College Planning Blog
College Admissions, College Planning and College Funding Advice
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When to Start The College Planning Process

How and When to Start the College Planning Process

Applying to college can be complex, especially when we consider how much the college planning process has changed since we were in school.

With college costs having increased by over 510% in the last 10 years, it is clear the game has changed.  But not every parent knows this; I have witnessed families going through the process blind because they believe things are still the same.

When we were in school, the college planning process was like playing the game of checkers: simple rules, one type of game piece, only a few rules to master, and you learned the game very quickly.  Anyone could win the game.

Today, even though the gameboard looks the same (application, essays, visits), things are totally different. It is like playing chess: there are multiple game pieces, advanced strategies to learn, and it takes a long time to master. If you ever played chess, you remember the frustration of a lot of losses before your first win.  For those of you now in the trenches with college planning, you only get one or two chances to do it right. Unless you have a lot of time to invest in understanding how the system works, this is not the time to be learning.

Couple this with average costs for public schools at $28,000, private schools at $54,345, and elite schools trending over $70,000 and it is no wonder a lot of students miss out on finding their dream college. Sadly, parents and students will never know and, in this case, ignorance is not bliss.

With 4,000 schools to choose from, wining at the college admissions game is possible and it can be easy.  All you need is the right guide – whether a person, book, or system.  To win, you also have to know how and when to start the college planning process.

So to answer the million dollar question of when to start – it is a simple answer – NOW.

Yes, NOW no matter the age of your student.

Here is a sample timeline for some of the big items in the process:

Pre-High School

Admissions Timeline

Research points out that families that help students develop good study habits set them up for success when they hit high school. Focus on routine and building self-confidence so your student will be less influenced by peer pressure.  Emotions drive actions that create results and by repeating this pattern, you can build those cornerstone habits.

Financial Timeline

If you already have a great plan or need to start one, always develop a multi-pronged funding strategy.  Having all your eggs in one basket can result in missed opportunities (usually scholarships).

After almost 20 years in financial services, I have found most traditional college funding strategies to be flawed. A lot of 529 plans are advisor fee-based plans that are not the best fit for the client’s needs and often lead to missing potential state tax credits. We favor using a no fee Utah plan after fully funding the GA plan up to $4,000 so you maximize the state tax credit.

High School Years

Freshman Year

Admissions Timeline

Have a serious conversation with your 9th grader on the importance of grades. Parents would also be wise to start conversations around a student’s long-term interests.

Financial Timeline

Start a funding plan. If you have an advisor, ask them about their college financial planning strategies (a 529 is not a strategy – it is a financial product). If “contribute to a 529” is their answer,  you might want to look for an advisor who knows about college planning, because you will probably be missing out or paying more.

Also start having a family conversation around the cost of college.

Sophomore Year:

Admissions Timeline

Start college visits the right way so not to set unrealistic expectations. Start with local options like GA State/GA Tech, UGA and Berry College since they represent all campus types – urban environment, college town atmosphere, and suburban remote campus.

Financial Timeline

This can be a critical year because of the information schools require on the family’s income.

Business owners, if you haven’t uncovered the 10-15 college tax planning strategies, you are probably losing out on $15,000 to $20,000 worth of savings.

High income earners ($225K to 1M+), don’t overpay on college!

Most families in this category assume they can’t save on the cost, but they actually can by using advanced college funding strategies rarely outlined by financial advisors. Merit aid strategies, college cash flow planning, advanced tax planning, home equity utilization, and sound financial planning opportunities provide several great ideas.

Families who make between $45,000 and $220,000 of AGI (line 37 on tax return).

Start by understanding your EFC (expected family contribution) and see how colleges will view your financial profile. See if you can reduce your number so you can get more free money from colleges that might award your student aid.

Usually, the strategies to reduce your EFC need to be done this school year. A lot of other great opportunities exist for families that fall into this category.

Families under $45,000

How you file your tax return now and in the future years could make college free or very affordable.   In many cases, families that file a 1040a or 1040EZ will be eligible for a ZERO EFC providing them the opportunity to get a lot of free money from a lot of colleges. If you filed a regular 1040, this is the time to review if you should rearrange your tax preparation filing.

Junior Year:

Admissions Timeline

Start the process by finding and researching the best fit schools (see next week’s blog for more information). The best fit is both a social and academic fit for the student and a financial fit for the family.

Financial Timeline

In the college savings world, families fit into one of four categories based on their EFC. Knowing which category will help you select and save on college.

It is also a great time to build a Know Before You Go College ListÔ.  Every year so many families pick schools without understanding their net costs.  Some families miss the opportunity to go to expensive schools they never thought they could attend and sadly, many others get admitted to their dream school but realize too late they can’t afford it. Most families with high achieving students fall into this situation, not realizing that 83 schools in the country do not award merit aid.

Rising Seniors (Summer- August):

Admissions Timeline

Build a balanced college list and visit schools properly.  With 33% of students transferring schools and another 40% not graduating in four years, you want to do build the best list for your student. If you get it wrong, that fifth year might cost you $74,857 (tuition + foregone first year’s salary).

Financial Timeline

Finalize your Know Before You Go College List and couple it with a four-year funding blueprint that outlines the costs down to the last dollar.

Also, continue to develop strategies that put you in a better financial position, especially if you are using loans to fund any portion of the college bill. With college loan debt now at over 1.5 trillion dollars, your loan repayment plan can be just as important as your funding plan.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to consider in this process and remember the college admissions game has changed (play chess not checkers).

Want to learn more?

Attend a summer workshop if you need a refresher or are just getting started (click here to register for an event) or schedule a free 30 minute call to discuss your situation and get some free no obligation, no sales pitch advice (we promise).

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9 College Planning Mistakes You Should Avoid

9 College Planning Mistakes You Must Avoid

Do money worries or the admission process keep you up at night?  Avoid these common college planning mistakes to eliminate your fears.

Paying for college and getting accepted can be scary stuff. During the college planning process, we are dealing with two of the most emotional things in our lives: KIDS and MONEY!

