re going to be parents. What would you coach them on as they’re starting a family and then fast forward? What would you coach them on as they have like ninth or 10th graders and are trying to figure out, trying to push back maybe a little against, okay, my kid has to do four years of high School and AP classes and then go immediately straight to college. How would you help this parents get started? And then how would you talk to them in high school?

Ken Ruggiero 25:09
Yeah. I could talk for about an hour on that one. I think the first, I think the first thing I would say being a parent is hard period. But anyone who’s had children, and you know, whether you’re married or divorced, or been both, it’s just hard. And, and so when things get hard, people try to simplify their lives. And parenting doesn’t work that way. So right, so I learned because I have two sons, my wife and I have two sons, I’m like, we’re both fine. And we’re both CPAs. And MBAs like we like I’m like, Oh, this should scale, right? The economies of scale, I got to figure out for one, it’s like, it doesn’t work that way, a parenting doesn’t really scale with what you’ve learned. And so the first thing is, you are not, you’re the first thing I tell every parent is like, you are not your children, right, like, and so stop trying to map some of the way you think they should be, because it’s the way you are onto them, because you’re going to be very frustrated. The second thing I would say is all children are going to be different no matter what you want them to be. And, and that’s a really critical thing. Because I’ve seen parents go, Oh, I’ve got one, you know, on, I’ll use myself as an example I had my older child, my older son was was very, very strong academic. And my younger son, we found out, you know, through testing that he was dyslexic, and we were like, wow, we’re not getting enough help for either one in the public school system. So we were fortunate enough to save money, and the easy thing to do would be to send them both to the same private school. Right? That’s the easy thing to do. That would have been the worst thing to do for one of them. Right? So we did send them to two different schools, one school that had all APs and one school that literally had no APs. Right? And, and people look at that they’re like, so wait, you were driving like that you’re driving south and north every day that why would you do that be like, well, because parenting and go into, like, it’s not about what’s easy. Sometimes you try and do what’s easy as a parent, because you got to live your life. And I’ve seen parents not make that same decision, right? Like, oh, it’s easy, just down the street to the high school, well, you got one who’s got no problem, when he’s got a problem, they’ll they’ll figure it out school ticket, now the school is not going to take care of them. So as a parent, I would say, like, you’ve really got to customize the learning to the learning style of your child. And it’s not always going to be the same if you’ve got multiple children in your family. The third thing I would tell them, the school they choose to apply to, if they choose to apply, and the school is that they get into does not define you as a successful parent. And that is a that is a really big problem with college choice. And and I see this happen. We we were talking internally yesterday about how do people make a bad choice for college. And and one of the most popular reasons as to why does a student not finish at the school, they started as they started at the school that their parents wanted them to go to, or that their best friend went to. Right. So these these are not logical choices all the time. And sometimes they’re selfish choices, right? Because the parents ego is getting in front of it. And so you start looking at that dynamic, you’re like, Well, how does that relationship evolve over time, I’m pretty sure that relationship is going to get stressed. Because if anything bad happens, you’ve got two people who are going to blame each other for the decision and the outcome. So you’ve got two issues there. And then the fourth thing, sorry, I’ll give you a fourth thing. And this is something a therapist said to a roomful of junior and high school parents, and I was part of that room full of junior high school parents said, what what is the definition of success for your high school child? And this is this, I said it was his private school. So it was a bunch of parents paying a bunch of money. And I bet you 80% of that room said success for my child is getting into a really good college. Right? And so he pauses for a fact because he’s done this question and answered before and he goes, what you should be focused on as a parent as success for your child is a happy well adjusted community serving income earning 28 year old because as a happy well adjusted 28 year old means that that you’ve done something right. And, and I’m like,

Ken Ruggiero 29:37
