Artisanal Cheese vs. Diversity: If You Can Save For College, DO IT

Ever since becoming a podcaster, I have listened to -- and thought a lot about -- many other podcasts. And ever since I started working with Fidelity/MEFA a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking -- and talking a lot with Laurel -- about college savings.

These two things recently intersected as I listened to a fascinating episode (#5 - Food Fight) on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. The episode is the second in a three-part series on opening up college to poor kids -- a topic that touches a nerve since I was a poor kid (though a major difference was that my parents wanted me to go to college). This episode compares two colleges (Bowdoin and Vassar) that prioritize spending quite differently to dramatic effect, showing how the quality of the food served (and expense thereof) can improve or distort the educational system considerably.

I was pretty fired up after I listened to this podcast. I immediately thought back to my days of grumbling over college meal offerings -- thinking that at some level, my feelings of not wanting to eat bagels at every meal were valid, and also feeling like, hey, if not offering artisanal cheese and waffles imprinted with the college seal means providing more talented, low-income students financial aid, then of course, do the latter! This led to Laurel and I having a conversation about the cost of college and how one chooses a college. We talked about how there are basics to consider (e.g., size, location), and we also talked about the potential fancy food/diversity trade off. It was fascinating. And also maybe a little uncomfortable.

And here’s another thing that may be uncomfortable to hear but is important to consider. The reality is, the ability to save for college is a privilege, and it’s one that I believe should be exercised if you have the means, especially if it means that your child can ultimately go to a school that prioritizes financial aid for the kids who truly need it most and subsequently includes a more diverse population. I bring this up not only because I’ve been thinking a lot about talking to kids about diversity and privilege in the context of the current election but also because I have heard a number of friends talk recently about not saving for college because it means their kids will get less financial aid. This is one of the biggest myths about saving for college and if you have been thinking on this course, I hope you will reconsider it.

Bottom line: though of course financial and mathematical realities indicate that saving earlier is better, I’m a firm believer that starting any time is better than not starting at all. If you have the ability to save a bit each month for college, DO IT. To learn more about the 529, hop over to the Fidelity/MEFA website.