These fears can drive our negative emotions which traditionally leads to poor decision making. A poor decision at this life juncture can be very expensive and compromise your retirement.

At Peachtree, our hope is to provide you up to date, relevant, and educational information to help you make informed, rational decisions.

By not falling victim to these nine big college planning mistakes, you can turn your fears and frustration into success.

Mistake 1: Not having the college money talk before searching for colleges

We can’t all afford an estate on West Paces Ferry, right?

So why go out and visit that estate with your wife and kids if you are going to have your heart broken when you can’t afford it? Here is what always happens if you do visit: your spouse loves it, your kids are already picking out rooms and you are emotionally crushed since you now want this for your family. This college planning mistake could have been avoided by visiting a house that was right for your budget.

In 1999, I started learning about financial strategies working for a mortgage firm. I always thought it was wise that families got pre-approved for a house. Almost 20 years later, I still can’t believe parents do not get “pre-approved” for a college purchase. You should know your financial fit by understanding how much a college will cost you after you evaluate available merit/financial aid, your college resources, and the smartest strategies to pay the four-year bills.

Hopefully, by following this step, you will not be like the families that come to us late in the senior year and ask to make the impossible ($300,000 for college) possible.

Sit down with your student before visiting colleges to talk about a college budget, the potential use of loans, your loan comfort level, and how you want to approach the search in a smart financial way

Being on the same page financially avoids heartbreaks!

Mistake 2: Not knowing your Expected Family Contribution and (most importantly) what it really means

Part of the college funding analysis is knowing your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and understanding it is much more than a number. So many people stop early in the process because their EFC is either too high or really low. They assume they will get nothing or everything. This is far from the truth and a fatal college planning mistake families make every year.

The EFC is the amount the government expects a family to be responsible to pay towards college. This number may be a ridiculously high figure, but you can still achieve your student’s dream college without overpaying for it. All you need to do is understand the EFC’s relationship to your student’s academic profile and the best strategies available to you.

Your college search should start with an EFC analysis and a merit aid eligibility profile. To see an example of an accurate report, click here.

Mistake 3: Not filing for financial aid (completing the FAFSA)

Every year, families leave money on the table…billions of potential college grant dollars go unclaimed every year because people do not file the FAFSA.

Even if you do not think you’ll be eligible for need-based financial aid (because you followed step 2), fill out the FAFSA anyway.

Having a FAFSA on file is helpful and in some cases required for scholarships.

In other cases, it can be helpful if something changes in your financial situation, such as illness, death or unemployment.

Another great reason is to gain access to the only loan available in your student’s name:  The Stafford (Direct Federal Loan).  Regardless of the family’s financial situation, many are routinely realizing the benefits of using this loan.

Mistake 4: Students earning too much money or having too much savings

What’s wrong with students earning and/or saving money towards college? It contributes to increasing a family’s EFC and it has a higher weight towards the number.

Colleges expect dependent students to pay 20% of their savings towards their college costs, where parental assets are assessed at 5 to 5.625%…a big difference.

Many need based families make this mistake. If your student is a borderline need-based financial aid candidate, earning too much money could push him/her out of eligibility for funds they might otherwise have qualified for.

Mistake 5: Not understanding the impact or importance of applying early decision and early action

College application can be a frenzied process. Parents are worried about their student’s future. Students are worried about hearing back from that dream school. Those of you with a student who is already set on a particular school may have come across the terms ‘early action’ or ‘early decision’. These terms are deceivingly similar, but there is a huge difference between them. It is very important that families know what kind of contract they are signing when considering these application tactics.

This could literally define your student’s future. To compound the problem, schools have adopted more confusing versions like EDII, restricted early action, and single restricted early action.

Not understanding the impact or importance can limit your options. We unpack a little more information in our blog the top 5 considerations with early decision and early action.

Mistake 6: Being unfamiliar with your scholarship terms, dates, and conditions

If you have an academically talented student (even students with a 2.5 GPA) and you completed your selection process correctly, your student may be offered great scholarships. This is awesome news, but sometimes students do not investigate the terms and conditions of their scholarships for future years.

Most colleges require scholarship recipients to maintain a certain GPA and minimum number of credit hours. If a student doesn’t meet the terms and loses the scholarship, they may make it unaffordable to continue their education at that university.

Additionally, many scholarships are only offered for a 4-year period. So, if your student isn’t on the four year path, you may very well have an expensive 5th and 6th years.

Mistake 7: Changing majors or not thinking about a career pathway before applying

Stephen Covey nailed it in habit 2 from his best-selling book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Begin with the End in Mind. Many families set the goal of getting into college, but it should really be about picking a major and finding a pathway for your student to thrive when he/she graduates. Many students pick a college without a focus on a field of study and flounder around without graduating in four years.

Changing majors is possibly the biggest nightmare a parent has about their student’s education and continues to be the primary reason many students do not graduate on time. You probably heard stories about a friend’s student who is changing their major and taking an extra year to finish.

Did you know the national 6-year graduation rate is only 59%? Yes, 6-years! Although not the only reason, changing majors is a big contributor to this problem. Of course, more years equals more costs for parents.

Students need to be exploring their interests while in high school, thinking about what they like, and are good at. Most families can get direction with a good profile tool so don’t think this is as hard as your student would make you believe.

If you have built a profile and had an engaged conversation about major selection and still haven’t found a direction, you still have great opportunities attending a liberal arts college.

Mistake 8: Taking out parent loans or private loans when federal loans are the better option

We strongly discourage parents from taking out certain loans, especially the Parent Plus loan. Loans in the student’s name are the best option and provide more opportunity than just covering a funding shortage. But with student loan debt at $1.3 trillion, you should understand the costs before you apply.

Mistake 9: Being taken advantage of

The final nightmare scenario we hear about are scams and working with the wrong type of advisor. We simple say “beware.” Did you know there are product salespeople and other types of advisors that don’t have a fiduciary responsibility to help you with your college funding plan? For a funny and great example of different the types of advisors, enjoy what-is-a-fiduciary-and-why-does-it-matters.