okay, so this is still a long game, right? You’re here you had a conversation with me about your 25 year old daughter and you’re helping her through some decisions right now. That might make her a happy 28 year old or maybe an angry 28 year old, a trusting, loving community serving family member or you know, someone who might be you know, a little frustrated and a strange so that’s probably the most powerful One thing I can tell people because you can get so caught up in I call it the country club talk, right? Like, we’re the travel ball talk, you’re sitting there with a bunch of time to kill, and you start the start here in the, oh, your son’s going to community college. Like that’s, that’s not like, that’s not a good way to phrase a question, right, but you hear it and the parent goes, well, you know, we’re trying to save money, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and seemed like a good fit. And now you’ve got a defensive parent who feels bad about themselves. And I’m like, That’s horrible. Like, that’s a brilliant idea. If you’re not sure what you want to do, and you can’t afford to go, quote, find yourself over four years journey and $80,000. Like, like, that’s the really smart thing to do. And now you feel bad about doing it, because there’s a social stigma with just going to community college and getting some credits while you’re sorting it out. And then you’re going to have enough money to maybe buy a bachelor’s degree and a bat and a master’s degree, like, and you’re going to be happy because you know what you do so, so I would say, it’s not about you. And once you put your child first, and you listen to them, then usually the right things happen.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 31:07
I still agree, includes my students, immediately, which to me is a wonderful option. And it was great for both of my daughters, because the local big universities have grad students teaching classes of 100, because the professors are publishing, you know, they’re doing research or they’re writing, you know, they’re not in the classroom. And at the community college, my girls were in smaller classes, the teachers knew them, they were just there to teach. And it really helped my girls define what they wanted and what they didn’t want. And then one chose a certificate path. And the other one’s like, Okay, now I’m ready to finish the four year college and I want interdisciplinary, I want to go this, this this, I found some passions I never had been exposed to in high school. So I think you’re right, it’s college is not about the parent, and we have to take our egos out, what makes me look good, what’s gonna make me look good, when my kid is 19 or 20, that they were in a four year college for a semester and flunked out. And now we’re kind of lost and living in my basement, or that they have an A and grow certificate, and are now on a specific path. So I see that so often, just what you say, the parents, and egos and this is what’s going to be best for my kid. And I think parents really mean that they want what’s best, but they’re, they’re implanting their values, their ideas. And so what you’re saying I just want to emphasize parents parents, wait a minute. That’s super important. Ah, so you’re talking about not buying into the stigma High School to four year college, that anything less than that is a stigma. I know. You’ve also talked about dual enrollment, and I think it’s common for some parents, but others have never heard of it. Can you talk about what dual enrollment is? And how that can change your financial trajectory?

Ken Ruggiero 33:00
Yeah, that’s, I’ve been I’ve been doing a lot of research in that area, because there’s only so many ways you can fight the college costs and enrollment. And I think you had mentioned your your daughter’s had done dual enrollment. And it’s just if you’re in school community that embraces it, not all school communities embrace for some logistical or political or, or funding reasons, but it allows a mature junior or senior in high school to really go start to test what it’s like to walk onto a college campus, because there’s some there’s some community college campuses that are very nice. And, and are building out new classrooms and facilities. So So dual enrollment allows you to get credit for your high school courses and get college credit at the same time. And it also allows you to sample as kind of as many classes as you want quite often sample one or two classes a semester and get the get your calculus credit, get your Spanish language credit. And you can knock out your cores very easily and very quickly. And you don’t have to go through the the anxiety of taking an AP class and then the anxiety of sitting for an AP test, you just kind of take your final exam and calc A B and you’re you’re done with your core requirements for calculus, and you can get your three credit and kind of move on to the college curriculum that you actually want to pursue. So it doesn’t cost and I call it like a win win win win because it’s a win for the student. Right there experientially and academically. It’s a win for the parent because you’re literally paying for you’re not paying for college credits. Because you know, in the public system at that stage, it’s it doesn’t cost the families anything. It’s a win for the high school because they’re they want their students to go to college. They want to be an important part of a thriving community and economy. And then it’s a win for the community college in California. There’s a lot of money that the state government’s putting into the community college and the high school says system to get matriculation working. So, so there’s money at high schools and our community colleges for filling out the FAFSA, for dual enrollment programs for transfer students in the four years. So if you talk about like, Hey, where’s Where’s some of the free money at? Well, some of the free money is going into the schools to enable these types of programs to promote access to higher education, and to promote the lower cost access to higher education.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 35:26
Absolutely. So pulling together all of these important pieces to looking at what post secondary options and funding them might be. In terms of financial literacy in this big picture, what would you say are three steps that parents can take now to be more financially savvy about funding, higher education?

