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Strategies to Decrease the Cost of College #1 – The Most Expensive College?

What is the most expensive college? 

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“The one you don’t graduate from!”
It is sort of a trick question and the answer commonly elicits a chuckle from a crowd. Yet, when I ask this follow up question – “How many of you know an individual who did not graduate from the first institution they attended?” – without fail 1/2 to 3/4 of the hands shoot up. Most of us do.
Nearly 1 in 2 students do not graduate from the 1st school they attend. Maybe you know “Passive Aggressive Pete”:

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“Pete” was a young man whom I invited into my office at the University of St. Thomas. Pete a stellar high school student, was failing most of his courses. “Surely, there are resources UST can provide to assist”, I asked. Pete looked at me and candidly replied, “Nope. I’m pissing my old man’s money away”. Pete eventually revealed he didn’t want to be at St. Thomas – but didn’t have a choice – everyone in the extended family had attended UST…
UST is a fine institution. But in Pete’s case did not fit. This was his passive-aggressive way of making his point. In today’s dollars, this is an awful lot of $$ to flush away. 
Maybe you know an “Annika”? 

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Class valedictorian. Had many many colleges recruiting her, yet her parents refused to take her to visit any of them, albeit one option – The University of Minnesota – because it was close and “cheaper” than most. But, Annika didn’t want to go to school in MN – the U. was not a good match – she did not want an extension of high school and yearned to experience a diversity of thought, culture, etc. She certainly didn’t want to attend a school with 35,000+ other undergraduates. Annika managed for a couple of years, before dropping out. She is now working as a barista at a Starbucks.
Turns out the U wasn’t “cheaper” after all. 
You likely know someone who chose their college by following friends (or worse yet a boyfriend/girlfriend) or because they liked their sports teams or listened to crazy Uncle Bob who claimed, “XYZ University was great for me, it will be for you too” or relied only on “reputation” or waited until the last minute and “fell into a college” or etc., etc.
Unhappily, thousands of Pete’s and Annika’s begin college every year. Students who end up at the wrong school for all the wrong reasons – often leaving sometime during freshman or sophomore year. Annually hundreds of millions of dollars are lost on sunk costs you never get back (room/board/tuition/fees/travel/etc.), lost wages, credits which don’t transfer lengthening the time to degree completion, additional loan debt, and so forth and so on.
Contrast them with “Danielle” the Designer. 

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Egad, Danielle’s dream school is ranked 191st by a national college ranking service! Her dad, the practical sort, wants her to major in chemistry because it is a “promising” career field and of course he has a colleague whose daughter has a fashion design degree and is managing a GAP store at the Mall of America. Mom wants “her baby girl” to go to school close to home. 

What would you do?

Fortunately, Danielle never waivered. Cooler heads prevailed. Ignoring “rankings”, Danielle enrolled at her dream school. She recently completed her junior year and is on track to graduate in four years. This “so-called” 191st ranked program?
The Fashion School at Kent State University.  Industry insiders (those who really matter and do the hiring), consistently rank it as one of the top five in the country. According to one industry professional, “…with study abroad programs in NYC, Paris, & Milan; a large endowment for scholarships, a fashion-focused MBA program, a high profile within the fashion industry…this school is one of the top American fashion schools and keeps getting better…” It is/was a good fit for Danielle. 
“The one you don’t graduate from!” So simple, yet so true – the #1 college cost-saving strategy really is finding a “Good Match” school.
In fact, life happens, but research shows a strong correlation between enrolling at a “good match” school and retention and graduation from said school. 
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College is expensive enough. Follow Danielle’s lead. Chose the “right” college in the first place and it will save you thousands of dollars. 
Need help finding good match colleges. Contact me. and I can work with you to shave thousand’s of $$ off a college degree.  

Jeff has spent 30+ years working in higher education as a Registrar and Director of Student/Academic Services. As an educational college planning consultant, he uses his experience and insights to save you $$$ by helping you in identify “good match” colleges to fit your academic, social and financial needs.