Many scholarship scam services charge you high fees for something you could do on your own.

Plenty of great FREE resources are out there to help you (like our blog library), and we strive to share them with you.

You are also welcome to schedule a free 30 minute call to discuss your situation and get some free no obligation, no sales pitch advice (we promise).

Let’s avoid these nightmare situations with some pre-planning and awareness, and sweet dreams will be had by all.

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5 Facts to Know Before Submitting Financial Aid

EVERYONE should file a FAFSA but not everyone should file the CSS Profile.  One of the biggest mistakes is assuming you make too much money to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Whether your child is getting ready for the first year of college or the last year at high school, this is an important time for you. While your child focuses on studying, you have to worry about paying the college bills.

And applying for aid isn’t easy.  In addition to keeping an eye on your child’s grades and exam results, your family will also need to review all of your tax and financial assets to ensure that you can afford the fees that the college demands.

Here are the five most important facts about financial aid:

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How Divorced Parents Plan For College

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is so much misinformation about how divorced parents plan for college. Coupled with the emotions and stress you may feel about sending your children to college, it is no surprise many families make big mistakes.

As a child of divorce, I can tell you there are many worries going through your child’s mind. They fear that college will be another dividing issue. The last thing you want is to reopen their wounds or reinforce any thoughts that they were the reason for the split. It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that young minds are still struggling with the family situation.

However, this is a great time to eliminate some scars from the past and help your child move on.

Here are some basic steps and pitfalls to help make a hard time happy.

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Your 6 Step College Plan

The college plan is a very important process to lay out in detail. Sometimes, families can feel overwhelmed or stressed out by all the information, the forms, the applications, the deadlines, and the requirements. Now, if your child is already in their senior year of high school and hasn’t started on their college plan…well, let’s just say it’ll probably spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E.

So, how can you and your family get on the right track before trouble hits? Our team has 6 steps to help you get organized and get those documents submitted. Is your child plans to go to college in the next two years? Then this is the time to pull out all the stops.

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The 5 Top Considerations for Early Decision and Early Action Success

ED vs EA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

College applications can be a frenzied process. Parents are worried about their student’s future. Students are worried about hearing back from that dream school. Those of you with a student who is already set on a particular school may have come across the terms ‘early action’ or ‘early decision’. These terms are deceivingly similar. But, there is a huge difference in each. It is very important that families know what kind of contract they are signing when considering these application tactics. This will literally define your student’s future.

To compound this confusing problem, many families forget to ask their college planner about the benefits and limitations of these application tools. In this post, we cover two core components of the Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) process. Understanding these two terms is critical for your planning strategies. Specifically, utilizing financial positioning and a college’s acceptance rates.

Financial Positioning

You must know your financial position before beginning the college application process. This is even more important as you review using EA or ED. By knowing your financial position beforehand, you are able to accurately estimate a potential aid offer. Combining that with the higher acceptance rates usually produced by the EA / ED strategy can create an admissions win for the family. The pitfall of this strategy comes without a proper plan. If your family does not do their homework, then committing to a school too soon can be a disaster. You must know what kind of aid you can get, how your financial package will look, and if your family can really afford this school. All of this before earlier application deadlines. Sounds a little scary, right? Let’s break down the terms so you have a better idea of what your student will be getting into.

Early Decision Applications

ED programs are usually binding. This means applicants commit that they will attend that school if accepted. One advantage is applying to a highly-selective school that admits 26 to 50 percent of students from the early admissions pool. This can be a great technique for a student with a dream school and an application that may be overlooked in a larger pool.

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How much does college cost?

College Costs are high

Many people ask me: “How much does college cost?”

Before providing a number, I am reminded of the families who have saved thousands using the college success plan and those whom called years later wishing they had followed the path’s outlines.  Now, how I answer that question will impact the colleges they select and potentially the happiness of their child for the rest of their lives.

See, if I tell them the average private school’s cost of attendance (COA) is $42,000+ annually, they might dismiss all private schools as too expensive. The same would happen if I told them that the average out of state public school cost is $32,500, they might think “I can only afford to stay in Georgia.”

What people need to ask is: “how do I save save and have a successful outcome?” (more…)

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Free Money for College

money

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to more than 200 families on college financial aid at the AtlantaCares STEM event at Georgia Tech.

The last person scheduled, I had to follow a speaker that literally was a mix of Tony Robbins, Steve Harvey and Tyler Perry – he even had interactive props!  What can be learned is this…great information needs no props.  Our topic:  Free Money for College.

Understanding the three-legged stool of college planning can help your family save time, save money and most importantly be successful.  The core of the college success plan centers around helping you find the best college fit.  Following this recipe, your student should receive plenty of free money. (more…)

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The Most Common Financial Aid Questions

Financial Aid:

The Eleven Most Common Questions

Financial aid season is a few weeks away, and we’ve handled many questions about the subject over last ten years. To make things easy, we have included a free reference guide for completing the FAFSA and our eleven most frequently-asked questions about financial aid:

I make too much money to qualify for aid. Should I apply for aid regardless?

Always! Most families think they don’t qualify for financial aid and prevent themselves from receiving it by merely failing to apply. There are also a few sources of other assistance that could help a family fill a funding gap, such as unsubsidized Stafford and PLUS loans, which are available regardless of need. Some schools require it to be eligible for certain other types of scholarships. Since the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is free, there is no excuse for not applying.

Do I need to be admitted to a particular university before I apply for Aid?

No; you can apply for financial aid any time after October 1st. To receive any funds, however, you must be admitted and enrolled at a college or university.

Should I reposition my assets to get more financial aid?

It depends on a family’s expected family contribution (EFC), but most importantly, the school selection will drive your financial aid strategies (lowering your EFC).  Many families can reduce their EFC, but it doesn’t matter since their school selection does not warrant a financial aid reduction strategy.  If you are looking into this type of strategy, you must know how a school awards aid and how much of it is will consist of grants and scholarships (FREE MONEY) verse loans/work study.