Ken Ruggiero 35:50
I think you know, another more parent recommendation. So love them or hate the messenger, I guess. But the thing you really need to do is be honest with yourself and your child or young adult about how much money you have to pay for college and how comfortable you are with taking on debt. And those are very adult conversations. But those those should be happening while you’re sorting out what schools to apply to. And And again, if you want to strain the relationship with your child, screw this one up, right? I’ve seen families go apply to any school you want. And we’ll figure it out. Right? Like it. I mean, I mean, it’s kind of the lazy, I would call that, you know, Oh, I love my child, if they get it. I’m like, no, no, like, that’s you’re abdicating your responsibility as the financial guardian of your child. Because or, or you are putting at risk, you’re leading to the to the world of risk. What if they get into that liberal arts college in the ideal, like Pennsylvania, whatever. And they really want to travel across the country to go to the school, they would die if they don’t attend. That’s on you. So what I recommend is, Hey, before they apply, set some guidelines. And not that what I did was right, but it seemed to work out it was I sat down with my sons, and I’m like, Hey, we’re going to agree on what schools you apply to. And if we agree on what schools you apply to, then you get to choose what school you go to. And, and so, so that’s kind of like you go to the shopping market with your kid and like, you go, you go go to the junk food aisle, and you go pick out anything you want, right, and they run down and they’re like, their arms are full, you’re like, one, you can’t have all that. And two, you definitely can’t have the pork rinds, right. And they’re like, you didn’t say I couldn’t have the pork rinds. I’m like, well, they’re gonna kill you. You can’t eat pork rind you’ve never had so sorry. So like, this is a bad idea you wouldn’t do with it. If it was food, right? You grab the grab caviar, you’re like, you don’t even know what caviar tastes like. You’re like, we’re not buying $150.02 ounce bottle of caviar. And so, so parents do this, like you would never do it with food. They do it with education. Right? So the student brings back like, Hey, I didn’t apply to any of my state schools. Why? Well, because me and my best friend decided that we didn’t want to stay in the state we live in.

Ken Ruggiero 38:20
Will pinion up still. Like you only applied to out of state liberal arts colleges, or like a big state school in Michigan like that? That was it? And so like, you’re like, oh, no, that wouldn’t happen. You know, that really happens. Right? So set up the boundaries before. So how do you set up the boundaries? Well, you look at a few things. What do you want to do? And how much money do we have? And you have a very, very adult conversation with a 17 year old. And some people shy away from very adult conversations with their children. For two reasons. I can get to three, probably one, they’re uncomfortable talking about money and lack of money because they feel bad. And that that’s like, they didn’t say they lost their job. You know, they things haven’t gone as well, the medical bill or so they feel bad. So they’re like, well, since I feel bad, I won’t tell my child that I can’t help them. Right. So that’s, that’s ego. That’s bad. So that’s one reason, by the way, I’m not talking about the majority reason, right? I’m talking about a majority reason. So the second is, they have the money but they don’t want to quash the dreams, right? And they don’t want to say to their are very artistic child, they don’t want to say hey, go into RISD, the best artist in Rhode Island School of Design that the best you know, the one of the best ones in the country, that you want to be an art teacher. We can’t afford, you know, $70,000 a year and then you have to go get a masters like this isn’t a good decision being an art teacher. That’s God’s work, right? That’s, that’s amazing. You should pursue your art history. You should do that as a side hustle. You should get your math teachers and teaching. That’s awesome. But we can’t afford your master’s in teaching, if that’s what you want to do, if you if you do it in this manner, right? And so that’s an adult conversation about what do you want to be when you grow up? Right? And, and again, it comes back to money and time and unknowns. So maybe they don’t want to be an art teacher, maybe they want to be, you know, maybe they want to, I don’t know, maybe they want to get a graduate degree and teach computer science or something. And that’ll be a pivot they do later in life. So I think those are those are the bad decisions that that only become stressful experiences, if you don’t plan correctly. And it’s not that hard to do what I said, and it’s not that hard to set a guideline that says, if I’m okay with the school you apply to, then you get to choose. So now you’ve you’ve given that teenager, actual control of a very complicated thing, but you’ve put guardrails around, and you’re starting to teach them about money. And you started to be very honest with him about the financial situation of the family. And if there’s multiple children in the family, you’ve started to say, hey, it’s not all about you, because it’s never been all about you. You got brothers and sisters. Right.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 41:10
Super good advice and tough. Not easy stuff to be doing, like you said, adult conversation with a 17 year old who is dramatically influenced by peers.

