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Guide for Effective College Planning – by Andrew Gerlach

College students tossing their caps at graduation

If you have children or grandchildren who plan on going to further their education, college planning is a must.  What most people don’t realize is that college planning is even more impactful the earlier you begin the process.   The reasons are many, however, the real benefit to starting early is that the more prepared your student is, the more likely the student is to graduate on time.  Considering the cost of college these days, the faster your student can graduate, the more money that will be saved.

“At most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, the report found. Even at state flagship universities — selective, research-intensive institutions — only 36 percent of full-time students complete their bachelor’s degree on time.”  – New York Times

An effective college plan will focus on three core components; social, academic, and financial.  Every college and campus are different, so it is important to find a college that your student will feel comfortable in and get the studies they need to complete their degree on time.  Did you know that the best time to visit a college campus is actually during the week while school is in session?  I can’t tell you how many clients I have had that have said they visited the college in the summer and when it came time to actually attend, it wasn’t nearly what we were expecting.  They are then left trying to find another college for their student to attend and what happens if the student isn’t comfortable or has to change their school or studies mid-term; time is lost and money is wasted.

Another commonly over looked fact is that college is a business, a very big business!  Many parents feel that once their student receives their acceptance letter, the college is going to take care of them.  What you may not know is that many schools base their merit not only on what the family can afford now, but what are they likely to get back from their alumni once they are out of school.  I’m not saying that is a bad thing, schools need that revenue to keep their campus up to date on technology and convenience. What I am asking is how can we go about leveraging that information to reduce the upfront costs?   The most effective way is by ensuring that your child is at the front of the line when it comes to how much money the student will be awarded by the school.  It is estimated that only 3% of all tuition comes from Private Sector Funding Grants and Scholarships, the remaining comes from Government programs or the colleges themselves.  Early submission of requirements is one of the easiest methods to obtain a more favorable award letter from the college.  Another method is to ensure that your student exceeds the requirements the school commonly looks for.  Colleges are a community and as such they are looking for people to be leaders and give back to the community.

An important piece to consider is the expected contribution from the family.  You can compare the college experience to buying a car, not everyone is going to pay the same price for the same car, it comes down to how well you are able to negotiate.  When it comes to a college negotiating the price, it comes down to the appeal letters.  They are also able to take into consideration “special circumstances” for instance if there was a significant change in financial status since your base year.  The base year is typically two years prior to your student entering college.  That is typically when your student submits the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid).  About 99% of students file this and it contains some extremely valuable information for colleges.  It contains a figure that is used to determine how much the student will be eligible for in student aid as well as the colleges the student applied too.  Even if you don’t think you are going to qualify for federal funding or consideration, it is important to complete this form and it is even more important to have it completed correctly. 90% of the schools will adjust their “sticker price” (price the college normally charges) off of this form.  The other 10% will use an alternative method called Institutional that is a little more in-depth.  That 10% is usually your Tier 1 schools, Harvard, Yale, etc.  The key to this information is knowing what the sticker price typically is verses the amount of student aid that the school typically hands out, can end up actually costing you less to get into a college that would normally be considered to be more expensive.

Students should also volunteer in the community and in school clubs. It is important to note, that colleges would rather see the student be an active participant and leader in a couple select clubs, than a by-stander in many clubs.  It shows the college that your student has the drive and desire to succeed.  This ties in with what I mentioned before, if your student is a leader, is successful and financially sound, then the student will most likely be willing to donate back to the college once they graduate.  So, it is extremely advantageous for colleges to give you more monies to attend their school.

An effective strategy for college planning should start early.  It should contain all three components and shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.  Most of the time hiring a Certified College Advisor is going to be less expensive than some of your SAT and ACT planning courses are currently.  The planner should also realize that every family is different and therefore not every family will have the same plan, so the solution shouldn’t always be the same.  If you need any further assistance or if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us, we are here to help!


Andrew Gerlach – Certified College Planner