The Wiser Financial Advisor Podcast

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Setting College Students Up for Success with Guest Kelly MacLean

Deciding on college is about so much more than just picking a school to attend.  Problem is, in many cases, neither the student nor the parents are given the knowledge to make sure all bases are covered and the process is done right. In this episode, host Josh Nelson speaks with Kelly MacLean who has years of experience in guiding families through the process so that your student doesn’t just graduate college, but is academically and financially prepared to hit the ground running when starting college and once they have graduated. 


Wiser Financial Advisor – Setting College Students Up for Success with Guest Kelly MacLean

Hi, Everyone. Welcome to the Wiser Financial Advisor with Josh Nelson, where we get real, we get honest, and we get clear about the financial world and your money.        


This is Josh Nelson, Certified Financial Planner and founder and CEO of Keystone Financial Services. Let the financial fun begin!

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Kelly MacLean, the president and founder of Kelly MacLean Achievement Center. Her background as a college admissions representative and high school varsity coach provided the basis for her company. She got frustrated because in her experience working with students, she figured out they were missing scholarship opportunities. They were not getting accepted into the schools that they wanted and ultimately they ended up switching majors because they took the wrong path at first. We have a great discussion about helping high school students and college students set themselves up for success when it comes to planning for their future, not only in paying for college but also in college selection. We talked about when somebody has already gotten started and wants to make a course correction. These things are so relevant today. There are many opportunities to get college paid for or get college at a reduced expense. We talked about the planning process with regard to getting ready for college, getting accepted, and being successful once in college. I hope you’re going to enjoy the conversation. Have a great week and God bless.

Josh: Kelly MacLean welcome to the Wiser Financial Advisor. How are you doing today?

Kelly: I’m well and thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on the podcast.

Josh: This is the time of year when the topic of college is very relevant to what people are going through. We’ve got lots of people going to graduation ceremonies and receptions, or kids that are going into their senior year and thinking about college. It’s a great topic for us to be visiting about today. So, you’ve got an interesting background. Tell us about how you started your company and your journey up until now.

Kelly: I worked in college admissions for nine years. Eight of those nine years I was also coaching girls Varsity high school soccer. So between high school kids coming into the college when I was there or me going into their high schools and working with high school players, I was surrounded by high school kids 24/7. And I saw them making mistakes, not big get-in-trouble mistakes, little mistakes that cost them opportunities—opportunities to get accepted to their dream school, to afford their dream school, or even to make a good decision about what would be their dream school. I thought, gosh, there’s gotta be a better way than sticking 400 kids in an auditorium so they’re all getting the same conversation from their guidance office.

First, I started helping my players. Then their families started referring me to other families. A year later I quit my college admissions job and for the last almost 11 years now, I’ve been helping high school students and their families. We have a whole team that assists in that process.

Josh: That’s fantastic and certainly this is one of those topics that everybody knows is important, but there’s so much information out there that people are drowning in information and aren’t sure what to do with it all. How do you suggest people start?

Kelly: I like to use analogies, so the analogy I use for this is: If you were planning a vacation, typically the first thing you pick is where to go. Is it a beach vacation? Are we skiing? What are we doing? From there you determine, oh, should we fly? Should we drive? What’s the best method to get there?

College is handled completely in reverse. There’s not a lot of emphasis on what are you going to do. But really, college is nothing more than a vehicle to get you to a career destination. I think the career should be more of the focus. Unfortunately, you know over the last 20-30 years, schools have gotten rid of a lot of the additional courses that could have shed light on someone’s interests. Instead it’s all focused on math, English, science and history. What does that tell you that you want to do? Not much. If you’re good in math, people have told you to be an engineer. Well, OK, first of all, it’s a huge, broad field. Kids don’t even know what it encompasses to start making that decision, nor do they know what those people really do during the day. And there are a lot of other fields. Obviously you’re in one of them. If you’re good in math, there are so many things you can do with it. But students aren’t hearing that message.

The place to start is helping your child figure out what actually interests them. You can be good at something and still have zero desire to do it. I had an Irish Catholic grandmother and I can clean like nobody’s business. I have no desire to be on my hands and knees scrubbing. I had to find something that was more interesting to me.