Strategies to Decrease the Cost of College #4 – Graduation Rates


College Graduation

What is the admit rate to Harvard? Stanford? University of Minnesota?
Many know because so much gets written and too much emphasis is placed upon how difficult it is to get into certain colleges.
When considering colleges, rarely does one ask, “What is Wossamotta U’s graduation rate?” When the ultimate end game is to graduate – I want to know how long it will take to get out.
Today it takes students on average 5.1 years to graduate with his/her four-year degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Thus, it is important to understand the likelihood I am paying for four, five or six years to finish a degree.
The graphic below highlights how much a degree will cost (based on Fall 2018 cost of attendance) if completing it in four, five or six years at three different schools. 

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Sadly, four in ten families have no strategy to pay for four years of college, let alone five plus – Sallie Mae 2017 – How American Pays for College. – with each year beyond four typically funded by taking on increased debt.
It is extremely important to find and enroll at a good fit school. Statistics tell us tells there is a direct correlation between choosing a “good match” school and your retention and ultimate graduation from that school – even if it takes you > four years. But, the numbers do tell us something.
Look at the percentage of students who graduate from these schools in four years:
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Compared to:
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Comparing graduation rates can yield potential cost-savings. In a surprising number of instances, your overall out of pocket costs will be lower if you graduate in four years from a “higher cost” school than six years from a school with a lower sticker price.
Just as I advocate never eliminating a school based on its sticker price if Winona State University is a good fit and your top choice do not eliminate it solely because their four-year graduation rate is lower than others.
All schools have warts and many students leave for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with the college itself, and just because the typical student doesn’t graduate in four years it does not mean you will not, however…
Be mindful of certain realities – something systematic regarding how a school offers (sequences) classes or the types of students it attracts or its student services/resources or cost of attendance, or funding mechanisms or etc., makes it more difficult to graduate in four years than other schools.  
Focus less on admit rates. Pay more attention to graduation rates when determining if a college is a good financial fit.
After all, the goal is to graduate. And in my humble opinion – in four years or less!
Need help finding good match colleges. Contact me. and I can work with you to shave thousand’s of $$ off a college degree.  

Jeff has spent 30+ years working in higher education as a Registrar and Director of Student/Academic Services. As an educational college planning consultant, he uses his experience and insights to save you $$$ by helping you in identify “good match” colleges to fit your academic, social and financial needs.

Strategies to Decrease the Cost of College #6 – Dual Enrollment




A typical four-year state institution will cost you approximately $26,000 to attend for one academic year (see chart below). 
A dual enrollment strategy (taking AP, PSEO, IB, CIS or PLTW coursework in high school) is one of my favorite strategies to save families money on the cost of college.
Shaving one semester or even one year off a college degree is easier than you think – if you know what you are doing. 


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After a workshop recently, a family came up and asked, “Can you help us get our son more credits for his PSEO classes”. As a former registrar, I knew the answer would be no. 
As a cost-saving strategy, their son enrolled in a Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program at a local community college. The hope – he would graduate in 2 to 2 1/2 years with his four-year degree.
The reality – his first choice school was only awarding him nine credits towards his degree requirements for the two years worth of PSEO classes he completed. Sadly, he had taken the wrong courses. Many mistakenly believe all college credit is created and awarded equally. 
There is a BIG BIG BIG difference between a course being accepted in transfer and how it will be used to satisfy a degree requirement. Did I mention BIG?
Many colleges will “transfer” in all your courses with a grade of “C” or better, but the critical question you need to ask yourself  – which courses will count toward my degree program? 
How colleges accept dual enrollment credit (or any transfer credit for that matter) is highly variable from school to school and even program to program within individual schools. 
Let’s assume you took AP Chemistry in high school with the goal of satisfying a lab science requirement in college. Let’s further assume you scored a 4 on the exam. If you enroll at Hamline University your AP Chemistry course will only count as an elective.  


At the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire the same result means you will be awarded 5 credits for their CHEM 105/106 course (satisfying a general education lab science requirement). Whallah – you are five credits closer toward your degree!