Ken Ruggiero 41:21
Yeah, yeah. But but you know, you know what happens when you have that conversation with that 17 year old, they go to school, and they they might be frustrated, but but when other 17 year olds hear that the parents treated them like an adult, they sat down and showed them some information and shared and made them part of the information flow and the problem to solve the other 17 year olds ago, oh, my parents didn’t do any of that, like I like, and then that starts an interesting conversation, really so. So you can choose any school no matter how much it costs, even though you don’t know what you want to do, and they’re going to pay for it. And people in the top 3% of earnings in America will say yes, the other 97% is going to say, Well, I just I guess they have the money. Maybe I should ask them so. So you can like doing one good thing with your child can actually like a really positive match. little spark that goes through the little network and gets maybe that mature 17 year old going home and use the word confronting but having a conversation with their parents like, hey, we can afford, you know, we can afford a small private liberal arts school in New York State, right? The like, or the really thrifty one like, hey, the school I applied to cost $65,000 A year and I’m not sure if this thing called a fast is going to give us money or not. Because it’s hard. Like we can afford it if I don’t get any, like scholarships right now. Now, if that’s you now, if you’re the parent in that situation, if you answer really quickly, it’s the wrong answer. Whatever the answer is, if the answer is yes, it’s the wrong answer. If the answer is no, it’s the wrong answer. Right? Because you’ve got a teaching moment now. And you’re going to miss an opportunity to teach your child something really important. And it’s because they brought you an adult problem. Right? So so do your homework, be prepared? It’s okay to say, can I get back to you? Right? Every parent likes to have an answer. When you’re talking about higher ed, you kind of get one shot at this. Oh, I messed up that conversation. I’ll fix it. Yeah, that’s a bad match. You just lit right. But you got them spinning out of control. You just said now there’s no way if you get into that school, you can pick we can pay for it. Whoa, whoa, whoa, you don’t know if you get a you don’t know, if you get a scholarship, there’s a lot of money like, like, don’t like Go do your work, right? Don’t be lazy, do your work, do the research, all of the informations out there, you got to work at it. But all the informations out there. And we try just to bring it back to us when we try and simplify some of those items, you know, through some of the tools that we provide. So we provide financial literacy, financial wellness and financial tools, whether or not you take a loan from us, we have on our website, we have something called the Bright Futures engine. Georgetown has done some really good work on calculating the return on investment, the ROI on an education at like almost any school you could go to in the country. super complicated, right? And it has to be, how long did you go? Did you take debt? What job did you get? How long? How much money did you earn over the next 10 years that your loan was outstanding? Like they do all of that math? It’s really good math. You explain that to a 17 year old? They’re like, Well, wait, I’m only going to get a job for $32,000 as as a first grade teacher in this state. You’re like, yeah, yeah, that’s that’s what it says like, Oh, that is that a lot of money? And they would be like, No, the 70 year old wouldn’t ask if 32,000 that? Yes, they would. They don’t. They generally don’t have a frame of reference for income. Right? Maybe they have a $12 an hour job. So you know, 32,000 sounds like a big number. So. So what we do at Bright Futures engineers were like, Hey, we’re just going to give you a signal an easy, easy signal to understand the complexity of the decision and a very simple math problem. So, so we asked you to go to the website, put your put the school you’re looking at and put the major you’re interested in, and then we do all the work. We’ve mapped all the starting salaries for every school in the country and every major at every school. And we just show you that answer. Right? So I’ll pick I know biology, the average starting salary for most biology majors is $32,000. Like without going on for any kind of graduate school biology majors tend to go into, you know, they do some testing in a lab, they go as a medical technician, they there’s not there’s not great demand for like, go on LinkedIn and say, I would like to be a biologist. There’s not a lot of jobs for biologists, right? You’d be a teacher or a technician. So if you’re going to and put the school and we just say, hey, here’s a guideline, if the starting salary is less than the tuition, you should question, is this a good return on my time and money? And we don’t want to get complicated with the NPV of and 10 years this and the growth rate of your income after grad like we could do that Georgetown’s done it? Well, we just saying, hey, there’s a real easy signal here. And now you can have a real simple conversation with your 17 year old like, hey, this website says what you think you want to do at this school yields of a salary of this. And that’s the tuition is 2x that number, right? I don’t know how you can afford to pay 2x tuition with half kind of 1x the salary and and so now you’re having again, it’s not we’re not overcomplicating the conversation, we’re just saying, Hey, these are easy things that you can get access to, that allow you to start to easily quantify a super complex decade long decision.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 46:41