Interest inventories, surveys, things like that are a great jumping off point, but I really think at this point in time when careers are changing exponentially with technology, it’s important to consider that there are new careers born all the time. Kids need to have opportunities to shadow, to see, to talk to professionals, to really understand. From there, which colleges can get you there is a better method, just like vacationing, figuring out how after you know where.

Josh: Right. And these days, there are so many choices out there. What would you say to students that have already started trying to find their way?

Kelly: Well, I think it’s never too late to take a more specialized approach. So an interesting statistic that most people aren’t aware of: Colleges are required to report their graduation rate based on six years. Most parents send their kids off to college assuming four years before your degree. And it’s not. The majority of students aren’t graduating in four years. The number one reason is changing majors, and it’s because they didn’t even know those majors existed. There are some schools that have as many as 600 different majors. Most high school students can’t name 12.

Another statistic: 62% of college kids report depression in college. Well, the last place you want your kid to be depressed is when they are hours away from you and you can’t sit down and talk with them. The number one reason is because they feel the clock is ticking. “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I want to do. I’m supposed to graduate in three years; everybody else knows what they want to do.” Not true, but that’s how they feel. They feel overwhelmed and typically the academic advisors in college are assigned based on your selected major. Well, if you want to change majors, your academic advisor may not know anything about that other major or be able to discuss it with you. I worked with four or five different college students over spring break who are now in their second semester. They were saying, “I don’t want to do this, and I don’t know what to do,” so they came in for some career advising to help them try to figure that out.

Josh: How often do you think in today’s world that it matters what major you had in college versus figuring it out later? How many employers really pay attention to where you went or what your degree was in?

Kelly: I don’t disagree that ultimately you can make something, not having that specific piece of paper.

Does it really have to be in that field you’re entering? A lot of times it doesn’t. The unfortunate thing is, it may take you longer to get into a field that you discover later because you don’t have the network that you went to school with for that major. You aren’t as familiar. There are skills that you still may need to learn, so it might take longer. But ultimately, yeah, there’s a lot of job changing. Nobody sticks with their career now for 40 years, it seems.

Josh: Yeah I would say that’s true. People shift careers. One of our clients was an engineer, had gone to school for engineering and once he got into that career field, he figured out, “This isn’t for me.” It took a lot of courage, but he said, “I want to be a surgeon.” He went back and went to medical school and got all the way through it, then had the rest of his career as a surgeon. A great example of people not getting stuck. As financial advisors, we run across that a lot—where people are just miserable in their careers. They’re miserable with what they’re doing and who they’re working with. And to me that just sounds terrible, right? I mean, I love my job. I love what I do most days, so that t sounds really sad, for people to get stuck and think that there’s no other way.

Kelly: Right, I agree with you. And it’s so much easier to figure it out before you have all the attachments—a family to support, children, a house. The gentleman you just mentioned, it would have been very difficult to leave a decent paying engineering career to go back to school and incur more debt. But if you can figure it out sooner, it just makes your life easier, because at some point I feel like a lot of people just kind of resign themselves to thinking, “This is what I have to do.”

Josh: Right. Sometimes because they feel like they’ve gone too far and it’s too hard to change. But it’s never too late, right? It’s never too late to make a pivot and do something different. You brought up an interesting point that it’s not just about what you’re learning academically, it’s the connection to it. Also, the people you’re meeting that might actually help you in the future.

Kelly: For sure. Establishing that network, knowing upperclassmen who are going to be in the workforce before you graduate so you can reach out for internships, first job opportunities and so forth. I like setting up students for shadowing various careers. We always encourage those students to reach back out after freshman year of college and thank the people who let them shadow. They can say, “I’m so glad I’m on this path thanks to that shadow, and by the way, do you know anyone who’s looking for interns this year?” It’s a way to open that door.

Jsoh: Yeah, and then on the soft side of things, a lot of people form long term friendships and end up meeting their future spouse during their college years, so it is an important decision on where to go.