Why the difference? The reasons are nuanced and too numerous to discuss on this post, but the basic reality is the same – there is no universal standard for how an institution will accept college-level credits in transfer into their degree programs. Each school independently determines how a course will transfer. 
What are the keys to employing a successful Dual Enrollment Cost Saving Strategy?
  • sdrowkcaB gnikroW – research and understand Degree Requirements
  • Understand this will not work at highly selective schools (schools which enroll < 25-30% of students who apply). 
You need to be strategic and work backward. Start by determining which courses are required to graduate from a specific degree program

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then research which dual enrollment courses you can take to pluck off degree requirements. In this University of North Dakota (UND) example, taking AP Calculus AB (and scoring 3 or greater on the exam) is equivalent to UND’s MATH 165 Calc I course. One course down.
Taking POLS 1031 as a Century College PSEO student and getting a grade of “C” or higher is equivalent to taking UND’s POLS 115 course thus satisfying their Essential Studies Social Science requirementTwo courses down.
And so on!
Will this strategy work for everyone? No – you need to successfully complete college-level coursework. But plenty of students can and do.
Does it take time and effort to research? Yes. Is the research easy? No – you must meticulously determine how each course will transfer to multiple good match schools.
Simple strategy? I think so. 
Knocking off time and credits to complete your college degree by taking the “right” dual enrollment courses is an extremely effective way to save time and money.


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*Approximate Fall 2018 COA

Enrolling in and completing dual enrollment coursework is one of my favorite college cost-saving strategies.  
Seem like a great idea, but too much for you to handle. Contact me… I have helped numerous families shave thousand’s of $$ off a college degree, by counseling them on the “right” dual enrollment classes to take.
You have plenty of good fit options!

Jeff has spent 30+ years working in higher education as a Registrar and Director of Student/Academic Services. As an educational college planning consultant, he uses his experience and insights to save you $$$ by helping you in identify “good match” colleges to fit your academic, social and financial needs.

College Admissions – Is a Deadline Really a Deadline?

I got a panicky call from a family yesterday. The college bound daughter became interested in applying to a certain public university but missed the last admissions deadline – published on the school’s admission page as December 1, 2016.  “Do we have options?”

Having worked in this environment for many years, I understood that often a published “Deadline” isn’t exactly a hard and true “deadline”. Why? One word. Yield.

I contacted said admissions office, and received this quick reply, “Although our deadline was December 1, our application is currently still available on our website. I would encourage your student to apply as soon as possible, as the application may close at any time. I hope this information is helpful. If you have additional questions, feel free to contact the Office of Undergraduate Admissions”

This response didn’t surprised me. Why? One word. Yield.

What is yield? #1 – Yield is the magic metric that keeps college admissions officers up at night. #2 – Yield in college admissions is simply the % of students who enroll after having been offered admission.

What did this response show me? The school hadn’t reached the magic number of applications it believes it needs to hit targeted yield numbers for the upcoming academic year. They were still open for business. The published deadline wasn’t really the DEADLINE.

I am in no way implying you should roll the dice in the college application deadline game. I would never counsel families I work with to do so. Missing published deadlines for certain institutions (highly selective) or admission statuses (early decision, early actions) means you are SOL.

Predicting yield at the majority of colleges or universities from year to year is a fools errand at best. Missing deadlines has real consequences – you end up at the back of the line for aid distribution (merit and need), housing, registration priority, etc. But…

Your college bound son or daughter is really really really interested but they “”ran out of gas, had a flat tire. didn’t have enough money for cab fare, an old friend came in from out-of-town, someone stole their car, there was an earthquake, terrible flood. Locusts! IT WASN’T their FAULT, they SWEAR TO GOD!” and missed the published application deadline.

Or in the case of the family who called me, the daughter simply became infatuated with a school late and was willing to accept the low priority consequences, then…

There is no harm in asking.

The answer you receive from many institutions will be predicated more by reaching the requisite number of applications to yield the number of incoming students the institution has budgeted for than by any calendar declaration as published on the web site.

The answer will be a polite “NO” or more often than you think, “Yes, you still have time to apply”.

Tuition Tuesday – College Savings Event


Find a great doorbuster deal this past shopping weekend.  Saved yourself a couple hundred $$. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Passé.