Do I need to reapply for financial aid every year?

Yes, most financial aid offices require that you apply for financial aid every year. If your financial circumstances change, then you may receive more or less aid. You will receive a “Renewal Application” after the first year of filing that contains information from the previous year’s FAFSA. Note that if your situation changes, your eligibility for financial aid may vary significantly, especially if you have more or fewer family members in college. Renewal of many financial aid packages depends on earning a specific number of credits or achieving a certain GPA.

How do I apply for a Pell Grant and other types of federal need-based aid?

You must submit a FAFSA application form. To indicate interest in student employment, student loans, and parent loans, you should check the appropriate boxes on the FAFSA. Checking these boxes does not commit you to accept these types of aid, as you will have the opportunity to accept or decline each part of your aid package later, but leaving these boxes unchecked will not increase the number of grants you receive.

Are my parents responsible for all of my educational loans?

Only Federal Parent PLUS loans. Parents will be responsible for other loans if they co-sign on a loan and you are under 18. In general, students should be responsible for repaying their educational loans. If your parents or grandparents want to help pay off your loan or if your loan provider provides an electronic payment service your parents can agree to have the payments deducted from their account.

Why is the expected family contribution listed on the Student Aid Report (SAR) different from the family contribution expected by the college?

The federal formula for computing the expected family contribution is different from the formulas used by many universities. In particular, the federal formula does not consider home equity as part of the assets, while many private colleges do consider home equity for their institutional funds.

Do I need to begin repaying my loans if I take a leave of absence?

No, not immediately. The direct federal loan has a grace period of 6 months, and the Perkins loan has a grace period of 9 months before the student must begin repaying the loan. When you take a leave of absence, you will not need to repay your loan until the grace period is over; if you use up the grace-period before you graduate, you’ll need to begin repaying your loan immediately after you graduate. It is possible to request an extension to the grace period, but this must be done before the grace period ends. If your grace-period runs out in the middle of your leave of absence, you’ll need to start making payments on your student loans.

I received an outside scholarship. Should I report it to the financial aid office?

Yes. If you are receiving any financial aid from university or government sources, you must report the scholarship to the financial aid office. Unfortunately, the university will adjust your financial aid package to compensate. Nevertheless, the outside scholarship will have some benefits; at some universities, outside scholarships are used to reduce the student loan level.

Are work-study earnings taxable?

Yes, the money earned from Federal Work-Study is generally subject to federal and state income tax, but exempt from FICA taxes (provided you are enrolled full-time and work less than half-time). The student should be careful to report amounts based on the calendar year and not the school year.

Why would I take a Direct Federal Loan if I can pay the entire college bill?

Guardrails, financial education, and accountability!  The direct federal loan will be the only loan in the students name solely making it a great tool to use as leverage to make sure your student achieves the families agreed upon college objectives, hopefully graduating in 4 years.

Think about it; colleges don’t give you a contract promising to get your student to study, get them to class and be responsible with your money.  With this loan, your student now has “skin in the game,” and it will be possibly one of your last teaching moments about money with your student.

The financial aid and college admissions can be both confusing and complicated.   Download your free reference guide for completing the FAFSA to make it a little easier.

If you need the assistance of an experienced college financial planner to develop a college funding game plan for your family, please schedule a free 30-minute strategy call with me.

 

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How to Navigate Expected Family Contribution

How to Navigate Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

If you’re helping your student prepare for college, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. Usually, the big price tag is the biggest concern for parents. Financial aid helps, but sometimes filling out financial aid applications can stress you out even more!

Here are the steps you should follow to financially prepare for your child going to college.

Determine Your EFC

First, you’ll need to figure out your expected family contribution (EFC). Your EFC is based on a formula made by the U.S. Department of Education. Ultimately, it determines what financial aid your child is eligible for.

Even though this might be something you think you should put off for as long as possible, it’s better to figure this number out earlier. Ideally, you should have an EFC estimate during your child’s freshman year of high school. This will give you time to adjust your financial decisions accordingly. If you’ve already been saving for years, that’s great! This will probably be easy for you. But if you haven’t been saving, this still gives you a few years to prepare.

You can figure out your EFC online. One website with a reliable EFC calculator is Big Future’s College Board’s EFC calculator. Simply input information about your family, the student, and your finances to figure out your number. Sometimes, life circumstances change your EFC. For instance, family deaths, divorces, disabilities, job losses, or career changes all impact your finances. Make sure you update your EFC whenever something has a major impact on your finances.

Go to Multiple Sources for Your EFC

It’s important to figure out your EFC on your own, because not every college will do this for you. It’s impossible to find out how good or bad a college’s financial aid package is without factoring in your EFC. If you look at what the school is offering and you see a gap between your EFC and the cost minus grants, you can appeal it.

You need to ask the school for your EFC if it is not included in your child’s financial aid information. When you complete your FASFA application, you will automatically know your EFC as part of your child’s Student Aid Report. Make sure you double-check this report for mistakes. You will not get your EFC after completing a CSS Profile. If your student ends up attending an institution that uses the CSS, they will calculate a unique EFC for your student. This is because your EFC can widely vary if it’s being applied to the types of schools that need the CSS.

Find Out if You Need More Grants or Need-Based Assistance

There are two main types of financial aid: need-based assistance and merit-based scholarships. Use your EFC as a guide for determining what kind of financial aid you should be looking for in a college.

Learn Each School’s Definition of “Need-Based”

Different schools have different definitions of need-based financial aid. When applying to a state university with a household income between $60,000 and $80,000, you likely won’t qualify for any need-based financial aid.

Private schools work differently. Usually, you can qualify for need-based financial aid equal to the difference between the price of the college and your EFC. In other words, if the total college cost is $50,000, and your EFC is $20,000, you can expect $30,000 of need-based financial aid from the private institution.

