The Biggest College Planning Mistakes

Imagine looking back and realizing you made a mistake with your student’s college planning. Could things have been different?  How would that make you feel?  What if you had the answers you needed?  Don’t let mistakes we have seen families make unnecessarily over the last 10 years happen to you.  

Not having the student money talk BEFORE beginning the college process

We can’t all afford a Ferrari, right? Why go out and test drive one if you are going to have your heart broken when you can’t afford the payments?! So many families go visit and test drive a college and put themselves in this situation.

As you hopefully know by now, most families rarely pay the full sticker price for college, but you still need to be aware of how much a college will cost you after all the available aid, savings, and strategies to pay for it.

Sit down with your student before starting the college process to talk about what you can afford as a family. If loans are part of the plan, what is your loan comfort level, and how do you want to approach the search in a smart financial way. (Download our “Know before you go” guide to help understand your situation so you can have a great student money talk.)

Once everyone is on the same page financially, no one’s heart gets broken.

Not knowing your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

Part of that student money talk and one of the college planning cornerstones is knowing your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is the amount colleges use and the government expects a family to be responsible to pay towards college costs. This number may be a ridiculously high figure, but knowing it is the key to understanding whether you are a need-based candidate or not. Your college search can hinge on this knowledge. Click here for a good estimated EFC calculator.

Not completing the FAFSA and filing for financial aid

Even if you do not think you’ll be eligible for need-based financial aid (because you know what your EFC is, right?!), fill out the FAFSA anyway.  We have mentioned it many times…billions of potential college grant dollars go unclaimed every year because people do not file the FAFSA.

At many schools, you must fill out a FASFA to obtain scholarship consideration and it is a must if you plan on using any federal student loans.  Read the blog: five facts to know before submitting financial aid for more insights.

Not beginning with the end in mind

How many families approach the college planning process is backwards and this is easily explained by the marketing approach used by college and universities. Schools want us focused on admissions and whip us into a frenzy worrying we are not going to get our son and daughters into their dream school. If you don’t begin with the end in mind, you will fall victim to their trap and not focus on the things that really matter: department level not diploma name, graduation rates and placement into your student’s field of study.

We offer these the following two approaches for success:

  • Career-Major-College NOT College-Major-Career.  As you have heard any every presentation, starting with a career focus helps select the majors which leads to finding a college that is the best fit for your student. Picking the college first can be a costly mistake for many families.  And yes, we understand that many families might disagree with our approach but if you have the right tools to help your student this becomes a very easy and achievable process.


  • Plan-Pick-Pay NOT Pick-Pay-Plan.  We want all families to start the process by knowing before they go. With college costs escalating between 3 to 6% annually, it would be wise to understand your full costs now. By building a 4-year funding plan,  you can find and pick affordable schools for your family allowing you a stress-free process.

Being unfamiliar with your scholarship terms, dates and conditions

If you are an academically-talented student, you may be offered scholarships from your college. This news is great, but sometimes students forget the terms and conditions of their scholarships a year later.  One big mistake is assuming that the scholarships are automatic and do not require an additional application or the application deadline is the same for the scholarship deadline.

Most colleges require scholarship students to maintain a certain GPA and minimum number of credit hours to keep their scholarship. If a student only takes 12 credit hours per semester, they may fail to meet their scholarship conditions. If their GPA drops below a 3.0 or 3.5 (depending on the school), suddenly their sophomore year costs more than they planned for.  Many final college selections have been driven by comparing financial aid offering and most importantly the fine detail of scholarship terms.

Many scholarships are only offered for a 4-year period and by not following the career-major-college approach, you may fall victim to what 33% of all student do:  Changing majors (see the next point).  Remember a 5th or 6th year will be without a scholarship and your student is also losing income that would be making in the workforce.  These could be $70,000 years (full tuition + first year’s salary (on average $42,000).

More on Major Selection(changing once…or worse MANY times!)

The biggest nightmare a parent may have is a student changing their major. We (and probably you too) hear stories all the time about a friend’s student who is changing their major. Did you know the national 6-year graduation rate is only 59% at four year colleges? Yes, we stated “6-years.” Although not the only reason, changing a major is a big contributor to this problem.  When we talk about picking a unicorn college (one that is a academic, social and financial fit), career focus/major selection is one of the prime elements of the academic fit.

So what is the fix? Students need to be exploring their interests in high school and use the right tools to help them with a very critical decision. Having a process that helps them think about what they like and are good at, shows them how to research careers and helps validate their strengths can be a game changer.

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

For many parents, using loans to pay for a shortfall in college funds is the only way to get the bill paid.  At this point, many parents are drained and unable to go the extra mile to figure out the maze of college loans.  It it should be no surprise, that the worst loan is the easiest and most available on every financial aid offer – the Parent Plus loan.

We strongly discourage parents from taking out loans in their names to pay for college. Loans in the student’s name are the best option and co-signing is the second best option.  Again, taking loans in you name can be harmful during retirement. Borrowers over 60 are the fastest-growing segment of student loan debtors as parents choose to take on the loan burden for their kids.

Being taken advantage of

We have seen and heard about a lot of scams over the years. We simple say “be careful.” Scholarship scam services charge you high fees for something you could do on your own. FAFSA filers want to charge you to file the FAFSA which you can do for free.

Plenty of great FREE resources are out there to help. We strive to share them with you (with resources like our high school sponsored workshops, free online web events, our blog library and newsletter.)

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

Schedule a Free 30 Minute Call with me to discuss your situation.


About the author 

Stuart Canzeri

Stuart Canzeri is a well-respected professional in the world of college funding and financial planning. He's known as the "College Financial Guy" on the internet, where he's helped countless families save significant money on college costs. With more than 20 years of experience in the field, he's become an expert in investment, tax planning, and overall financial management.

Stuart has a strong educational background, which includes a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tulane University, a Master of Business Administration degree from Mercer University, and a Certified Financial Planner certification from the University of Georgia. These credentials allow him to effectively work with a variety of clients, including business owners and corporate executives.


College Plan, Juniors and Seniors

You may also like

  • Hi Stuart,

    Another mistake I see people making is deferring loans by continuing with higher education.

    Yes, your loans can be deferred while you’re working on a graduate or doctorate degree, but they are still incurring interest, and you’re probably taking out new loans for the higher degree, which just adds to your overall debt.

    So not worth it unless you have a very specific career plan that requires a higher degree. This post is very much helpful and a lot of students didn’t know where they are getting themselves into and then regret it afterwards.

    Hopefully more students would be able to reach this post for them to be reminded. Thank you for sharing this list!

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Subscribe to our newsletter now!