College Search and Application Help Services – a Good Idea?

imagesCAWD0DLEI’m posting this blog based on a client’s suggestion after they were approached by a college application service about college planning for their high school Junior. As far as saving more money to pay for college, it’s a bit too late with only a year plus months until tuitions come due. And that’s the hook many private counseling services work on … the idea they can save you money* or find the right school for your student.

I’ve always been a skeptic primarily because the journey of your student child exploring their options gets them better prepared to make a decision that has lifetime consequences. This sounds scary … but, the intent is to have you, the parent, recognize someone else shouldn’t do the work (which is what these services purportedly are doing). The hired – for a fee (and probably other hidden commissions later when you move your money as they often suggest) firm often looks at the same resources you have access to.

As a parent having gone through this with two of my own children … and being on the inside as a financial planner (at one time considered offering these services to clients myself – until I saw the hidden agenda) … I think you’ll find 90% of what you need to know looking through a handful of good websites (the other 10% from the high school counselor).

There are two Search Phases, in order of priority – 1) Career Search Phase and 2) College Search Phase. Most people forget about the 2nd since the 1st has rolled up on them now that their student is almost done with high school. I discuss them out of priority simply because many are so focused on the second … and then once into the College Search Phase realize they skipped a step – the Career Search Phase.

Here are some websites that may help in various parts of your student’s search – College Search Phase:

Finding colleges with programs towards her area of study interest (see Career phase search below)  https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/find-colleges?affiliateId=rdr&bannerId=csearch & https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search

Main page for State and UC campuses and other info (check for similar sites in your State if you live, or intend to, go to a school outside of CA: http://www.calstate.edu/  & http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/

Info on putting all the pieces together http://collegecost.ed.gov/ & http://going2college.org/StateResources/index.cfm

Info on Student Aid http://studentaid.ed.gov/  with link for all you’d need to know about FAFSA and the true FAFSA site https://fafsa.ed.gov/index.htm (caution: if you Google FAFSA, you most likely will get .com sites that are NOT the .gov site), and before Jan of your student’s Senior HS year, you can use the FAFSA4CASTER http://studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa/estimate (Jan of their HS year – and each year they’re in school – you have to use the FAFSA site to submit the info for the prior Calendar Year, for official aid determination from the school the next Academic Year).

Try Googling for scholarships, many for nationalities (often as little as 1/8th), based on interests, academic study, and often the college themselves may have scholarships. Most colleges also have work study programs that help with tuition. Sometimes grants (free tuition money) are available at the college too. Financial aid is basically a term meaning a loan of some kind – loans mean they need to be repaid. The PSAT has scholarship potential attached to it for some students (must be taken in 11th grade) and also has a service where colleges can notice your student too – their Student Search Service where colleges can see the students they’re interested in … one just like yours.

The PSAT brings up the topic about SAT and ACT testing. There are practice tests and questions online: http://sat.collegeboard.org/practice/sat-practice-test & http://sat.collegeboard.org/practice/sat-practice-questions and http://www.actstudent.org/sampletest/ . With these practice results, your student may focus their study on key areas they should work more on.

Talking with high school career counselors would be helpful. Look at your student’s high school website for a counseling or career center link for services at the high school. These counselors may tell you what qualifications different schools require, such as types of classes. With this in mind, it is often a good idea to talk with them about the high school classes your student should take to have a competitive application to colleges – this step is best done during their Freshman year!

Technique that may help you put it all together before you actually have to … is attend the programs your high school career counseling center may have during your student’s Junior year – beginning as soon as they start school in the Fall (don’t wait – because the application season is in the Fall and you will have missed these info programs if any are provided by your high school). You will have gone through a practice cycle all through the school year during your student’s Junior HS year and will be better informed about what comes next when it’s for real their Senior HS year. Once you get higher education schools narrowed down, you can ask the college for the contact info for the regional college representative (each college admissions office often has someone nearby that you can contact for more info about the school and insights and suggestions they may have that is specific about their college).

 

Is your student unsure about what they may be interested in? This is common – how would they know what kind of jobs and careers are out there – they’re only teens who have not had many life experiences yet.

Career Search Phase: One great resource, with NO obligation to the military – however a great tool for students to see where their interests and personalities may fit in our economy in jobs and careers is the http://official-asvab.com/ (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery).

And here’s another government site that may help your student explore their interests and what different jobs and occupations pay, etc. http://www.bls.gov/k12/students.htm (you can also use the search box and type in a job or career to get detailed information about it in the Occupational Outlook Handbook such as wages, how to get training, work environment, etc.).

This phase is actually needed before they even get to the college search phase above!

 

All of this is often scarier for the parent than for the student!

Use resources already available to you that are free and save your money for what you really need it for – your student’s education! I really don’t think you should pay good money for these private programs offered by planning firms – there’s not much value added over what the student should do as part of their soul-searching and college search endeavors … the process the student goes through is important for their buy-in and decision-making in my humble opinion. If someone else does that for them, not long after college starts the student often changes their minds.

 

*Beware of suggestions to move your money in order to qualify for more financial aid (shifting and shielding). There are proper ways to help with aid eligibility (again – most likely loans – decreasing your Expected Family Contribution increases your eligibility for loans and work study, not grants). More often than not, people who come to me after moving money around have put themselves in a worse situation for having money available for their reserves, later college costs, or their own retirement … and usually it doesn’t help all that much as far as increasing the ultimate aid (again, most likely loans – is that really what you want to do?) outcome.

 

Final notes:

1) Typically, you can get a better idea of what tuition and fees are at a college by going directly to their site and typing “Cost of Attendance” in their search box. Then use the Affordability and Transparency site from http://collegecost.ed.gov/. Final note … don’t overpay for education in careers that don’t pay enough to repay aid loans or will take a long time to repay … in other words, look for an affordable education – your student’s abilities will be more important later on than what school they attend in most cases.

2) You do want to spend some of your money for qualifying expenses since these expenses are covered, dollar for dollar, through various educations tax credits, or education deductions (what is the difference between tax credits and deductions?) :

http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Education-Credits
http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Benefits-for-Education:-Information-Center
http://www.irs.gov/uac/American-Opportunity-Tax-Credit

 3) Don’t let the tax-tail or attempt to manipulate the FAFSA-tail wag the dog where you unwisely spend $1 to save 25 cents … more frugal than wise by forgetting what the ultimate goal is – an affordable education that the student actually completes combined with their other skills in life – both which will provide them with their total potential Human Capital.

 

This link covers other blogs on college topics that I’ve posted.

About Larry Frank, Sr.

Larry R Frank Sr., MBA, CFP®, is an experienced financial advisor and a published author on Retirement Planning Research. Have a financial question? Click Here to Ask Larry

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