Know Which Forms the Schools Require Before You Apply

Many schools only require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and other require the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile).  Some schools require both and will determine your aid of the higher of the two.  Forms are required every year for certain scholarships and financial aid so be prepared for the future.

Know Before You Go

Your EFC should be used to identify your college savings strategies and not just your financial aid.  Most families miss the opportunity to save on costs because they think they make too much money.

Too many overpay on college because they see a high EFC number and assume they are doomed to pay the college’s sticker price.

In Conclusion…

Now, you have the knowledge and tools to help you start the financial part of your child’s college application process. Even if you’ve already procrastinated at this point, there’s still a lot you can do to help your child pay a reasonable price for a great college!

For the last ten years, we have been helping college counselors, parents and other professionals on the way to find your student’s dream college and not overpay on the costs.

Schedule a free 30-minute strategy call to minimize the mistakes in your college planning.

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How to Narrow Your Child’s College Choices

How to Narrow Down Your Child’s College Choice

When you’re helping your child apply to college, you may feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of options. There are many ways you can narrow down your choices to make the process less time-consuming and stressful.

Here are some helpful hints for how to shorten a long list of potential colleges into something more manageable!

Compare Prices But Know Your Financial Fit

One of the best ways to narrow down colleges options is by price. This will keep you from paying an exorbitant amount for a college you can’t afford.

A great tool to help you as you and your student sort through potential colleges is this search engine powered by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This tool helps you easily compare room and board, in-state, and out-of-state tuition prices of colleges and universities. You can also view how the costs of these institutions have changed over the years, starting during the 1998-1999 school year and going through the 2017-2018 year.

If your child has narrowed down their search to a state or city, you can easily check the prices of all the colleges in that area at once. During your search, remember that the colleges with the highest price tags aren’t necessarily the best ones.

There are plenty of more affordable colleges where your child can learn, grow, and prepare for their career effectively!

The most important thing is to know your financial fit and merit aid eligibility at each school before you cut a school from your list.

Your expected family contribution (EFC) is the starting point but not the ending point if you are not eligible for “need based aid.” Too many people forget or do not know how to figure out if they qualify for merit aid and leave thousands of dollars on the table each year.

Ignore the Rankings

An easy mistake to make while looking for a college is to get caught up in college rankings. You should take all college rankings with a grain of salt. Just because a college is ranked #1 in the country doesn’t mean it would be the right fit for your child. Some rankings aren’t backed up by real facts and the ranking methodology used has nothing to do with setting your student up for college success.

For instance, U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings are determined by votes on subjective matters. Sometimes these rankings can be biased and there are many great articles pinpointing the flaws in the ranking system. Colleges themselves can even figure out how to manipulate the results so that they end up in the results unfairly. Is that the kind of institution you want your son or daughter attending?

You should never trust a college ranking without knowing the criteria behind the rank.

Make Your Own Criteria

Instead of looking into colleges based on a vague ranking, narrow down your search based on concrete facts. Better yet, determine your own specific criteria. Research the academic departments within all the colleges on your child’s list of potentials and decide which ones are the best. Talk to alumni of some of your child’s top choices and find out why they like or dislike their alma mater. Compare different colleges prices and the financial aid packages they can offer.

If a college is double your budget, does that really make it the #1 choice for your child? It shouldn’t.

You should also prioritize which criteria are the most important to you. Are you willing to pay more for a college that has an exceptional program for your child’s major? Is being close to home more important for your child than going to a top-ranked school?

Most importantly, remember that college is an individual experience. So, it should be based on a personal decision. Don’t let untrustworthy rankings influence that decision.

It could negatively impact your child and your finances for years to come.

Have a Four-Year Funding Plan

Fifteen years ago, being worried about the costs of college was silly, but given the skyrocketing price increase over the last decade, many families get themselves into a jam not understanding the four-year cost of education before they apply.

Most families, not knowing what they don’t know, wing it and try to figure it out when it is too late. For the last ten years, I can’t tell you how upsetting it is to hear that a student and family have spent hard earned dollars on the first two years of college and now can’t afford the third and fourth year. Talk about heartbreak and a financial disaster. With so many options and strategies available, this should never be you. The old saying about assumptions is true…they make an ass out of you and me. This is one of the biggest stages of your student’s future, you can’t assume, you must know. Know before you go!

For the last ten years, we have been helping families like yourself not make mistakes in a college planning process that is much different than when we were all in school. Things have changed and you must as well.

Schedule a free 30-minute strategy call today. Best wishes

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How to Prepare for College Admissions

How to Prepare for College Admissions

If you’re the parent of a high school student who plans on going to college, the worst thing you can do is procrastinate. Choosing what colleges to apply to (and actually applying to them!) takes time and money. Start soon if you want your child to have a great college experience!

As the parent, it’s a good idea to help your child narrow down what schools they should apply for. You don’t have to take the reins, but simply be there for your child and guide them through the process. Let them know which colleges you can and cannot afford. Here are five crucial steps to take before helping your child apply for college.

1.   Find a Good Net Price Calculator

It’s rare for college students to pay their entire tuition and room and board without any financial aid. Some scholarships and loans are universal and can be applied to more than one college. However, every college offers different scholarship and loan opportunities. While one college may have a lower tuition, there might be fewer scholarship opportunities.

Although price isn’t the only factor in choosing a college, it’s a major consideration. As we all know, college is a huge investment. So, you need to make sure you have an accurate picture of what it’s going to cost you. The best way of doing this is to use a net price calculator or schedule a visit with us and receive a free EFC and merit aid eligibility analysis.

A net price calculator takes the price of college (including tuition and living costs) and subtracts your student’s financial aid. Although some colleges already have a net price calculator on their website, they’re not always accurate. Make sure you double-check the numbers and use more than one source to get the correct numbers!  We can help you analyze your situation at each school you are applying with our special Know Before You Go analysis.