Love this. And we will definitely have your website in our show notes. I think we all like knowing our parameters. We may not like what the parameters are. I don’t always like what the speed limit is. But I like knowing so that I have choices to make if I choose to go over it, I’m taking my chances. But I like knowing and our kids really like knowing even though they want, they think they want everything. So you’re giving them so much information to make choices and to understand the consequences of the choices. Super powerful work that you’re doing, Ken,

Ken Ruggiero 47:16
thank you. Yeah, and and we’re doing we’re doing a lot more. We recently launched a success platform that’s digital and humans. So on the digital side, every student that that takes a loan and will have a student credit card in the market in July or credit card gets assigned a success coach and exclusive access to our success platform. So we’ve looked at you know, I mentioned our mission statement about like revolutionising the way students plan, pay and succeed. We’ve looked at the planning side, see the bright futures engine and some of our new tech. And then we looked at the succeeding side, and we’re like, well, 60% of the reason that students drop out of school is money related. So we’ve done the best we can with with the money side, and we’re very proud of it. But now we’re like, well, we got to work on the other 40%. Right. So sometimes you start with a good plan, and it changes sometimes you start with a bad plan. So let’s help them better on the planning. And do I have enough money to get through? Am I picking the right major? Do I have enough credits helped them on the planning side. On the succeeding side, there’s a lot that goes on from junior freshman and sophomore, sophomore, to junior junior to senior it’s like a whole nother life and a whole nother life experience in a very compressed period of time. So we’re like, Well, why don’t we give them tools digitally that say, Hey, do you need help with time management? Do you need help with studying academic Do you need help with career readiness, right? So digitally, we’ve got assessments and tools that they can go online or on our app and just like take an assessment and then start to get some treatments. And if they’re struggling, whether it’s an email or a chat or an im, or they can schedule through our website or through the app, a 20 minute sessions with a career coach, it’s all free. We’ve said you know what, we’re making an investment for a decade and the student and the student has no education and no job, and often no credit score. So So if we look at it like an investment, what would you do with an investment? Well, you take care of it, right? And so how can we do that at scale? Well lead digital, but sometimes, like we have people, we have coaches on staff that tell these amazing student stories, like I can’t believe a lender is interested in me graduating school, we’re like, we are right. And these are very often people who’ve been told no, by some of the lenders I mentioned earlier on in this conversation, and they get to us and they hear yes. They’re like, wow, you’re gonna give me money when everyone else told me no, we’re like, Yeah, we’re gonna give you money, and we’re going to give you help. So that’s what we’re working on. And we think when you combine capital and learning and support to someone who needs capital and learning and support for four to six years or four to six months, we think the people on our Senate platform are going to graduate faster, they’re going to get jobs faster. They’re going to Be happy 28 year olds, and they’re going to pay back our debt and everybody else’s. And they’re going to get better access to credit at lower rates, because we’re helping them grow their credit score while they’re in school.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 50:11
Love it capital learning and support and things do change. Now, I’ve been in college two years, and I really thought I wanted this direction. But I didn’t know about that direction, or, Oh, I tanked in this class that I need. I don’t want to be an architect, I want to shift. So to have somebody coaching you, that is invested in you, versus maybe that college advisor who has 2000 kids, and we’ll see you once in a lifetime. It just sounds like a safety net, for our youth and an educated safety net, and an impartial safety net, not one that is like Oh, but like it has to graduate from this college, you don’t have those ties in it. Love what you’re doing. And I, as a mom want to be looking into this to my closing question is always a magic wand moment. And so stepping back in kind of a bigger sense. And if you had a magic wand, how would you recreate our higher ed, funding landscape in the US? That’s that’s a big question.