How does saving thousands of $$$ grab you? Carol Merrill, what are we featuring behind Door #3…

College Tuition Savings.

There are many strategies to save on college tuition costs. Taking advantage of dual credit options offered by your high school is one such strategy. There are a number of programs:

  • Advanced Placement (AP)

  • Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO)

  • International Baccalaureate (IB)

  • College in the Schools (CIS)

that may be available at your high school.  However, be careful and strategic in planning duel credit options in a high school curriculum. Why? Consider the following quote from one university system,  “Many of our colleges grant credit to first-year students who have participated in such programs, but each institution has a slightly different policy. Find out which colleges accept what.”

Very true, but also very incomplete. The rub. Not all transfer credit is created equal. There is a BIG BIG difference between “credits being accepted ” and how they “satisfy degree requirements.” The key – satisfying degree requirements. This is how you reduce time to degree completion, thus saving you time and $$.

Working with a trusted college admission professional can save you thousands of dollars on the cost of a four-year degree by helping plan a strategy to maximize the number of dual degree credits which count toward degree requirements or by simply steering you to good match colleges thereby increasing odds of graduating in four years.

Let’s make Tuition Tuesday an annual college planning blockbuster savings event.   Start saving on the cost of college today. As an added bonus – sign up for any of my college planning packages by December 31, 2016 and I will knock 10% off the price.

Happy Tuition Tuesday!





The Most Expensive College?

The one you DO NOT graduate from!


Only 48.5% of students graduate from the first college they attend.  Nationally 33% will transfer. Others simply never complete a degree. Think about that for a second. 48.5%. It is a pretty horrid success rate, not to mention a colossal waste of time and money.

Why the poor success rates? Far too many begin the college search too late – often waiting until senior year. Happy accidents do occur, but frequently a late start results in poor colleges choices – bad matches. Assessing good match (fit) colleges takes time and effort and cannot be done by simply reviewing college rankings list.

On way to mitigate the cost of higher education is to start early. Starting late does not leave enough time to properly research, analyze and carefully consider which colleges are good matches in three important areas – academically, socially and financially.

Top Ten Reasons to Choose a College

# 10 Because my friends, boyfriend/girlfriend is going there.
# 9A Its only 50 miles from home!
# 9B It’s 1,500 miles from home!
# 8 The Football team is good. It must be a good school!
# 7A Mom’s an Alumnus
# 7B Dad’s an Alumnus
# 7C Aunt Mabel’s an Alumnus
Wossamotta U. “it’s perfect for you”
# 6 It will make my “insert anyone but you“ happy
# 5 They sent me a brochure!
# 4 I toured. The Gals/Guys “Hubba Hubba”
# 3 I’m too busy. I will apply to several senior year and just pick one that admits me.
# 2 “Were only interested in the cheapest schools”
# 1 “It’s ranked in the Top 20”


When only 48.5% of students graduate from the first college they attend, one simple fact rings true – the most expensive college is the one you don’t graduate from. Families who work with a college admissions expert significantly increase these odds and student’s often graduate from 1st choice schools in 4 years or less.




College Visits – 10 Tips

Leaves are changing color.  A nip is in the night air.  Students are eagerly awaiting some time off. Holidays already? Nope. MEA is in the rear view mirror.  For many MEA (Fall break in MN) means hitting the road, – it’s College Visit season.