 

2.   Research the Generosity of Each College

Don’t just look at the tuition price when you look at schools. Look into how financially generous each college is to its students. State colleges and universities are cheaper if you’re paying in-state tuition. However, private schools can usually offer more financial assistance.

The most important factor in financial assistance is grants. Check each school’s typical financial aid package and see how the school’s grants compare to their loans.

3.   Apply for Financial Aid

The earlier you apply for financial aid, the better your chances are of receiving helpful grants. You can start the process as early as October 1 of your child’s senior year of high school.

Even before your child has applied to schools, you can submit to FASFA and CSS Profile. These are two great ways to help you and your child pay for college. While CSS can give you grants and scholarships, FASFA awards loans, grants, and work-study dollars. FASFA can be applied to any type of college, while CSS is mainly directed at private institutions.

4.   Apply to Different Types of Schools

Don’t make the mistake of just applying to one type of school. Diversify your options! Your child may have a clear favorite school in their applications, but backup options are important. A college could be a liberal arts college, a master’s level university, or a research university.

Although your child may not be able to apply to every option, they should still apply to multiple types. This will increase their college options and help them have a backup plan if their dream school doesn’t end up working out.

5.   Research the Academic Departments

Ultimately, your child is going to school to learn. If they don’t have a career path in mind, they may have more college options. That can be more stressful or more freeing, depending on how you look at it. If your child is interested in a particular major or career path, make sure to research their chosen department at each of the schools you’re looking at.

You should research the people your child will be working with: department heads, professors, and advisors. You should also compare the coursework requirements and determine what program would be the best fit for your child. They’ll be spending most of their time in a classroom or doing homework, so the academic department is a major thing to consider.

6.   Learn your Strategies to Save on the Costs Before You Apply.

Many people overpay on college and miss opportunities to save on costs.  Over the last 10 years, we have found every way fro a family to save and we have yet to meet a family that could save at least $2500.  If you want to learn about the four primary ways to save on college, sign up for a free web event:  The four primary ways to save on college presented by the College Financial Guy, Stuart Canzeri.  Register today here!

In Conclusion…

College applications don’t have to be so stressful. When you follow these steps, you’ll help set your child up for a successful and enjoyable college experience!

If you have any questions, please feel free to schedule a 30 minute no obligation strategy call with us.

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5 Summer College Visit Tips

 

Summer can be a great time to visit prospective colleges and be a pleasant detour on a long summer vacation. For most families, this is the one time the entire family can make the trip, and everyone can get a feel for colleges of interest.

In the United States, 33% of students transfer colleges (or change majors), and one of the primary reasons is a poor college visit. Another reason is college visitation fatigue from seeing too many schools, at the wrong time and spending too much money on that process and not visiting your top three choices when it is most important – at the end of the process.

By following five of our best college visitation tips, you can eliminate visitation fatigue, save time, save money and get the most from each visit.

Tip 1: Do Proper Pre-Visit Research

Don’t be one of the families who show up for a college tour knowing absolutely nothing about the school. You would be surprised, but a good percent of the families around you on the next visit are unprepared.

College guides, brochures, and university websites are quickly losing their favor with prospective students and are being replaced by more interactive platforms. Since students are engrossed in social media, this is usually the most natural pre-visit research starting point. A recent survey of 7,000 students reported 68% using social media during their college search process.

Visiting a school’s Facebook page was by far the most popular pre-research tool and is probably a great starting point for your student.

Tip 2: Know Before You Go

For nearly a decade, this has been our battle cry.  Since many schools are well above $70,000 a year, you cannot be like many families who go into the process blindly.

By knowing what a school will cost you or at least getting a range before you visit, a family can set a realistic expectation with their child and build the best financially fitting college list.

If you don’t do this, you may very well put your retirement in jeopardy because it is hard to say “no” to your child at this critical juncture of their life. We know you say “not me,” but emotions can get the best of us.

By visiting schools within your budget, you will eliminate your student creating unrealistic expectations for their college choices, and you will lessen your emotional stress on acceptance day.

One big note, do not rule out schools because of their sticker price since most people never pay the listed price. You have to know your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) before you can identify a schools affordability for your family. You can find out more about EFC in our How Much Does College Cost blog article.

Part of the Knowing Before You Go process is calculating your EFC since it is the starting point for understanding your college affordability. Knowing if you can lower your EFC is another crucial point in this process.

Tip 3: Visit Three to Four Schools In-state First

Save the money and stay local for your first college visits making sure you hit the three main campus types, get in a good sampling of the different school types and most importantly investigate schools of varying size.

Being in Georgia provides such an opportunity to get an accurate sampling of all the college types in the United States. By visiting 3 to 4 of these universities, you can narrow down the right fitting college for the student.

As an example, visiting UGA, Georgia State, Berry College and Emory all in the same week will allow your student the opportunity to get a feel for the main campus types – college town, elite private in a city, an urban campus, a small private college in the middle of nowhere.

Tip 4: Have a Process to Evaluate Each School

Being able to compare one school to the other without a system is pretty useless. By the third visit, you will not remember which dorm room was which or who had the sushi in the cafeteria.

All successful outcomes require a system and being a first timer with no process is a recipe for disaster. Instead of outlining the key things to do, we wanted to provide you with our visitation guide free of charge. Just download the perfect college visit checklist here.

Tip 5: Display Interest

Since more than 30% of all students apply to seven or more universities, colleges are finding it harder and harder to know who will fill their seats. Admission officers love to know if a student is interested, and sometimes if you are a fit for the school, a proper display of interest can put you in a position to get some free money. Additionally, if you follow the right process, you can put yourself in place to get schools to compete for your student by providing more free money for college.

A few tips to display interest are: signing up for the guided college tour, contacting someone in financial aid office, requesting to sit in on a class and requesting a call with someone at the department level in your student’s interested field of study.

Summertime visits can be some of the best times with your children before they go to college. Do it right, and so you can enjoy this one step in your student’s college planning journey and save money.

If you have any questions, please feel free to schedule a 30 minute no obligation strategy call with us.

