College planning is an exciting time for juniors and seniors in high school and for their parents. Yet many times all of that excitement and activity leads to incredible stress. Why? Because there is so much information to deal with in a very short period of time. Your child’s GPA is solidifying. Their SAT and ACT test results are coming in. College visits are underway. Applications and essays need to be drafted, edited and finalized. Financial aid forms need to be completed. All the while, you need to keep an eye on college costs, so that the expense balances with your retirement and other obligations.
I know you understand the challenge. The system is complex and colleges have a decision-making process that is riddled in mystery for most students and parents.
The college planning and application process is a major concern now for a lot of Fairfield County families. Especially when they’re facing total 4-year costs of attendance from $100,000 to $290,000 per student. Real help is needed.
College financial planners are here to help, and we’re unique. We’re not high school counselors, college counselors or test prep teachers. Yet we work with all of those other professionals. We’re unique in our focus, which is matching students with schools, while reducing costs and balancing those costs to leave your family financially sound and happy after four years.
As a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, if I had one wish for my clients when it comes to college planning, I wish that parents and students would take adequate time early to fully understand their four-year net cost of attendance and the impact those expenses will have on their retirement plan.
With professional planning there are five important tactics:
- Move money strategically to help reduce the tuition the family has to pay, regardless of wealth.
- Identify and negotiate for more need and merit-based aid
- Find scholarships
- Evaluate loan and payment options using clear criteria
Clients win when their child chooses a great school that balances comfortably within the family’s financial resources. Most families are happy with a fair-minded approach that meets their most important goals.
We seek to optimize results. Most families are relieved that the process leads to highly desirable schools. They find top schools on their list that are very generous financially. They’re out their, because they are competing amongst each other to fill their student enrollment goals. Student enrollment goals are paramount to every school.
Families review the list, add to it and debate over a selection of public and private school choices where the student will most likely enjoy and thrive in their four-year journey. Choosing a solid school match is a big part of keeping costs contained. We don’t want students switching schools, increasing costs and taking more than four years to graduate, if we can avoid that challenge.
The professional planning process leads to clarity and relief for everyone. They can feel confident they are making an informed university choice among great options. A choice that also leads to a better financial outlook. The process focuses on student fit: socially, academically, financially with an eye toward career satisfaction and success. That’s a tall order, especially amidst lives swirling with parent and student responsibilities. Responsibilities that require focused effort, experience, determination and attention.
Pursuing college is about achieving many objectives. Consider adding one more to make the journey along the way a more pleasant one. Find a college financial planner with experience, who can tailor advice to your unique situation. Following what your friends and neighbors are doing may be just the wrong path. There’s value in advice, especially when in many cases, the cost of the advice is less than 10% of the amount that could be saved by using a well-informed, customized strategy designed just for you.
The real disappointment for me is meeting with clients in their later years, and finding out that they compromised their retirement by funding a $200,000 for education for their child, when it’s very possible that they left tens of thousands of dollars on the table.
College admissions officers are in the business of recruiting students for the least amount of money possible to get them to enroll in their institution. To combat this, professionals have developed a whole sequence of strategies and negotiation tactics that help clients reduce their total four-year cost of attendance. The whole family can play a role in these strategies, including grandparents.
Remember, college financial aid award letters in the first year are not always guaranteed every year thereafter. The FASFA application also needs to be filed every fall to keep the aid packages coming. This is an academic marathon our students are running.
Some strategic ideas are on the Internet, and if you have the time, please do your research. On the other hand, finding an advisor that has experience in college planning will help.
Be aware that top-notch college planning advisors have their own expert advisors they go to for advice. Ask the one that you interview, if they are paying to learn about the latest developments in college planning. Do they have top-notch software that produces highly useful reports that can help you and your child simplify the scheduling and planning process and help make decision-making clear and easy.
Some planners will help clients prepare the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). That’s an important service, because these are not simple forms. They use results from your tax returns “prior-prior” (e.g. 2018 returns for the 2020-2021 school season). The FASFA application helps colleges determine need-based aid, and it’s used to confer merit-based aid. No institution will provide merit-based aid, unless this important application is completed. Don’t make the mistake that you earn to much money and won’t qualify for aid. Failing to complete the FASFA form may well lead to sacrificing merit-based aid that represents all of the hard work your child put into High School, good grades and extra curricular activities.
October 1 mark the first day this year that the FASFA application can be completed and submitted for the 2020 – 2021 school year. Some schools may also require the more detailed CSS Profile, which can be a daunting application. You don’t want to make mistakes on either of these detailed applications. Mistakes that could lead to sacrificing need-based or merit-based aid that you truly deserve.
There are a lot of dates to keep in mind, of course. It’s important to stay on top of the deadlines for the financial aid applications, as well as the dates for submitting applications to your chosen institutions. The other dates that you want to note our the standardized test registration and exam dates, as well as college fair dates, and the dates that you will visit the schools.
Because there is so much to do in planning for college, the process is usually a two-year project. Early starters begin Freshman or Sophomore year by visiting college campuses. That kind of travel takes a lot of time, but it can be great fun for the family. Naturally, the closer you get to these deadlines, the more likely professional support will help.
Enjoy the journey and make good choices. The college admissions process and the whole journey is exciting. Don’t let the stress pile up. Seek advice when you need it and don’t be afraid to reach out to a friendly college financial planner when you have the chance. Your time will be well-spent.