To my way of thinking visiting a college campus is a must. You will never get a true sense of campus life from web sites, brochures, virtual tours, your friends, or crazy uncle Louie.
Each college has a unique personality. Only by visiting campus will you get a true sense of what a college – and life at that college – is really like and whether any particular college is the right fit for “You”.
Enjoy fall break and if you happen to be visiting a campus or two over MEA (Oct. 20-23), consider these tips to help you get the most out of your visits.
Tip #1 – Don’t’ be afraid to ask questions, after all this is a big decision, but please, please, please let your son or daughter take center stage. During the formal presentation or tour, let them ask the questions and form their own impressions. Resist the temptation to be “that” parent – the one asking all the questions as your son or daughter slowly slinks into the shadows – you will have plenty of opportunity to corner an admission rep once the formal visit is over.
Tip #2Don’t drag the entire family along. Ten year old’s Tommy and Timmy incessantly asking “can we go yet”during the tour or enthusiastically enjoying video games during the information session only serves to detract from the experience of your college bound daughter or son.
Tip #3Don’t schedule more than 1 visit per day – a visit is more time consuming than you realize. How long will you be on campus? Plan to spend at least a half a day per visit.
Tip #4 – Have Fun. Don’t make college visits an ordeal. Treat it as a mini vacation. Relax and enjoy yourself. Plan time to wander around town after the formal tour and presentation. Take in the local sites. Grab a bite to eat at a local favorite – you just might stumble upon a local “secret”, like Cookie Dough Egg Rolls.  “MMMM…Egg Rolls”.  Explore the surrounding community – you just might be living there for four years.  
Tip #5 – Wear comfortable shoes. Visits require a lot of walking. Heels, sandals, flip-flops, soccer spikes. Really?  I’ve seen plenty of miserable people after an hour+ tour.
Tip #6 – Wear appropriate clothing. While it is unnecessary to dress up, your wardrobe will be noticed. Dress casual – don’t make admissions officers uncomfortable talking to you by wearing inappropriate clothing.  Don’t be the ”    ” who wears the “Bucky Badger” sweatshirt when touring the University of Minnesota. Check the weather, dress for the climate and season.
Tip #7 – The quality of tour guide(s) varies. Almost all will be current undergraduate students. If your gut instinct is “I love this place”, don’t let first impressions of one admissions officer, tour guide, professor, or student influence your overall feelings about a college.
Tip #8– Talk with Current Students! They are the best source of unvarnished information. If you truly want to understand what it is like to be a student on campus ASK THEM. If you visit during an off period and not many students are around, contact the admissions office for the names of current students (and contact information) who are willing to speak to prospective students.
Tip #9 – Your interested in biology, but the tour didn’t feature the biology lab…  Wander off the beaten path. Seek out areas of campus that interest you. After the admissions office spiel and tour take a behind-the-scenes peek for yourself. Campuses are welcoming and open. Don’t just talk to students. Talk to professors, staff, and the barista at the on campus coffeehouse. Each will give you a different perspective of what it is like to be a student at this school.
Tip #10 – Although not guaranteed, showing demonstrated interest can be a tip factor in your being admitted or not. The first way to show interest – Show up for an official campus tour and information session. It is one of many activities that earns a prospective student demonstrated interest points. Don’t try to game the system (by signing up but not showing). There’s a reason those sneaky admissions reps make you sign in.
Demonstrated Interest Hint: It is a good idea to introduce yourself to the admissions representative assigned to your school or geographic region. Ask if it is feasible to meet with him/her. If they are busy follow up with an e-mail.
Bonus Tip  – The ideal time to visit a campus is when classes are in session. Life happens and often you must visit during an “off time”. If visiting during an “off-time”, keep in mind that what you see may not be reflective of the normal campus environment. If you like a college when visiting during an off time, make sure you schedule another visit when school is in session.