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5 Components of a College Funding Plan

 

Spring brings warm weather, flowers, as well as the potential for “emotional showers” as many families are racking their brains to figure out how they will pay for their child’s college tuition.  The best solution is understanding the 5 components of a college funding plan.

Are you in planning mode or paying mode?

To build a smart college funding plan, you should begin the planning process before selecting schools. Given the average cost of a public college is $25,673 and $54,298 for private, families need to understand the varying costs before sending in applications. Many people do not take the time to educate themselves about the price, and do not realize how expensive college is until they are hit with the first bill.

In their defense, no one forecasted the cost of college would increase by 510% over the last 10 years, so people shouldn’t feel bad. Families need to learn the art of planning and the proper strategies to pay the bill down to the last dollar for all four years.

We plan in the Fall and build the plan to pay in the Spring

The most common question about paying the bill revolves around a financial product (the 529 account) and not about financial strategies. The financial services industry has done a great job into convincing us into thinking a product is a solution. But is the 529 the best tool to pay the bill?

As someone who has witnessed the evolution of the 529 account, I cannot recommend using it 100 percent of the time. Like any financial product, there are benefits and limitations to its use. It is not a perfect tool for everyone.

Most people view the 529 account as a college funding strategy, but it is simply a financial product with benefits and limitations. I’ve seen the first hand impacts of said limitations in the form of higher costs for tuition.

Many families, college counselors and financial advisors need to be educated on the 12 to 15 strategies used to fund college.  The financial services industry has been trained that a 529 is the best and only tool for college funding, but it is not a one size fits all decision.

Anyone who tells you a 529 account is bad – or great – isn’t providing the full story.

At the very least, they do not fully understand on how to save on the cost of college, financial planning for college or financial aid.

You see, a 529 plan can be a great tool based on a family’s overall college funding strategy. In fact, I opened up a 529 account a few weeks ago when my second son was born. On the other hand, a 529 may be something that could negatively impact your ability to receive and maximize aid.  Additionally, it can create unintended tax consequences when overfunding or provided with large scholarships.

Rather than focus on a financial product, families should look at five core components before discussing and implementing strategies with financial tools. It is critical to understand how these components can help lower costs and give you peace of mind.

The five core components of a great college funding plan:

  • Resource identification

    • What funds are available to pay the college bill?
    • Are there additional funds I can access (loans, scholarships, tax credits)?
    • How do these resources impact my ability to receive merit money and/or financial aid?
    • Do I have a four-year funding plan that accounts for every dollar of the college costs?
  • Timing

    • Depending on resources, are they keeping up with college inflation?
    • When is the best time to use these funds? Certain accounts, scholarships and loans are better used at different times.
    • What is the impact on my ability to receive merit money and financial aid in the future?
  • Accountability

    • Does my student have “skin in the game” or do they expect me (the parent) to pay for college?
    • Does my student understand the cost of attending college or university?
  • Funding

    • Analyze the four-year costs of each college my student is applying to in the fall and compare them.
    • Have you mapped out your actual four-year blueprint with which funds, tax scholarships and resources you will use?
    • Did you stress test my current plans?
    • Is my allocation right given market conditions and my student’s college time horizon
    • Will we use loans?  What are our best borrowing options?
  • Tax Planning

    • Am I eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit? If yes, how do I maximize it?
    • Am I getting tax planning or really just tax prep? If no  – you might be missing tax scholarship opportunities.
    • If I am a business owner, can I hire my student and make them tax independent (not college student independent)?
    • Do I understand the 2018 taxes changes and how we might benefit?

Focusing on these categories should be the starting point of your college funding plan. Once understood, you can move on to building strategies that will lower the overall cost and/or provide the best plan to fund the college bills.

So what should you do now?

If you want ideas on funding college or planning for the price of college, please feel free to Schedule a Free 30 Minute Call or download our complimentary guide: A New Approach to Paying for College.

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How Schools Calculate Financial Aid

How do schools calculate financial aid?

For nearly a decade, on of the most popular questions we receive most often is: “Why didn’t this school give my child more money?

It’s frustrating that schools do not have a uniform financial offer document that outlines how a school decided on your aid offer and you are left on your own to decode your award.

Hopefully, this post will provide some insight into how schools calculate your financial aid.

First, it all starts when you submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form and/or CSS Profile form.  Each school then uses your FAFSA/CSS Profile information to determine how much aid you are eligible to receive at that school.

Each school has its own schedule for awarding financial aid and you will want to check with each school to find out when you can expect to receive an aid offer. 

Financial aid offers are based on three factors:

1. Enrollment Status (full-time, half-time, less than half-time, etc.)

Your enrollment status will impact the amount and types of aid you qualify for. For example, Direct Loans are available only to students enrolled at least half-time, and Federal Pell Grant amounts are partially determined by your enrollment status.

2. Cost of Attendance (COA)

COA = sticker price.  Your COA is the estimated amount of money it will cost to go to a particular school for that year. This figure is determined by your school and should be available on the school’s website. Your COA estimate includes

  • tuition and fees,
  • room and board,
  • books, supplies, living expenses, transportation, loan fees, and more.

Find more details about what’s included in cost of attendance.

Keep in mind that your COA will be different at each school since most schools have different cost structures.

3. Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The information you provide on the FAFSA/CSS  is used to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a guidepost schools use to figure out how much aid to give a family.  This number is not necessarily the amount of money your family will have to pay for college. Many families pay more than their EFC because they miss some key steps in the college admissions and college funding process.

The EFC is calculated using a formula established by law or by the institution. There are several methods (three to be exact) used for calculating your EFC and it is important to know which methodology a schools uses.

There are key differences between the federal, institutional and consensus methodologies which are important to understand if you are looking at strategies to increase your aid. 

The formulas can be difficult to understand; just know that many factors are taken into account—not just income. If you have questions about your EFC, contact the financial aid office at your school or please feel free to schedule a free 30 minute call with someone on our team.