Kelly: Right, but like you said, it’s never too late. It’s just that it’s great to have some unbiased opinions. When career counselors like myself work with a student, they don’t have an emotional investment such as, “Oh my gosh, for years I thought you’d be a doctor. I really want you to go this route.” They’re more apt to listen to what the student’s concerns are, what their interests are. That’s so important. If you’re interested in something, you’re going to put your all into it. You’re going to become really good at it, because it’s that important to you—versus just following a path because it was easy in high school. That doesn’t always translate well in the work force.

Josh: So when is the right time to start? I’ve actually got a high schooler that’s going into senior year, so he’s going through this whole journey right now, going into a lot of these decision points. When is the right time to start? And where is the starting point; what is square one?

Kelly: I love starting with students as early as sophomore year. There’s so much pressure. They hear: ”You have to take this number of AP classes to get into a “good” school. You have to do this, this and this, and be on this track…” If you find out where the student’s interests lie earlier, and what classes they might want to take, it’s a great opportunity for them to explore outside the box of what everyone else is doing so that they have a better idea. Then that summer between sophomore and junior year, get started on determining their interests. Take a personality test, interest inventory. The summer after junior year is a great time to shadow. That’s when professionals want to see people, not before that. You can go in and ask good questions. We always supply questions, so no one’s like a deer in the headlights. We find that by giving them a few starter questions, it often turns into a conversation. We tell them to ask professionals where they went to college and which classes were most relevant to what they’re actually doing right now. Call for suggestions and get more in-depth information.

Josh: Yeah, we’ve done that on a number of occasions. We’ve had students come in and have those conversations with us. Some of them are shadowing and some just interviewing myself and some of our other team members. We think it’s fun. We’re honored when they do that and I can speak for most business owners and friends that I know of—most people are interested in helping others and open to those conversations. They want to even do more, as far as trying to connect students to other people that could help them along the way. So for anybody who’s listening to this—and we could have an audience of parents and grandparents as well as students—just know that a lot of us do want to help you and see you succeed. Don’t be shy about reaching out.

Let’s talk about expenses, a big topic right now. People end up leaving college with sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. You hear these sad stories, right? People go two or three years at a really expensive private school and then drop out. They’re done and they still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s scary, right? People hear these stories and they’re not quite sure how to plan. What would you say to people that are concerned about that? How would people work to reduce their college expenses?

Kelly: There are a couple ways. I always suggest that when families are thinking about what school to go to and asking their child what school they’d like to attend, there are three ways to picture it-

The first way is academically . It has to be able to provide the major to get you to that career that interests you.
The second way is socially. Your kid has to want to be there and be able to meet people with similar interests, extracurriculars, groups activities, sports if they’re interested in that.
The third way has to be financially.

Early in my business I worked with a family and I knew nothing of their financial resources. They said, “We want our daughter to apply wherever she’d like to apply. We want her to go for it. We want her to have any opportunities she wants. She’s worked so hard through high school.” So she applied to some really selective schools. Selective schools typically do not incentivize good students with scholarship money because everyone there is a good student. She was accepted to a school that was $72,000 a year. The mom called and said, “We got the financial aid award letter. They’re not giving us anything except $5500 in student loans.” And she said, “You need to talk my daughter out of this.” Mom and daughter came in. The daughter’s tears are streaming down her face and there I am explaining to her and mapping out what student loan debt would look like. I said, “You’ll be 24 years old, living back at home, asking permission to have people over. That’s not how you want to live after you’ve been on your own in a dorm or an apartment for four years. You are not going to want to come back to that situation. But you’re not going to be able to afford living on your own with this debt.” We ended up applying for a lot more scholarships. A couple scholarships combined brought it down to almost state prices, so she was able to attend, but it was really touch and go there for a bit with the family. They were battling with each other, and you don’t want a mad teenager the last year they’re home.

Josh: Yeah, especially if she had her heart set on that school.

