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As a pilot who was inspired by the original Top Gun movie over 35 years ago, I was happy to see that Top Gun: Maverick was nominated this year for Best Motion Picture at the 95th Academy Awards.

On March 12, the Top Gun sequel went up against several movies I’m sorry to say I didn’t see, like The Fabelmans, The Banshees of Inisherin, and Triangle of Sadness.  I’m sure that some of these other movies are more profound. However, I like Top Gun: Maverick and was pleasantly surprised to see its nomination for this year’s Academy Awards.

The original Top Gun was innovative, offering the audience an exhilarating insight into flying a Navy F-14 Tomcat. Never-before-seen flight scenes blew me away.

It turns out that this movie was a sensational recruiting tool for the Navy and Air Force.  I was inspired enough to fly and become an Air Force officer and aviator. But I digress…

With the Oscars as a backdrop, and as a curious individual, I began to research the structure of a great movie:

Good Storytelling – Freytag’s Pyramid

Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century critic of William Shakespeare’s plays, supplied Freytag’s Pyramid, a framework of storytelling that focused on tragic narratives but can also be used for pretty much any modern story. Freytag’s pyramid suggests that each story has five main parts. Let’s see how this worked for the original Top Gun movie:

  1. The Exposition: main characters are revealed, some background is provided, and some basic character development.
  2. Complication, Maverick goes to Top Gun school, meets his nemesis, Iceman, and ultimately loses his good friend Goose (his Radar Intercept Officer). This is the major challenge that reshuffles everything. How does Maverick respond? He takes a major blow to his confidence, starts to question everything, fears flying, and considers quitting the Navy.
  3. Climax: Maverick comes back to fly and even shoots down a Russian MIG while learning to be a more disciplined pilot and wingman to Iceman.
  4. Resolution: Iceman and Maverick finally develop mutual respect and become close friends.
  5. Conclusion: a successful end to the story as the Navy aircraft carrier sails into the sunset.

Why do I say all of this? Oddly enough, the college planning process tends to follow the same five steps that Freytag described 150 years ago. Let’s examine…

A Succesful College Funding Narrative

The Exposition: Meet the Cooper Family

  • Joe Cooper, a 47-year-old mid-level executive for a Fortune 500 company, makes $125,000 a year.
  • Susan Cooper, an administrative assistant, makes $55,000 a year.
  • Average Joe Junior, 17 years old, plans to go to Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is relatively immature, had an underage drinking violation, and is probably not entirely ready for college life.
  • Overachiever Olivia, 15, wants to go to Bucknell University for engineering. She is in the top 10% of her class and tested very high on the PSAT exam.

The Complication: College Is Bleeping Expensive

The Coopers’ complication, like so many other families, is the prohibitive cost of college and their high expected family contribution. What impact will these exorbitant costs have on the parents’ ability to retire on time? Is it possible to strike a balance and have everything work out for a successful conclusion—perhaps where the Coopers are riding on their own cruise into the sunset?

Pre-Planning for the Coopers
Joe Olivia
Year School Tuition School Tuition Total
2024 Elizabethtown $34,411 $34,411
2025 Elizabethtown $34,867 $34,867
2026 Elizabethtown $35,336 Bucknell $40,916 $76,252
2027 Elizabethtown $35,820 Bucknell $42,246 $78,066
2028 Bucknell $42,793 $42,793
2029 Bucknell $43,357 $43,357
Total $309,746

The Climax:
The Financial Conversation, Emotional Pain, and Late-Stage Scrambling

All four family members get involved in the process to arrive at a plan that is suitable for everyone, or as Stephen Covey would say, a win-win scenario. What will happen in this drama?

Remember, flexibility is the key to air power…

The Resolution: Through education, financial planning, and transparent conversations. everyone comes together to create a logical plan, even Joe, Jr., and Olivia.

  • Joe agrees to go to Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) for his first two years – this will save money while giving Joe time to grow and determine what he wants to study. The parents and college planner thought it would be a good idea for Joe to take core curriculum courses that would transfer to most major universities. This turns out to be a big cost savings.
    • The family considers having Joe Jr. take a gap year to access more potential financial aid by lowering their expected family contribution (one more year with both kids in college).
  • Additionally, Joe Jr. and Olivia agree to pay for 20% of college costs by acquiring federal loans and working part-time jobs (possibly with the help of work-study programs.) The parents loved this idea, as they preferred that their kids have “some skin in the game.”
  • As the planning developed, Olivia was not able to get much financial help from Bucknell University. Fortunately, through the urging of her college planner, she applied to 7 colleges to maximize merit aid chances.
    • Ultimately, competition ensued, and she was able to get a terrific offer from Susquehanna University. The ending cost was roughly HALF the cost of Bucknell University.
Post Planning
Joe Olivia
Year School Tuition School Tuition Total
2024 HACC $8,565 $8,565
2025 HACC $8,693 $8,693
2026 Elizabethtown $35,336 Susquehanna $18,710 $54,046
2027 Elizabethtown $35,820 Susquehanna $20,831 $56,651
2028 Susquehanna $23,016 $23,016
2029 Susquehanna $25,266 $25,266
Total $176,237

* Joe did his first two years at HACC for general electives
*Olivia decided to go to Susquehanna University because she was offered more scholarships

Conclusion: Everyone sticks to the plan.

There is a $133,509 cost savings to the Coopers. 

Too often, I see parents make a complete sacrifice for their children at the expense of their own retirement and well-being. The Coopers continued saving at normal rates for their own retirement.

In the end, everyone was happy.  Just like Top Gun Maverick on the night of the Oscars.

Author: Brent George, CFP






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