Schools then use this formula to determine your financial need:

Cost of Attendance (COA) – Expected Family Contribution (EFC)  = Financial Need

Once each school has determined your financial need, you will receive aid offers from the schools you’ve been accepted to. Remember that all of your aid offers will be different. Each school has a different ability to meet your financial need—it all depends on the funds available at each school.  Many times your first offer is not the best offer since there are other factors outside the formula that go into a schools decision making process.

You should compare all your offers and have your advisor help you evaluate if they are good or could be better. Many times a family is in a position to “appeal” an award based on their situation.

Don’t leave money on the table or overpay on college.  If you have any questions, please feel free to schedule a free 30 minute call.

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The Importance of Course Selection When Applying to College

Today, your children face more course options in high school than a family ordering dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. When the majority of us attended high school, we had fewer selections and our path was pretty much selected for us.

Times have changed! Your course selection may now make or break your admission chances and if done properly it could reduce your costs. So, what do you need to know?

The most important thing:

Your son or daughter’s academic pace and maturity level are personal choices. Some students are compelled to run forward and others create a pace that is right for them. Always embrace your child’s needs first and remember college is all about fit for your student and pocketbook.

Course rigor…Fit, Fit, Fit

Make sure your student takes classes that fit their abilities. Courses should be challenging without being overwhelming.

Your son or daughter may argue for the easiest path, so they receive higher grades, but this may backfire during the college admissionsions process.  Students assume colleges do not know what a school offers but high school counselors typically submit a school report to colleges with a student’s transcript. This report usually lists classes that the high school offers and their difficulty level.

Make sure they are being challenged!

Honors Classes

Honors classes may be offered by the high school (often in 9th and 10th grades) to provide more challenge and in-depth examination of a topic. Honors coursework is not standardized and can vary immensely from school to school. Students should only take an honors class in a subject they are prepared for and/or are extremely motivated to do well in.

Benefits?
  • Challenges a student who may become bored in the standard class in an area in which they already excel.
  • Shows the college that a student is striving for harder classes.
  • Can be a substitute for a student that may not be ready for an AP class and wants to demonstrate rigor.
Drawbacks?
  • Colleges do not reward honors courses with earned credit, so no potential to save on college.
  • Their GPA will suffer if they get a low grade because they were not prepared. Honors courses may not be weighted like AP courses. So, a “C” will be 2 points (on a 4-point scale) and will negatively affect their GPA. A “C” in an AP class will earn 3 points—the same as a “B” in a standard class.

Advanced Placement (AP)

AP courses were created by the College Board, and are offered by your high school as an approximate “college level” course. They are taught at a faster pace (more like college), and students need to be academically ready for the rigor and faster pace. Every AP course culminates in an optional fee-based final exam that’s graded on a score of 1 to 5.

Benefits?
  • Admission officials like to see AP courses especially at selective colleges.
  • Achieving a high exam grade (3, 4, or 5) may exempt you from taking the entry level class in that topic in college. For example, achieving a 5 in AP Psychology could equal four semesters of college Psychology 101. This can provide a student with the ability to accelerate their learning, saving money with fewer requirements to graduate.
  • AP courses may help students prepare for the rigor of college classes.
  • AP courses are often weighted by the high school when calculating a student’s GPA. Instead of earning 4 points for an A, an AP student would earn 5 points on a 4-point scale.  Many in-state scholarship programs calculate GPA by removing the AP scale so understand how a in-state program weights GPA.
Drawbacks?
  • Any potential for use of the course in college is dependent on the exam! If a student is not a good test taker, sick, or not well-prepared by their teacher, scoring a 3, 4, or 5 will be a challenge.
  • Do not assume every college accepts AP coursework for earned credit. Some may only if the exam score was a 4 or 5. Taking the AP classes may help a student get in, but they may not apply the credit. Check with a school before applying.
  • Many parents force students into AP courses hoping it will help their admissions chance.  Know your student and only take APs when a student is ready.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate® (IB) program was created as an advanced educational option for students. The IB Diploma is earned by following a specific series of courses in every subject during 11th and 12th grades. Exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 7 with 7 being the highest. Students can take coursework on the diploma path or just individual IB classes.

Benefits?
  • Colleges reward college credit for higher level IB courses where a student achieved a certain grade level. Here is an example from University of Georgia.
  • The “international” nature of the diploma encourages a global outlook
  • High school grades are typically weighted when calculating the GPA.
Drawbacks?
  • The most competitive universities will expect high scores across all six subjects (english, math, science, language, the arts, and humanities). Students must perform well in all of them.

College Coursework

Dual enrollment is gaining in popularity given potential earn transcripted college credit at their local universities. Some high schools are also offering these college courses within the walls of the high school as well.

Benefits?
  • Students may get to experience the wider spectrum of college classes available.
  • It gives students the real experience with what a college class is like.
  • College credit can be earned without having to rely on a final exam grade.
  • Colleges reviewing a student’s application will note the more challenging rigor demonstrated.
  • Some students find the pace of a college class easier than the accelerated pace of an AP course.
Drawbacks?
  • Not every college accepts transferred credits. Be sure to seek out those colleges that do in your college search.
  • The college application process may need to be closely monitored to ensure proper credit is given for the college classes a student has taken (a college transcript should be sent to colleges with the application).

Other Options

Internships, marketing programs (like DECA), STEM, other career academies, career technology schools, service learning, and ROTC are just a few of the additional options available to high school students today.

Benefits?
  • Students get more interesting experience broadening their perspective.
  • Students can gain real career knowledge by exploring their interests.
  • These types of activities can broaden and applicants  picture.
  • Certifications can be earned for real job experience.
  • Allows students to explore and preview potential majors before committing a few years of their college lives to them.
Drawbacks?
  • These tend not to save on the costs of college. However, colleges will be highly interested in the programs and these types of real world experiences make a college applicant stand out.

What’s next?

You need to understand all the options available to your child. By starting to plan in their freshman or sophomore year, you will allow them to increase their options and maybe lower your college costs.

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