Ken Ruggiero 51:16
Yeah, that’s a great one. Well, I’ll give you I’ll give you a data that’s, you know, informs my magic wand. So right now, and for the foreseeable future, all of the students entering a higher education experience. 40% of them are first time learners. And and that’s a huge number we think about like, oh, you know, we look at our high schools and see, like, Wow, 40% are first time learners, people whose parents had no experience in higher ed, and they’re seeing these headlines about debt. Right. You made a comment earlier in our conversation like saddling students with debt I’ve seen, I’ve seen the research, you know, people aren’t having babies, they’re not buying houses, they can’t afford cars. And some of its very real. And some of it is, you know, I think, you know, clickbait or edge cases of someone who shouldn’t have gone to a $200,000, master’s in social wellness and get a $30,000 a year job like, like, they just made a bad decision. And now they’re saying, Hey, I have a lot of debt. So I feel bad for those people to be clear, but, but those are what I call edge cases. So, so So I’m focused on, you know, the 40% of the first time learners, if I had a magic wand, I’d like to tell everybody that, that that that access to higher ed should be free if you can afford it. And the only time you’re going to borrow money is when you can afford to pay it back. And if you can’t afford to pay it back, that’s okay. And I would like everybody at that point, to behave like good people, right, so. So I’d like the governments and schools to like really allocate free money to people who need and can’t afford and shouldn’t take on debts, because that’s easy. And if you look at the debts that don’t get paid back by people, the federal government knew could never pay back the loans, then they wouldn’t be burdened with the debt because they never would have started with it. Right. And so you shouldn’t be doing more effective grant programs that don’t cover half the cost of school, right? It’s great, they keep increasing the Pell Grant by 3000. Or, by $300, at a clip, while schools increasing at $3,000. So I’d like people who don’t have means means defined as money and support to have free access to higher education. And we’ve heard about free community college and most of community colleges free already across the country for those 40%. And people just don’t know it because of those headlines. The next is I would like safety nets on the back end. So taking debt, on having a bad experience or changing your mind those things happen. And if the government knows that you’re never going to pay back that debt, there should be safe and effective ways to have that debt relieved. After the student has made an attempt to pay it back. There are some people who aren’t going to pay back their student loans because of things that happened to them or didn’t happen to them. And they’ve been saddled with this debt for 20 plus years. They’re just not going to pay it back. They can’t pay it back right now. Now the person who has been saddled with debt for 20 days because they have they graduate and they haven’t gotten a job yet. I got less sympathy for them. Right? The way this system works, is people who have success paid back into it. That’s the way it works. And if we stop having people pay back into it, as long as we can’t control college costs, which we clearly can’t, if you don’t do that, then it just falls on the taxpayers and not 100% of the people go to college so you’re gonna have you know, half the population not thinking that everybody should get a free ride to all of college and colleges tuition, room and board. So a lot of people don’t think you should be paying for maybe you should pay for tuition, but you shouldn’t pay for food shelter, we can have a whole nother pod cast on that conversation, because that’s another complex topic. But that’s my magic wand, like, like, let’s simplify a complex system, let’s give money to people who need it. And people have means should pay a fair amount of money and and the tax system needs people to pay back into it. That’s the way this works. And successful people who took loans should pay back those loans. So the next generation of students can afford to go to school.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 55:25
These magic wand suggestions are so powerful, super revolutionary, and also take many different components, focusing on what’s good for humankind, and not necessarily what’s good for their individual pocketbooks. So I love that you are pushing the envelope that way to that accountability, that responsibility, that use of information to determine who should have a safety net, and who should be, you know, making sure they’re paying it back. And I love that you have ways with a cent to help a family. At any point, in the college planning college funding conversation, you know where they are that you can take that maybe it’s not a 529 when the baby’s just, you know, three months old, maybe it is, hey, we’re a year into college, and it’s not working, how it’s just nice to know that there’s somebody out there that can help with loaning money, but it’s going to be smart, it’s gonna be informed, you know, just that there’s all the literacy that goes with it, and not just, Hey, we’ve got loans for you. And boy, we’re gonna love getting paid back for the next 30 years at this high interest rate. So Ken, thank you for taking something that’s a big need, and providing a service and continuing to stretch what you provide and gather more information. And I want to have you back on because I know you’re heading in directions that our country needs and I want to be able to just spotlight all that you’re doing and all that you will be doing. Thank you so much for being our guest today.

