How Did an Average Student Obtain Such a Massive Scholarship?
In this audio interview, Tim McFillin of The College Funding Coach sits down with Tracy O’Grady, a military veteran and mother of two boys, to discuss how she and her husband prepared to pay for college for their two sons. Most notably, Tracy explores how her oldest son, though not an exceptional student, was able to earn a Minuteman Scholarship through the Army National Guard.
Tim McFillin – Thanks for agreeing to do this for us, I really appreciate your time here. Just to give people a little bit of background, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and how long have you lived in the Dc area?
Tracy O’Grady – Ok, my husband and I are both military. I grew up in a military family and spent most of my life in Dayton, Ohio. He spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington. We met in the late 80s in California when we were both active duty Airforce and moved every two to three years until we came here in 2004. So we have been in nova since 2004. We have two sons who are in 9th grade and graduated senior and we are a sports enthusiast family.
Tim McFillin – Yes! And speaking on that subject your oldest son just won the Virginia tournament right? The state championship, isn’t that right?
Tracy O’Grady – Yep, so Lake Braddock won the state tournament for baseball and also came in second in state for basketball. So he is one of two kids of 700 graduates from Lake Braddock that were on two state winning teams.
Tim McFillin – Awesome, alright we got a family of winners, I like it! And also thank you, both you and your husband for your service over the years. A little more specifically tell us about your oldest son. You have two sons in high school. To clarify, one has just graduated and is about to head off to college and you have a second son two years younger. Tell us about your older son first and then we will get into your second son.
Tracy O’Grady – Ok. So older son is graduating in the NOVA highly competitive area. I would consider him an average academically he is graduating with about a 3.4 GPA. He has always been a sports enthusiast so he has played 2-3 sports every year since he was 6 yrs old. He got better and better at basketball and baseball so those are the two he has honed in on and focused on. Varsity player for both. And then from a school perspective, didn’t take any AP classes because that just wasn’t the kind of student he was and so he did OK and we are proud of where he is based on the personality he is because he was able to accomplish so much on sports also.
Tim McFillin – Yea, that’s awesome and why don’t you elaborate…so one of the main reasons I wanted to sit down with you about this is because of how much homework you did ahead of time.
Tracy O’Grady – Yes.
Tim McFillin – A lot of parents are reactive and it makes sense. We are all busy, we have full-time jobs, we are in Northern Virginia where most of the families are. You know…two working parents, only 24 hours in the day and we all have the same problem. You have the same problem too. You and your husband work full time. You’re a very busy mom and you know very busy with work, but you still find time to do it. Tell me…kinda…to help some other parents out. When do you recommend to really start the college funding plan process? Looking at schools and thinking about saving.
Tracy O’Grady – If I had to do it over I would have started at the beginning of his sophomore year. I would have gone to as many college funding speeches and lectures and trainings as I could. The one you guys gave was the first one I ever went to and I did it a year out. 6 to 9 months out and that was probably at least a year too late. It got me very energized to get very focused and ended up spending probably more time than I would have needed to if I had started earlier. We committed to two 529s when they were in kindergarten and were really good about that for about 6 years. And then other parties took over and we stopped funding those. But I was also in the military, at the time, so I knew I had at least 4 years of college tuition paid for with one of them, with the 9/11 GI bill. Um…but I would say the most important thing would have been to do all of the college visits the summer between their sophomore and junior year. And then, start all the college funding learning during their junior year, and then I would have also wished we would have done more test preparation for ACTs and SATs at the beginning of his junior year because we played catchup on all three of those and I feel like we just barely just got it done on time.
Tim McFillin – Ok, that’s good insight. So just to clarify you mentioned you had a GI bill. So for people reading this the GI bill is a government program for people who are active service military past…you know 2001 and the longer you have tenure with the military they will cover room and board, tuition, books, up to certain maximums. You can transfer those GI credits to your children, which is what you and your husband have been able to do. But, talk about the situation you are in right now. Your oldest has gotten accepted and you have made a decision. So, if you could tell us, where he is going and how did that work out?
Tracy O’Grady – So, once he got accepted to Christopher Newport University, which was right in line with where his GPA was. He really wasn’t competitive for what I call the top 5.
Tim McFillin – And that was one of your first choices right?
Tracy O’Grady – Um, Christopher Newport ended up being his first choice based on where he was. He loved the campus. One of the things we learned about Christopher Newport is the president there has a really single-minded focus on making sure that school is a premiere school, so he has gotten the business school at Christopher Newport in the top 7% in the nation and Christopher Newport just passed James Madison University for 4th most difficult school to get into in Virginia.
Tim McFillin – Yea, it’s very competitive.
Tracy O’Grady – and we were really surprised about that. But once he joined he saw that his father and I were still serving in the military in the Pentagon and he wanted to check out the ROTC program at Christopher Newport and so we made contact with them and he shadowed them for a day. He asked them about their programs and between him asking the ROTC commander on campus and me asking around the Pentagon we found this national guard minute man scholarship. Which is a full, 4-year full-ride scholarship, that you then go into the army guard. So, they pay for 100 percent of your school and upon graduation you are commissioned as an officer and then you owe the guard one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer for 8 years. To me, that is a very low commitment for the amount of money you are getting. Even at Christopher Newport, not being the most expensive school in Virginia, it is about $150,000 scholarship for what I consider a minimal commitment payback.