Kelly: And no parent wants to be the bad guy; that’s why they had me talk to her. And we ended up working it out, but I think you need to be aware of that beforehand. I do not know a single parent that would give their 17 or 18-year-old a $100,000 blank check and say, “Go ahead, go buy a house.” If your child was buying a house, you’d be there. There’d be inspectors. There would be appraisers. You’d be looking at everything right along with them and going back a second time. And yet we let kids make college decisions based on a tour led by a 19-year-old who’s been on campus for a year. Then say, “Oh, you like it, it’s pretty. OK, good.” And it’s at least a $100,000 decision for most families.

The best way financially is to know there are going to be really selective schools that are not generous. There are going to be much less selective schools and if your child got good grades, they’re going to incentivize your child to attend there and bring up their average. Just because they’re not as selective doesn’t mean they don’t have a great program in what your child wants to study. That’s why knowing what they want to study helps you determine what that program looks like at that school. What are their outcomes, What hat type of careers, what employers, what grad schools do their graduates matriculate into? But if you don’t know what they want to do, or they’re unsure, then you don’t know if it’s a good program at this school or not.

Good grades and test scores are still the number one way to get money. College money is so much better than outside scholarships. Because whatever you get that first year, if you maintain a minimum GPA, you get it all four years, so that’s the best money.

Josh: Yeah, absolutely, I want to chime in on that as well. From a financial planning perspective, we encourage people to start having those conversations with their kids as early as possible, so the kid starts to get it in their mind as far as ”Here’s what resources are available to me, so I don’t have this idea of a blank check.” Or, “Maybe my parents won’t do anything.” Oftentimes when we start having those conversations with new clients, they’ve never had those conversations with the kids, and it’s a good way to start talking about different types of schools to bring up what it costs and how much money is put away into 529 plans and so forth, so they get an idea of what to plan for.

New question: Assuming that it’s a good education, maybe at say UCLA versus Harvard, which could be two completely different costs, how often does it matter as far as outcomes with what college people attend?

Kelly: Statistically, it did matter until probably about 20 years ago. They called it the Harvard effect. If you went to an Ivy League school, because of the social capital in the school, the relationships formed would give you a better outcome. That’s no longer a hard and fast rule. In fact, some recent studies have shown that it benefits international students but for white men, there’s no difference between a good state school or an Ivy League school. And for women, the outcome is just increased work hours when they come out of an Ivy League school, not increased pay. So that’s kind of eye-opening.

I’ll share a story. I had a client who wanted to become a veterinarian. Veterinary school is very challenging to get into, some even say more difficult than medical school because there are fewer vet schools. So instead of going to a big name school, we worked the process backwards. What does your dream vet school want to see from you? Well, they want to see X number of shadow hours. They want to see lots of leadership. They want to see the great grades. They don’t want just a good student,

I joked that they wanted you to be able to juggle 7 flaming swords so that they knew you could handle their school. So, the student chose a small division two school where she could continue her sports career, get great grades, be president of Student Activities Committee, dabble in another intermural sport, do a lot of different things and get 500 shadow hours in plus more. Then applied to the Ohio State University College of veterinary medicine. The first day is an interview. The night before was a cocktail party with all the people who would be interviewing the next day, because they wanted to see how the students would react to everyone else.

Well, this student was in a panic and said, “Oh my gosh, there’s a girl here from Cornell. It’s her third time applying. And there’s a girl here from Yale. It’s her second time applying. I’m going to this no-name school and there’s no way I’m getting in.” So I said, “They wouldn’t have invited you just to serve you some hors d’oeuvres the night before. There’s a reason they invited you.” And the student got in. She was one of the first five selected to get in. They told them at the end of the interview day, “Five of you will find out before the holiday.” It was in December. “The rest won’t find out until the end of all eight interview sessions.” This person found out like December 19th and she was shocked. The person from Cornell and the person from Yale were not in that starting class. We don’t know if they got accepted but opted to go somewhere else, or if they once again were not accepted.

So the name on the building is not nearly as important as what you do once you’re inside of it, and if you’re going to be able to excel at a smaller school, you’re going to develop great relationships with the head of the science department, head of the math department. They’re writing recommendations because you babysat their kids. That might be a better opportunity so that you can make sure you have everything in place. So, working backwards when you know what the current field is, will often be really helpful.