Ken Ruggiero 57:06
Oh, thank you for giving me in give me access to your listeners. I hope I was helpful. If you you can drop in the Ascent information into your your podcasts I if people want to shoot me emails or have questions, if you’re if you’re struggling with finance, like I mean, I answer lots of emails from parents who are struggling and lots of students are struggling with their parents. So as to the folks that have sent we’ve we’ve got we’ve got over 100 100 employees now we’re just celebrating yesterday at one of our first get togethers and while and and we all want to help the students and we talk to them all the time.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 57:43
You are growing in your ability to serve I love it. And I anticipate my daughter will be reaching out to you too

Ken Ruggiero 57:51

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 57:52
Thank you so much for being our guest. This was such an important conversation that I let the podcast run longer than normal. My daughter’s generation is truly worried about financial solvency. They see the quality of life that my generation has. And they wonder, as Ken suggested, if they will be able to have the car the house, the future similar to what they grew up with. When I heard about ascent, it became obvious why they are award winning and five star rated. A sense focus on financial literacy and ongoing coaching give students and families information to make educated and personalized finance decisions. They offer college loans and boot camp loans. And those bootcamp loans are for those that are seeking to transform a career or maybe an accelerated learning program. Family should always have transparent information. When they’re making big decisions about their finances. They can use this information to push back against, as Ken says, this system that’s designed to get us into debt as they get our youth into school. Kids four reminders are worth repeating. One, you are not your child. So your child’s school choices should not be based on what worked for you or what you think is the best school to all children are going to be different and we need to customize their learning to make sure that aligns with the learning style of each child. Three parents please please please let this one soak in. A student’s college choice does not define the parent. This isn’t about how good of a parent you are. This isn’t a about what your neighbors think about the college your child is going to or their post secondary plans. This is not about you, this is about the right fit for your child to have the right support to align with a career and a future that is amazing. And for we need to get real about our definition of success for our high school child. Back in episode 39, I interviewed edge comm counties principals, this is in North Carolina. They also share this belief that we need to look at the long term vision of success for our youth. Ken said getting into a really good college is not enough. He suggests that we should want our 28 year old to be happy, well adjusted community serving and income earning Edgecombe County Public Schools mirror this long term belief their graduate aims are that by the time our graduates are 25, they will say one I know my purpose and what I’m passionate about. And I’m living this out, too. I possess global awareness and agency. Three, I engage productively in my community for I can return to or stay in Edgecombe County. This is a rural county in North Carolina, and five, I am resilient in the face of new challenges. See the difference in definitions of success. We want well rounded, wonderfully alive and contributing happy adults, and the name of the college they went to when they were 18 really isn’t a big factor in this. Please take your time and get educated on learning options beyond high school and the financial obligations of each. Let’s be realistic about our kids, our finances, and our definitions of long term success. Ascent funding and Ken’s success coaches can help you in this process. Thank you for being a part of the education, evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:02:23
If you are finding yourself thinking, I need to do this in my school. Let’s talk about it. I consult and also have a book TEDx talk an online course to support starting learner driven schools and programs. My goal is to help schools and individuals find new innovative solutions to reaching every student. Let’s create an action plan together. Visit to book a call and let’s get started. Education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen heard, valued and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now before you forget. I really appreciate it. Thank you listeners signing off. This is Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education

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