Tim McFillin – Yea, I mean, this is one of the things we talk about in the class all the time. There are SOOOO many scholarships out there that just go completely unclaimed. Because parents are tired….high school seniors…what do you thing they want to do? Look up scholarships all day? This scholarship that you found and the commitment he is putting in…yes it’s a commitment, but it’s not serving 5 active years right?
Tracy O’Grady – Correct.
Tim McFillin – and it is probably going to be good for discipline and keeping organized and all that stuff. And you are estimating this to be about $150,000 in savings.
Tracy O’Grady – Correct. Between room, board, and stipend and then at Christopher Newport and probably other Virginia state schools they see these Virginia guard minute man scholarships as community leaders so they come in and they say if you bring me a minute man scholar we will then cover 100 percent of room and board. So, the cost to us between the two scholarships is zero for the entire 4 years.
Tim McFillin – Wow! And what’s cool about this in particular is that we have talked mostly about your older son, but your younger son who is just a couple years away here. You know you mentioned you had 529s, people don’t know 529 is just a tax-advantage college savings account that you can use for tuition room and board and books and laptops and all those fees. And you’ve got accounts for both sons. Well, because you are getting the scholarship, you got all this money for your older son that you can now transfer down to your younger son. 529s have the option to do that without any tax or penalty. In addition to that, you also have the GI bill which you have accumulated between your husband and yourself which you can also use for your second son. So not only are you putting your oldest through with a great scholarship, now he is earning it of course through ROTC, but that also gets him eligible for the baseball team you mention, right?
Tracy O’Grady – Correct, right. By him not committing to a baseball team first, but committing to a school academically, he wasn’t sure where baseball was going to go. But because they won states, once they went to orientation, he discovered from the coach that they had accepted him onto the baseball team roster so all of the scholarship and the baseball team commitment literally all happened within two or three weeks of each other. It was exciting, overwhelming, he’s still kind of a little in shock, but he is definitely excited about it.
Tim McFillin – Yea, so he probably would have been less likely to get on the team if he hadn’t been committed to ROTC.
Tracy O’Grady – My guess is that all coaches look at ROTC scholars as kids and young men and women who are very easily trained. That they are proven through the military system that they are very trainable and so the coaches can take a risk on them without knowing them because they know that they have already gone through a lot of rigors.
Tim McFillin – Right, that they have discipline in place already because, of course, with sports discipline is key. Ok, well that’s awesome. Now with your second son, we were just talking about him. You know good student and everything. Is he going to be valedictorian? We hope so, but probably not, but you never know. He’s got all the capability of doing it, but not every situation is going to be this picture-perfect…where you get a full-ride scholarship and you’ve got all this extra money in a GI bill or 529 that you don’t need for your oldest. Now a lot of parents would be very jealous of that and it’s a good problem, but it didn’t happen because of luck.
Tracy O’Grady – No.
Tim McFillin – It happened because you really took the time to really go and do the research and this homework. I mean, I don’t know exactly what the net amount it is going to save you, but it could make the difference between having a very comfortable retirement and potentially one where you could be a little more stressed out. Just because of all that extra savings.
Tracy O’Grady – And I would say our younger son is really reaping the rewards for what his older brother is committing to. By having our older son to take this scholarship it’s allowing our younger son to have 100 percent of these others. It also allows us to look at retirement literally as soon as our younger son graduates because we won’t have any college loans out there that we need to help pay off.
Tim McFillin – Yea, beautiful thing. And just to take a couple quick steps back. Christopher Newport ended up being a great fit. Your son wanted to go there, it’s close to home, he’s on the baseball team. It checks all the boxes. Even before that happened you had some other interesting things you were looking at. If I recall you were looking at some other schools that were a little outside the box.
Tracy O’Grady – Yea, we were so because we started late, I felt like we had to really open that aperture and look at many more schools no knowing exactly where he would land. So we knew at the same time we were looking at schools we were looking at these national guard scholarships. National guard scholarships are 100 percent tuition paid in only 5 states. West Virginia, Florida, and Ohio, and two others that I don’t remember. So we applied to a school at each one of that states and we also applied to 14 to 16 schools within 3 hours of Northern Virginia to just open that aperture that had decent baseball programs, that had an ROTC program, and were accepting of these middle of the road kids, these 3.4 GPA kids.
Tim McFillin – Yea. That extra homework matters a lot more than it did I would say 20-25 years ago where students could kinda wing it, mom and dad could help a little bit maybe get some scholarships, you take out some government loans, some family help. You piece it all together you can find a way to pay for college. Maybe you work part-time at the cafeteria or library. If you work part-time at the cafeteria or library, it pays for books maybe.
Tracy O’Grady – I know, yeah.