Josh: And these days, especially with the low unemployment rate, it doesn’t matter that much. An employer may require you to have a bachelor’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in a certain field, but it may not matter which university you’re at, because they’re so desperate, right? They need people. And if you have a great personality and they can tell you’ve got a great work ethic and you’re creative and so forth, that can matter just as much as having the degree itself.

Kelly: Definitely, they’re looking for initiative, and so showing that you belong to several different clubs and that you’ve done extra gives them the sense that you’ll go the extra step. You’ll do more. Plus it also shows that you’re probably going to have the soft skills to work with customers, coworkers, and so forth. So it’s not just grades. Once you’re in college, it’s really all those extra things.

Josh: Let’s talk about the extra things. It’s a given that you try for as good grades as possible in high school and in college, but what are some of the soft things as far as activities that employers are looking for or graduate schools are looking for, some of those softer things that you might have to be able to show them.

Kelly: They’re looking for writing skills. They’re looking for communication skills, that ability to be personal, but the other thing is the ability to take initiative, not have to be told what to do along the way. They like it when you can identify a problem or see the next step and go ahead and get that done. We’re seeing that more with colleges as well. It’s not enough just to join all of the clubs that are available at school, because that’s easy to do. They’re looking for initiative. That’s what’s making kids stand out. Initiative is where you’re starting something. You’re making something happen. You’re not just following all of the other kids in your high school to a club or activity.

Josh: On the high school level, what are some things that you’ve seen students do or you’d encourage them to do?

Kelly: Oh my gosh, there are so many things students can do. We had a student who created a business out of a little hobby he had and marketed it on Facebook and did really well with it. We had a student do a summer camp for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders all based around science. That student was terrified to actually reach back out to his 4th, 5th and 6th grade teachers and ask them to send out flyers because what if no one comes. He ended up with 14 kids. We’ve seen students take their saxophones and go into a nursing home every Friday and play. And you know people in nursing homes love it. It’s an opportunity to give to somebody else.

Josh: What are some of the more creative things that people have done to stand out when it comes to that actual college application to show the college or an employer in the future that this is somebody we really need to look at?

Kelly: I think it needs to be consistent throughout your application, the person that you are. If suddenly in your junior year, you’re creating a 501C3 charity just for the sake of creating a charity, it isn’t really a good demonstration if there’s no prior volunteer work in your history. But things like finding ways to help others. We had a girl who did a whole backpack campaign. She went to all of the stores in the area and asked for donations and then asked companies for monetary donations to fill these backpacks with school supplies. She gave them to an inner city school where kids were coming in without the necessary things to make learning fun and interesting. We’ve seen students who have really taken initiative with food drives, and while that sounds pretty basic, if you put a different spin on it and you’re not just doing it before holidays, it makes a big difference, especially in today’s climate when there are people really struggling.

Figure out a way that you can help someone else, and then put something in place with your own unique spin. We have a girl who started a book drive where she was collecting books and to date it’s probably close to 6000 books to an inner city. In one of her college applications for an essay where the school asked, “Why us?” she said she checked the statistics and the demographics for the county you’re located in would allow her to continue this book club thing because of the large portion of people living under the poverty level. What college doesn’t want to think you’re going to come and already bring activities and be part of the community?

Josh: You’re a certified trainer through John Maxwell, and you’ve had lots of experience in that area of leadership, so you’re probably teaching a wide variety of people, right? What would you recommend for somebody in high school or even in college that really would like to develop their leadership skills and get something that’s more formal training like John Maxwell?

Kelly: John Maxwell is great. They’ve got a great youth program that I highly recommend for leadership skills, no question. Dale Carnegie is another training program that has a specific youth component to it. Both of those are opportunities for students to better understand what leadership really looks like. It’s not just being named the head of something at school. There’s more to it.

Josh: Yeah, absolutely. And in today’s economy with such a low unemployment rate, there are a lot of opportunities. It’s very different than a few years ago, when the unemployment rate was super high. Back in the financial crisis, we had sky-high unemployment rates and people were leaving college and not finding jobs. Now we see the opposite, where there are a gazillion opportunities which could probably be a bit overwhelming, as far as wondering what to chase. What are some of the career opportunities or up and coming things that people should look at to see if that would be something they’d be interested in and passionate about?

