Wednesday, December 14, 2011

7 Surprising College Financial Aid Facts That Could Save You Thousands

Although college costs continue to skyrocket in the face of our economic woes, proactive – even affluent - families will pay less than “sticker price” because they learned how the financial aid system really works. Here are seven facts that could help you pay “wholesale” for college:

1. Some Colleges Have More to Give Than Others. Although most schools use the same financial aid formulas, they differ significantly in how much they award in grants, scholarships and other financial aid. Example: the older, prestigious colleges – Ivies and other private universities– offer significant amounts of aid thanks to their large endowments. Public universities offer very little financial aid as they rarely have endowment money worth mentioning. 

2. High Sticker Price Colleges Can Cost Less Than “Cheaper” State Schools. One year at a state university can run around $20,000-35,000 (tuition, fees, room and board, etc.). A private college can cost more than $55,000. But frequently, the more expensive college is cheaper! How? Private colleges and universities use their endowments to meet 90%, 95% or more of financial need. State colleges meet roughly 50-65%. 

3. “Forgotten Middle Class” Families Receive Generous Grants, Scholarships and other Financial Aid. Recently, colleges and universities have publicly courted upper middle class families – regularly awarding five figure sums to parents with six figure incomes. DO NOT pass on filling out the financial aid paperwork if you think you won’t qualify. One study showed that 53% of eligible families did not bother applying – leaving millions on the table. 

4. Grades Have Little To Do With Financial Aid Awards. Many parents assume that their child must have good grades to qualify for grants and scholarships. This is inaccurate. Most colleges award a majority of their grants based on financial need, not merit. Merit scholarships comprise less than 2% of the total “pot.” Although it’s fun to talk about merit scholarships around the office water cooler, the big money - more than 98% - is in the need-based financial aid system. 

5. Two Families Can Have the Same Amount Saved - But One Will Receive Far More Financial Aid Because of Where They Saved. An examination of the financial aid formulas reveals that some assets count against you more than others. And some don’t count against you at all. In general, money saved in a student’s name will penalize you more than money held in a parent’s name – strange but true. You could be better off shifting assets out of your student’s name, perhaps into an asset class that’s entirely exempt (such as retirement accounts, insurance, some annuities, and some business assets).

6. Graduation Rates Differ – More Than You Realize. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked heavily against getting in and out of college in four years. Take a look at the four-year graduation percentages at your local state university ( is a good site). You’ll likely see that about 50% of full-time undergraduate students get out in four years! Why? The answer may surprise you - it’s because kids can’t get classes they need to graduate – not because they’re “slackers”.  Private colleges do a better job at getting kids through school in four years – a typical four year rate is 85% or higher at most prestigious private schools. 

7. The Financial Aid Office may not be your Best Resource …. Most people don’t understand why you’ve got a better shot of seeing Paris Hilton inducted into MENSA than getting meaningful help from a financial aid office. The reason you won’t is related to the nature of higher educational institutions themselves – they are BUSINESSES. I’ll wait for you to recover…yes, I know that they’re ivory-towered, institutions of higher learning. However, they have bills to pay – six figure salaries to pay to most University Presidents, upgrades to their facilities, high wages to pay to tenured professors. So the university has bills to pay and it maximizes its income which can limit your chances for Free money. That’s why asking an employee of that institution for help may be like calling the IRS and demanding that they reveal all their latest loopholes so you can pay less in taxes.

Murray Miller is a financial educator devoted the college planning space for over a decade.  Murray is the President and CEO of the College Resource Center, LLC.  You may contact him by emailing or by calling 800-863-9440. For more information, including a schedule of free college workshops, visit

About Smart Track™ Toolkit: The toolkit is a web based service that assists families with everything from admissions and test prep, to student athletics and financial aid. Our intuitive software and on-demand workshops are key components to making sure students find their top choice colleges, and families can afford to send them there.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why It's Important to Explore Career Options Early

You may be wondering: Why focus on planning my career while I'm still in high school? Can't I make the decision later? The colleges I'm considering won't make me decide upon a major until my sophomore year in college.

Exploring Career Options Early Helps You:

  •  Choose the best college for the career(s) that interest you.
  • Avoid having to extend your time in school. When students switch to a new major later in their college career, it may require taking additional courses and extending the time, and often the money, you must spend on college.
  • Make sure you enjoy the career you choose. Imagine spending four years studying for a particular career only to find once you start working that you hate it!
  • Make contacts that could help you later on with internships, jobs and recommendations.
  • Open possibilities for career-based scholarships, such as those promoting science and technology.
  • Improve your impression on college admissions and scholarship committees.
  • Be happier. Being well-matched in the right school and major makes the whole college experience more enjoyable.

You can always make a final career decision later. It's important to at least begin to explore your interests, abilities, and values and to weed to out the careers that you are not interested in or that may not be suitable for you. Many colleges specialize in specific areas of study. For example, one school may have a world-renowned engineering program, but have very little to offer in the areas of languages or performing arts. Therefore, it is important to have an idea of your interests before starting your college search.

If you make the decision to major in a particular field after you are already in school, you may be forced to change schools in order to accommodate the educational requirements of your newly chosen major and/or career path. Chances are high that not all of your class credits will transfer, and you will end up having to take additional courses. Not to mention the hassle of physically moving to a new location and getting used to a new school. This would cost you and your family a lot of valuable time and money. Depending on the situation, it could add as much as year or two to the time it takes to graduate!

Ways to Explore Your Options Now

Get a job or internship in a field you may be interested in. This gives you an opportunity to try on a career and investigate an industry. It also gives you marketable skills and experience, making you more attractive to both employers and colleges. You may have to work for free at first, but it might be worth it.

Interview people with interesting jobs. You'll learn a lot about various career options, and you'll make contacts that may help you with a job or internship later. Not only that, but the more you know about a particular field of study, the more educated a decision you can make later on.

Develop your hobbies and talents. Try new things. Explore what you love to do, and get out and do it! Not only will life be more enjoyable, but you just may find a career that you love. Also, you'll be improving your attractiveness to colleges and scholarship organizations.

Utilize career assessments to help you identify your strengths and opportunities.  Research-based assessments of work-relevant interests, abilities, and values help people explore career options that are a good match for them.  It provides guidance and information to help people make important career and educational decisions. Ask your guidance counselor if your school offers any of these types of assessments to their students.

Research the trends of various fields - economic, demographic, geographic, etc.   You'll want to know which fields out there are growing with many new opportunities, great income potential, in your favorite locations, working with people you enjoy as opposed to a declining field where your choices and opportunities will be limited and there would be a large chance of facing unemployment and returning to school to be trained in a new career.  You won't know this unless you do the research!

Attend career fairs. It's a good way to build new contacts and explore career options. Check with your guidance counselor and in the job section of your newspaper for a schedule of upcoming events.

Any additional tips to share?  Leave your comments!

About Smart Track™ Toolkit: The toolkit is a web based service that assists families with everything from admissions and test prep, to student athletics and financial aid. Our intuitive software and on-demand workshops are key components to making sure students find their top choice colleges, and families can afford to send them there.

About the author: Laura Guarino is the Student Services Coordinator with The Smart Track Toolkit. Laura has a degree in Human Development from Boston College and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in School Guidance Counseling.  She is also enrolled in a certificate program in College Admissions Counseling.  Laura is at the forefront of the college admissions process for the families of The Smart Track™ Toolkit.

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