Tim McFillin – So you have to really put the time in. What you have done is really cool and it’s a great example of why it’s important, I think, from where I sit all the time with families to apply to a lot of different schools and really focus in on what your kid loves and what he’s best at and use that to your advantage. That’s exactly what you have done. Really cool to see! And the term trickle-down economics can be a very controversial term, but in this case, your trickling down economics is going to help your second son a lot.
Tracy O’Grady – Huge, helped my second son a lot.
Tim McFillin – Now if he wants to do ROTC he can do that too and you can keep the GI bills in the family and you can go back to culinary school. Haha, you know.
Tracy O’Grady – Yea exactly.
Tim McFillin – You’ve got all this flexibility. 529s and Gi bills can always be transferred within family so if you don’t have to use the money that’s a good problem to have.
Tracy O’Grady – It is a good problem to have.
Tim McFillin – And you have it on the table if you do need it. We have talked about some of your strategies for helping to reduce your out of pocket cost for your son, but the nice thing is you might not have to do too many. You might naturally be able to use what you have saved to fund most of the education.
Tracy O’Grady – Yea, I would say the only thing I would probably do based on the recommendations I have heard both in your training as well as someone on one advice, is to allow the student to take out a small loan or two so that they feel fiscally responsible for those grades. I think you had mentioned that there is statistics showing that they do better.
Tim McFillin – Yep on average.
Tracy O’Grady – That they would have a piece of the pie. So, we will probably take out a couple small loans as more as just spending money for him, maybe cover down on you know a couple little expenses here and there, but then he, no kidding, owns a piece of that.
Tim McFillin – Right, and a lot of ppl don’t realize this but almost any family, even if you have a high income should fill out the FAFSA, if not for any other reason than for this reason…is to automatically be eligible for the government loans and it’s you know 5,6 thousand, it goes up a little bit each year they get older but you can take the maximum amount of government loans or you can take a reduced amount. But having your kid have a piece of the pie is a good exercise and they get to learn about personal finance at a younger age. And again these loans are not like private loans, there are income-based repayments, they can defer if they go to graduate school, they don’t have to pay until their income is at a certain threshold. So I’m glad you brought that up, because for parents that are looking for efficient ways to help their kids those government loans are a great way to do so but you have to do the FAFSA. A lot of families don’t do it because, again, they have all kinds of other things on their mind…they’re like oh, I make too much money, there’s no way I’ll get financial aid. It’s still helpful to do that.
Tracy O’Grady – Look at it as date night. Get a bottle of wine, sit down together and just know it’s going to be a two to three hour, enjoy…it’ll be couple time.
Tim McFillin – ok that sounds lovely, that sounds great. On a bright note here, now that you have done a nice job planning with this, well more than nice… Have you really started thinking about retirement? You and your husband.
Tracy O’Grady – we have started thinking about retirement a little bit. Now that we can start planning earlier versus later. This is giving us an opportunity to think about retirement closer to 58-60 years old instead of 68-70 years old. So, we are still trying to figure out whether or not we want to do a mountain lake or sunny beach, but I think both of us lean towards mountain lake either in Tennesse or Northern Idaho, and we will see where it takes us.
Tim McFillin – Awesome, what’s the address? When can I visit?
Tracy – haha Couer d’Alene, Idaho.
Tim McFillin – That sounds beautiful. I can tell you from a family that has a beach house in the Outer Banks. It’s awesome. Way more expensive, in terms of upkeep and damage, but hey if you do it well, why not both?
Tracy O’Grady – haha that’s right.
Tim McFillin – just on a fun light note here, what else should we know about you? Any fun facts or hidden talents besides your great parenting and planning?
Tracy O’Grady – so as I tried to pull back and not be such an obsessive, compulsive parent as my kids get older, I am now formally trained to be a wounded warrior guide dog puppy raiser, and then I am slowly becoming a master at pottery.
Tim McFillin – Really??
Tracy O’Grady – Yep, I started taking classes three months ago to take up my time now that I am not spending time hovering over homework and teenagers. The beauty of them getting older is that you get to start doing more stuff.
Tim McFillin – Starting to think about you a little bit. My dad retired just last year, 66 and I remember when he was 60 “I’m never going to retire.” And then one day he was just like I’m going to retire, and now he gardens and does volunteer work. His goals are different. He travels more and you know he calls me a lot more now.
Tracy O’Grady – Well my professional mom group…everyone says as soon as your first kid walks out the door to college, get a puppy and that will help. So that’s what I’m thinking, I’ll just get a puppy to replace my teenage son.
Tim McFillin – That’s what my mom did. His name is Scooter, he just turned 17. Seriously, my mom bought him two weeks after I left for school at UVA.
Tracy O’Grady – Aw, I bet you I’ll have to do that.
Tim McFillin – Well this has been more than helpful Tracy. I am so appreciative of being able to meet you and go through all this with you. Appreciate your time coming in here to sit down and answer all these questions, it’s going to be a lot of value to other parents, it really is.
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Host: Tim McFillin