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T'he Biggest Mistake You Can Make About Paying For College

T'he Biggest Mistake You Can Make About Paying For College Each month when we conduct our free workshops, "How to Pay for College Without Going Broke," Pete and I hear this question in some form or another:

"We were told we make too much money to qualify for financial aid. Should we bother applying?"

Here's the answer, once and for all:


Got it?

Many families assume they make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but there are many factors that determine eligibility - not just income. In fact, according to a recent study, 53% of all eligible families never apply for aid!

The main reason preventing them from applying is this misconceived notion that they make too much money. I've had single moms two steps above the poverty line approach me at the end of a workshop, concerned that their income was too high! So if you take nothing else away from this article, focus on this: even families making healthy, six figure incomes will qualify for aid at most schools.

EVERY family with a high school senior bound for college should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The data you enter into FAFSA dictates how much money you are expected to contribute to school. This number is calculated pursuant to the Department of Education regulations.

Filling out a FAFSA is painful. You must be extremely careful - the opportunity for mistakes and pitfalls abound! Each year, an estimated 78-90% of FAFSAs contain mistakes. One of the more common gaffes that severely limits or eliminates deserved aid: listing assets that do not need to be included.

In February, the Miami Herald printed a letter from a Miami Beach woman whose son was admitted to an elite, private school. The family's income was approximately $50,000. However, after she completed her forms, she learned that she was expected to contribute more than $30,000 per year.

In contrast, we just structured a college plan for a client with near-identical finances. Had he done the forms the same way as the Miami Beach woman, his expected contribution for college would have been more than $147,000. After we "fixed" his problem, his magic number was $3,400 per year.

Did we hide assets in a strange offshore account? Nope. Did we perform any alchemy or other magic? C'mon. Did we manipulate things in an illegal, unethical or immoral manner? Of course not!

All we did was follow the guidelines promulgated by the Department of Education. These guidelines read like a phone book. The financial aid formulas consider more than 73 different factors in determining how much aid a family will qualify for.

Unless you are a specialist in this area, you couldn't possibly understand these rules of the game. An easy analogy is tax preparation - sure, you can do your own taxes, but how likely are you to take advantage of every benefit due to you compared to if you retained an experienced CPA? Sure, you can do your own taxes, plumbing, auto repair, whatever, but you can't possibly do as good a job as an expert.

OK, I'm off my high horse. I just broke some bad news; now, here's some WORSE news! Unfortunately, the FAFSA is not the only financial aid form required.

Many private colleges require you to submit an additional form, the CSS/PROFILE. Also, many private schools require their own institutional aid forms. These forms are even more hateful, more onerous than the FAFSA. My partner, "College Pete," likens filling out the Profile to a root canal without Novacaine. How's that for a graphic image?

He's got good reasons for saying this. Here's what he's talking about:

You must be even more careful completing the profile, particularly the sections earmarked for the student to complete. Some common questions for the student to answer: "How much money do your parents have to pay for your college education?"

Whoa, Nelly! How many high-schoolers can answer this question? Do your children know your bank balance?

If the student gives one answer on his form, and you give another figure on your form, there's trouble in River City.

If the private forms and FAFSA are even slightly inconsistent, your financial aid application could be delayed or flat out rejected! And you can't say something like, "my kid was on drugs when he filled out the form - please let me change the answer!" Admissions departments are kind of funny about stuff like that.

Here's the bottom line. You must approach the college financial aid forms very carefully. Be careful whom you speak with - high school guidance counselors are typically too busy to develop any expertise in this area (the average guidance counselor handles something like 471 students in Florida). You CPA, money manager or other trusted advisor may give you advice that might make sense for their purposes, but may actually reduce the amount of aid that you'll qualify for!

Do not wait until the last minute to plan how you will pay for college. Sophomore Year (yes, Sophomore Year!) is the ideal time to get serious about the planning process. Speak to a knowledgeable college financial aid expert sooner, rather than later.

About the Author:

Andrew Lockwood, J.D. and Peter "College Pete" Ratzan, M.B.A. own and operate College Planning Specialists of Florida. For a schedule of their free workshops, or other information about "How to Pay for College Without Going Broke" visit their website, www.CollegePlanningAdvice.com or call directly, 954.659.1234.

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