Scholarships – The Holy Grail

You’ve completed the FAFSA.  Seen your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) figure for the next academic year. Likely are thinking, “how am I going to pay for this?” You are in same boat as the vast majority of families – make too much to qualify for Federal Aid, but can’t simply write a check for the cost of college.
Your thoughts turn to scholarships… the Holy Grail of college funding.
We’ve all seen the headlines screaming, “How I Helped My Son Win over $100,000 in College Scholarship $$… and I Can Show You How You Can Too”.  Don’t believe the hype.  The secret – sweat equity.  The rule of thumb for national scholarship competitions:
  • For every 100 scholarships you find, you
  • May qualify for 10, and odds are you “might” win
  • One!
There are no magic wands.  Don’t be romanced by the headlines or focus your entire strategy on the big payout potential of national competitions like Coca Cola Scholars or the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. Why? Exactly two students from Minnesota were recognized as Coca Cola Scholars in 2016. Wisconsin three. California the most populous state, 15. The odds are long. The competition is intense.
The minuscule % of families who manage such headline grabbing awards often employ a scholarship or two or three a day approach.  If your child has the gumption to research, apply and submit as many as three scholarship entries a day, by all mean have at it. For the rest of us lazy souls?
Turn your attention to the greatest source of scholarship $$. The colleges themselves. To get you started visit my College and University Scholarships page which will link you to the freshman merit or general scholarship opportunities at many colleges.
Look first for automatic scholarships. Many colleges offer them based simply on test scores, GPA, and academic rank. Don’t stop there. Dig deep. The linked College and University scholarship pages do not represent a schools comprehensive list of free money. Dig into the college web site to unearth opportunities for transfer, sophomore, junior, and senior students. Hint: you will often (but not always) find this information within individual academic departments in the form of scholarships, grants, stipends, fellowships, etc. or on the schools financial aid page.
The next best source of scholarships? Local opportunities, which too many families overlook. Don’t underestimate the potential payout from local sources. You will likely qualify for many many more $500, $1,000, or $2,000 local scholarships then any national competition. Last year Cola Cola Scholars had 150 winners and upwards of 70,000 applications. Your local credit union = three $2,000 scholarships and maybe 25-30 applications, 100 tops – have to like those odds.
The first places to look locally are:
  • chambers of commerce
  • fraternal organizations (Lions, Elks, Rotary, VFW, American Legion, etc.)
  • your church
  • your financial institution
  • counseling/guidance office at your high school
  • your employer
  • athletic organizations
  • charitable organizations
  • my list of scholarships open to MN residents
Don’t have the time to do the research. Don’t know where to start? Need help crafting a strategic scholarship search or strategy to find good match colleges where your daughter/son may qualify for merit scholarships?  Give me a shout.




Tips for Completing the FAFSA

Tips for Completing The FAFSA

Tis the season for the annual college financing rite of passage, October 1, 2016 means it is time to complete the FAFSA for the 2017-2018 academic year. What do you mean October 1st?????

The US Department of Education announced a big change to the FAFSA Financial Aid application process last year. The opening date (Oct. 1, 2016 is the first day the FAFSA is available, not the deadline as is being erroneously reported by some media outlets) to submit your FAFSA has moved up to October 1, 2016 (from January 1, 2017) for the 2017-2018 academic year and all subsequent years. The change was made to more closely align the awarding of financial aid with the college admissions process. The net benefit; (1) families will be able to submit applications earlier, (2) use the previous years tax returns and (3) financial aid awards will be known earlier to assist in making informed admission decisions.

Tip #1: Don’t leave $$$ on the table

Many families do not bother to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (aka, the FAFSA) because they do not believe they will qualify. Don’t make this mistake! What many fail to understand is that most colleges and universities will not consider you for institutional awards (scholarships, grants, etc.) if you have not completed the FAFSA. Don’t leave free money on the table. Get your pencils sharpened and file the FAFSA on or soon after October 1, 2016.

Tip #2: Get Your FSA ID before Oct 1st.

October 1st is right around the corner. To submit your FAFSA both parents and students will need a FSA ID. This ID is necessary to sign and submit your application. If you don’t have a FSA ID (which replaced the FAFSA Pin #) avoid the October 1st rush and request yours today at Federal Student Aid.  

Get it soon. The FAFSA system will be flooded with requests on and around October 1st. Avoid potential filing delays – remember many institutions award financial aid on a first come first serve basis.

Tip #3: List Your Earnings Correctly

Getting ready to fill out the 2017-18 FAFSA or CSS Profile?  When you do make sure to double-check your figures for accuracy. Make sure the amounts are accurate and don’t reflect over inflated assets (a common mistake). Check for these common errors:

Make sure the figures you report on the FAFSA and CSS profile (a little over 300 schools require this second financial aid form) match.  Failing to do so will trigger a financial aid audit, delaying your financial aid award and in many cases requiring you to send copies of your filed tax returns to college financial aid offices.

