January 2020 Newsletter

The Middle-Class Will Pay Any Price

Dear Parent(s),

For parents of a student planning on going to college in the fall, I’ve got some news. Fifty percent of parents will pay any cost to send their child to the college of their dreams.

How much debt are you willing to go into to put your kids through school?

Look around at the parents with kids already in college. Half of them are doing what every pragmatic, dispassionate, and rational financial advocate would tell you to avoid like the plague. Why are so many parents willing to pay so much for a degree that may take decades to pay off financially? I think the real answer, the one that parents themselves don’t realize, is that getting a degree is seen as a moral obligation. Because of this, families will spend whatever it takes. Our culture sends a twisted message; that this is what responsible parents should do for their children.

Parents and students place enormous value on finding the “right” college. There is far more than finding a college or university that is affordable to attend. It is about finding the environment that best promises to help build a social network, generate life and career opportunities, and allow young adults to discover who they are.

With so much at stake, parents and students prioritize the “right” school, and then find ways to meet the cost, no matter what it takes. But there is no guarantee that this bet will pay off — and too often it doesn’t. Life happens, and some parents’ saving plans are waylaid by crises, such as health emergencies, job losses, and family breakups that are impossible to foresee, BUT should be planned for.

Likewise, many students fail to land well-paying jobs out of college, forcing them to bear the weight of paying off debt during the most vulnerable decade of their adult lives. And here’s the kicker: parents make huge investments in education so that their children can maintain or achieve middle-class status — but in the process, they increase the risk of falling out of the middle class themselves!

There are ways to avoid being in this position. One is finding not only a good college match for their student, but also a good financial match for the parents, too.

But this doesn’t happen at the last minute. Peer pressure and emotions are the forces at work in the junior and senior years of high school. They make it hard to reach rational decisions. This is why having the college discussion early is so important. And not just the academic one. When parents begin talking about college in the eighth and ninth grades, they have a good chance to get ahead of the persuasive marketing efforts of the colleges and the hijacking of reason that so often happens in twelfth grade.

By beginning discussions early, expectations can be managed, and students are more apt to look at colleges that their parents can afford. In fact, finding the right college that rewards a students for their grades and test scores, talent or athletic prowess, or “college capital,” is one of the most productive things that can be done to pay the least amount possible at a great college.

I get it. College is part of the American Dream. But always keep in mind that you are a consumer of higher education. A college education is a commodity like any other and the colleges are merely purveyors. And as a consumer, you do have power. Wouldn’t it be wise to use it?

Don’t Panic! It’s Just An Email

It’s common for colleges to send informative and important emails about your student’s financial aid progress. But many aren’t exactly what they seem. Some are blanket emails that go out to every applicant regardless of whether they apply or not. Blanket statements are never useful. The kind the colleges send are nebulous and often send the wrong message. They seed mistrust and are usually intended to make people doubt themselves. Schools tend to be self-serving, even when outwardly it doesn’t appear that way.

The email that causes the most concern is the one saying the school recently received your student’s college application, and that they should file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA and, if applicable, the CSS Profile. Mind you, you could have filed them months ago, but the message parents glean out of that email is that the college hasn’t received them, which threatens their student’s aid package. Colleges use this strategy as a form of marketing disguised as a service. The purpose is to create scarcity in your mind. This is true, because the colleges know whose FAFSA they have received and whose they haven’t.

The exception to the rule is if the college tells you they never received the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile. This one is a little more legitimate, because according to them it’s true. Or it could be a mistake on their part. But it could also be a mistake that the student made.

The guidance from Federal Student Aid and the College Board is that if the college is listed on the Student Aid Report and the CSS Profile receipt has the school’s name on it, the college does indeed have it. They just might not be able to find it and here’s one big reason that might be:

Colleges use social security numbers to match the applicant with the aid forms. Despite our warnings every year, a few students incorrectly enter their social security number on their admission applications. Unfortunately, most parents discover this error late in the process, when their student’s friends are getting award packages and they aren’t. My suggestion is to check the admission applications now before it is too late.

Financial Aid Packages

There’s nothing better for an anxious college applicant than learning they “got in.” With high school seniors applying to colleges earlier than ever, colleges are obliging by sending out admission letters and scholarships now. Not all, mind you, but lots of them are.

Our office just reviewed a financial aid package from a student, and the award was more than generous. Between the scholarship and a small grant, this student received a 71% tuition discount! I’m sure this is the first of many, as she applied to sixteen colleges and universities. Excessive? Yes, but it will likely worth her time and effort — and her parent’s money — to pay for the admission applications.

After all the hard work that goes into preparing and applying for college, it’s hard not to get excited at those first offers of admission. Sometimes it’s harder still to calmly wait until all the offers are in, and comparisons can be made. I urge you to avoid hasty decisions.

Private colleges are depending on emotions to rule the day, and will press you to send in your deposit. Don’t take their bait. You have until May 1 to decide. That’s the law!

In fact, waiting until late April to accept can force a private college’s hand by offering your student additional scholarship money. Deans of Admissions’ — also known as Enrollment Managers — jobs are on the line to fill all the available freshman seats. They face a great deal of pressure to meet their enrollment goals. If they don’t, they may soon be looking for a another job.

As May 1 approaches, they can get nervous and start throwing more money at the students who they want the most.

High School Freshman, Sophomores and Juniors:Take The Standardized Tests As Often As Possible!

This advice flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But guidance counselors and colleges don’t pay your student’s tuition bills. By taking the SAT or ACT as often as possible, your student should improve each time. If not, then taking a test prep course is a viable option. Even incremental increases in scores can mean extra scholarship money.

Even one point can be the difference between paying thousands less per year. Colleges accept both the ACT or SAT, so the only criteria in deciding which test to take is which one will produce the best score. Can you imagine an Olympic swimmer showing up for the big meet without ever having been in the pool to train? It’s the same thing with the standardized tests. The student who tests without any preparation is doing themselves and their parents a disservice.

Some students with otherwise excellent grades just don’t test well on standardized tests.

What is a good Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) score? Scores range from 320 to 1520. The average PSAT score is around 920 (460 in Math, and 460 in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing), while an outstanding PSAT score– one that will qualify your student as a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist– is between 1420 and 1480.

You may have heard about colleges where students don’t have to submit their test scores to be considered for admission. They are called “Test Optional.” Currently, there are more than 1,022 colleges that are now Test Optional.

There is one potential drawback: merit awards are usually based on a combination of test scores and grades.

However, most test-optional colleges will tell you that students who do not submit SAT/ACT scores will still be considered for merit scholarships. For example, Providence College in Rhode Island states that “Students who choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores will still receive full consideration for admission and merit scholarships,”– “full” being open to interpretation.

Hofstra University explains that consideration for merit awards is automatic for all students, but only those that submit scores are eligible for the scholarships bringing the top monetary awards.

Because individual institution financial aid policies differ greatly, it’s hard to know exactly how the student who doesn’t submit scores will be awarded.

Each month, we provide you with tips on your best ways to pay for college regardless of your financial situation.


Well, that’s it for this month.

John Tillman

P.S. If you find this newsletter helpful to you please share it with other parents like yourself!