Kelly: There are great things that a lot of students have never even heard of. Orthotics, for instance, becoming an orthotist, which is in the biomedical line, making devices and parts to help people who might have some sort of disability. Healthcare management is another one. Often people say, “I want to help people, but I don’t want to be in the healthcare with blood and all of that.” Well, somebody’s got to manage the facility. Somebody has to manage the doctors and everyone else who’s working there. Healthcare management is a great field most people don’t even think about.

Josh: What would you say to high school parents that are really starting the journey with their students and trying to figure out where to go next about how to hire somebody like you or a company like yours that could help them along the way?

Kelly: The conversations you’re having with your child should be more exploratory than directing. Kids in high school are at that age where they want to start to stretch their independence. When parents say, “You should probably go into this field,” what kids hear them saying is, “You don’t trust me to make a decision about my life. You think I don’t know what I’m doing.” So instead I recommend asking questions like, “Hey, have you ever heard of this? I heard about it today. I didn’t know anything about it.” When a parent shows their own lack of information, a student doesn’t feel defensive about discussing it. So, take more of an inquisitive approach.

If you’re looking to hire someone like me, I highly suggest that you have a meeting with that person with your child. The child is going to work with the counselor, and so you want the child to say, “Oh yeah, I see why we would do this now.” If they don’t, then maybe it’s not the right fit. We always do free consultations and we do want parents and children in on it together because parents and children rarely have the same goals. They’re seeing it from two different sides, and so we want to know where everybody is in the process and what the goals are and expectations and so forth, so that we can form the best strategy individualized to each and every client.

Josh: You’re right, there needs to be buy in, but certainly I would think that having a third party would sometimes help because a third party with experience could help guide them.

Kelly: I know that in a lot of cases, I am not telling the students something they haven’t heard before, but hearing it from someone else, suddenly it becomes true. If you’re going to have a third party involved, one of the greatest gifts they can give your child is confidence in themselves. When parents say “You’re good at this. You could do this,” kids think, “Oh you have to say that; you’re my parent. You don’t know how hard it is.” But when a third party tells your kid, “Hey, you’re really good at this and I know you can do this,” kids tend to believe it. And that’s worth everything.

Josh: Yeah, and on the other end of the spectrum from college students, what about somebody who’s just graduated college recently. It could be a scary time, exciting too, but a little scary. What advice would you give them right now as they’re entering the real world? What advice would you have for them and what advice do you think they should ignore?

The first thing they should know is that finding the right job is a job. I would tell them to have a professional look at their resume. Often they’re not good at bragging about their accomplishments. They’re not good at showing leadership that didn’t have an exact title. Having someone else work through that with them is incredibly helpful. I would also encourage them to try to find out what the culture is like in the jobs they’re applying for and ask the types of questions where you can find out more about what you’ll be doing during the day. Things like, “How long have your employees been here? What’s the turnover rate?” Things like that so that they get a better idea if it’s going to be a culture they’ll fit into.

Josh: What’s the best way for people to find you?

Kelly: Go to our website We have a very active private Facebook group called College Made Easy by Kelly MacLean. It’s free to join and there are a ton of videos and tutorials and workshops that are recorded there so you can get a better idea on some of the things we talked about today and even more.

Josh: If somebody said I really want to look into hiring you and working with you and my student, my kid, my grandkid, whoever they’re supporting, what’s the best way to start that process?

Email me, you’ll find my email on my website. We’ll set up a free consultation. We have consultations available seven days a week till 9:00 PM Eastern Time so we’re really accessible for families.

Josh: I know you do a lot of good work. The Wiser Financial Advisor is about bringing resources and adding clarity where there really is very little and people are drowning in information. So thank you so much for sharing today and for all the good work you’re doing.

Kelly: Thank you so much for allowing me to share I really appreciate it.

This episode has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide and should not be relied upon for tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal and accounting advisors. Investment advisory services offered through Keystone Financial Services, an SEC registered investment advisor.