List your earnings correctly. Questions 88 and 89 ask – “How much did your parent(s) earn from working in 2015?  The question and directions are somewhat vague and you want to enter the largest number possible (to maximize your award). Why? The FAFSA formula uses this figure to calculate an allowance (the amount you are allowed to shelter against reported income (roughly $7,000 for public schools and $40,000 for private schools). What should you do? Look at your W-2 and enter the amount from Box 5 – your income before 401k contributions are removed. If self-employed enter the profits from your business not the gross income.

Listing earnings incorrectly won’t break the bank, but doing so will likely net you a couple of hundred dollars each year. Add this up over four years and it will significantly reduce your out of pocket cost to attend college.

Tip #4:  Know What Assets Count

The FAFSA methodology does not consider the home you live in, your retirement plans or insurance as investments.  When answering the “What is the net worth of your parents’ investments, including real estate” (Question #91) don’t include your primary residence.  Your primary residence is a protected asset on the FAFSA and does not need to be included.  Your other real estate holdings – a second home, rental property, vacation property, etc. are not protected and do need to be included when answering this question.

Do not include the value of your retirement accounts.  This is a protected asset. Do not include the value of qualified retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, pension plans, annuities, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, Keogh, profit sharing, SEP and SIMPLE plans. Doing so will likely increase your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  Note: Tax free contributions to a qualified retirement plan and distributions from a qualified retirement plan are usually reported as income.

529 Plans Special Rule of 2009.  Reporting a 529 plan as a student asset is a common mistake.

Per FAFSA Directions:  “Investments also include qualified educational benefits or education savings accounts (e.g., Coverdell savings accounts, 529 college savings plans and the refund value of 529 prepaid tuition plans). For a student who does not report parental information (independent student), the accounts owned by the student (and/or the student’s spouse) are reported as student investments in question 41 (Student Assets). For a student who must report parental information (dependent student), the accounts are reported as parental investments in question 91 (Parent Assets), including all accounts owned by the student and all accounts owned by the parents for any member of the household.”

Incorrectly counting a 529 plan as a student asset will likely increase your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  Rather than being counted in the parent assessment at a rate of 5.64%, it is assessed at a student rate of 20% in the EFC calculation.

Tip #5 Value Real Estate Correctly 

Parents who own a rental or second home shouldn’t enter its market value (a common mistake).  Instead, enter its net worth – the value minus any debt owed on it.  When valuing such property’s start by using the IRS definition of the properties quick-sale value – 80% of the property’s fair market value – or what it could quickly sell for.

Tip #6 Don’t List your business if you don’t have to.

Question #92 asks “What’s the net worth of your parents’ current businesses?  The answer for the vast majority of family’s who file the FAFSA is probably nothing, even if they own one. Since 2005 families who control more than 50% of a business with 100 or fewer full-time employees are exempt from reporting.

Tip #7 Avoid Common Errors

  • Failing to sign the FAFSA (both student and custodial parent need to sign).

  • Leaving a data field blank, instead of entering a zero (“0”).

  • Using commas instead of decimal points  – all amounts need to be rounded to the nearest dollar.

  • Adding an extra zero, for example writing $700,000 instead of $70,000.  Happens more often than you think…

  • Using nickname(s) instead of your legal name(s), i.e., Jeff instead of Jeffrey.

  • Transposing letters or digits.  Most commonly with Social Security and Phone numbers.

  • Don’t miss deadlines. Pay attention to the deadlines that schools post on their web sites. Some colleges and states have very early deadlines for filing the FAFSA. Some award aid on a first-come, first-served basis until the money runs out.

  • Don’t file the wrong year’s FAFSA.  Note: When filing your FAFSA you will notice two options:


Additional Financial Aid Resources

Goal is Graduation Blog

The Goal is Graduation Blog is scheduled to roll out Fall 2016 with the onset of the new school year.

I don’t believe the college planning relationship ends once you have accepted an offer of admission.   Only 48.5% of students will graduate from the first institution they attend.   Time is $$.  A poor initial college choice or uninformed decisions while enrolled mean greater time to and money spent on a degree.  

Check back for tips and advice on college planning focused on strategies to graduate in four years. 


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