Most of the time it’s not the “how” but the “who” that makes the difference in a successful college plan.
Thanks to google there is very little we can’t learn how to do these days. It’s an amazing time to be alive!
But is information the same as knowledge?
And if you can take that information and absorb it so you have knowledge, is having that knowledge alone enough to ensure your success?
How much does having knowledge AND experience contribute to the success of something, especially if that something is as competitive and complicated as planning for college?
The answer to all of these is of course not.
And I can say with confidence that conquering the learning curve of how to get students into the best colleges possible and earn huge financial aid awards that make college affordable is something that does not comes easily. Even as a seasoned Certified Financial Planner professional, I have had to spend thousands of hours, over and above what I invested to earn my designations, developing the skills and insights needed to become a leading college planning expert.
And yet, many people attempt to navigate the college process on their own or under the guidance of a volunteer, counselor, or advisor who is not trained to provide them with the solutions they need, especially when it comes to figuring out how to pay for college. No wonder so many people end up frustrated and in debt.
It’s more important than ever that you work with the right kind of advisor when planning for your kids’ college educations. College is expensive and it’s too easy to make mistakes that can cost you tens of thousands of dollars by following the wrong advice.
Knowing the “who” behind the “how”
I’ve noticed 5 categories of college advisors during my career and I’m going to share with you what they are and how they work so you can make sure you are working with the right kind of advisor as you are evaluating how to best meet your planning needs.
Category 1: The Helpful Friend
We often ask our friends for input when we know they’ve done something we’ve never done. And almost everybody knows someone who has sent their kids to college, right? So it just makes sense to most people to tap into their experience to learn how to improve our results too.
This type of thought process sends millions of students and their parents to the college and career room at their high schools each year to learn what next steps to take. These libraries of brochures, books and other resources are nestled among inspiring posters and college pennants hanging from the ceilings. You’ll also often find a couple of gracious volunteers who are generous with their time and steadfast in their devotion to helping students get information about college. They are like the friend, neighbor, or family member you have who helps talk you through something you’ve never done before. And it feels good knowing they’re there as a resource.
o The main advantage of using this type of advisor is they are free, willing to help, and easy to access. Their intentions are well meaning because you know they have your best interest at heart. o The problem is they are very limited in their actual knowledge of how the overall college process works at both a strategic and tactical level. They can provide direction, but not really take you where you want to go with confidence and certainty. o The expectation you should have from working with this advisor is to collect information and get their personal opinion on a variety of college planning topics. You can find much of this information on your own with a few hours on the web, but these folks provide a friendly face and an opportunity to save you some time, which can be valuable. o If you are simply looking to go to your local community college or one of the lower tier universities in your state where your student’s academic qualifications are in line or above their requirements for admissions, working with this type of advisor may be all you need.
Category 2: The High School Counselor
High school counselors can be very helpful in many ways. They carry a lot of responsibility and each one balances a challenging work load centered around a block of students, sometimes totaling over 500-600 per counselor each year.
One of their responsibilities in the counseling department is to provide guidance and recommendations for students and to organize and host college events, like financial aid night and college fairs where colleges come to visit the campus and do their recruiting. These colleges build relationships with the counseling departments because they want to tap into the school’s crop of talent and build the college’s brand in the eyes of that school’s community. And through these relationships and some very basic training, counselors learn what these specific colleges look for and how the process of getting accepted and receiving financial aid generally works.
o The main advantage of using this of advisor is they can know the colleges who come to your high school well and can make strong recommendations for you with the Admissions department for acceptance and scholarship considerations. They also won’t charge you for their time since they are employed by the school.
o The problem with relying solely on your counselor as your college planner is their time and knowledge is very limited, especially if you are considering schools outside of their network or needing help with maximizing your financial aid awards, figuring out how to pay for college, and using financial strategies to help lower your share of the college bill. They simply aren’t trained in these areas, so you’ll need to find answers to these questions elsewhere. o The expectation you should have is one of positive intention, but with limited knowledge and time to help you complete everything that will need to be done on the admissions side of the process. If you don’t already have a good relationship with your counselor, you may have to introduce yourself and complete a fact finder ahead of getting him or her to write you a recommendation for college. They are essential to the application process in that way, but due to the constraints on their time, you may be forced to attend the events the school hosts and try to gather whatever specific college information you need on your own. o If you don’t need a lot of personal attention and are willing to do the leg work to gather critical information yourself, working with your high school counselor can be beneficial. You’ll need to supplement whatever information and resources your counselor does provide, as it tends to be mostly surface level, general information, with things you find on your own, especially in the areas of financial aid and how to make paying for college affordable.
Category 3: The Professional Advisor
We trust professionals when making some of life’s most important decisions, like those involving our health and our finances, so naturally many people turn to professionals like accountants and financial advisors for guidance on college too. As a financial advisor who started out as an investment broker, I can assure you that none of these professional are trained on how to approach the college planning process.
CPA’s see the world through a tax lens and that tends to categorize their advice around vehicles that can offer tax deductions related to college, which can be helpful. Most investment and financial advisors are taught that saving in custodial accounts and 529 plans are the way to meet a client’s college goals, yet the studies show that most families are woefully underprepared for college because they didn’t save enough or because they significantly underestimated the cost of college due to inflation.
CPA’s usually have your best interest at heart, but many financial advisors can be distracted by canned, commission based products that meet their needs in addition to meeting yours.
But here’s the bottom line on working with a financial advisor who recommends a college savings plan to you. There just isn’t much money to be made at the advisor level selling 529 Plans and custodial accounts compared to emphasizing retirement planning where the dollars saved there are larger and the time lines to collect fees are longer. Because of that, helping you meet your college needs is not typically a high priority for most financial and investment advisors, although surveys consistently show that paying for college is higher on most people list of concerns than preparing for their own retirement! Does this sound familiar? Now you know why.
o The main advantage of using this type of advisor is they can help you analyze your financial situation and recommend or help you set up tax advantaged accounts you can use to pay for college. o The problem with depending on your accountant or financial advisor to steer you through the college planning process is that they have virtually no training on how the financial aid system works or how to help you make college more affordable. They know some of the terms and are great at running numbers, but you can do all the right things in the right way for the right reasons and still grossly overpay for college due to their lack of knowledge and expertise. (I’m not knocking them here – remember, I used to be one of them!) o The expectation you should have when working with a professional advisor is one that requires you to make a financial transaction. There will be some logical reasons why the transaction is “in your best interests,” but you will want to examine their advice in the context of your entire college planning landscape before taking action. You’ll also be on your own for all of the research and hours of planning that goes into finding the right colleges and positioning your student to get into them (hopefully with scholarships!) o If you are planning to pay full price for college and only want to use strategies and tools to make your savings work more efficiently, these types of advisors can be very valuable. If instead you want to pay only your fair share of the college bill and need advice on how to position yourself and your student for the best deals possible at each of the colleges you’re considering, you’ll need to look elsewhere. This type of help is simply not what these advisors offer.
Category 4: The College Planner
College has become so expensive and complicated that a new industry of college planners has popped up in the last 20 years or so. Most of these advisors have some type of academic or financial background and almost all of them charge a fee for their services ranging from a few hundred dollars to $5,000+.
A college planner’s job is to provide you with the personal attention you don’t get from these other advisors and give you a framework to follow as they walk you through the planning process, much like a personal trainer would walk you through a workout routine. They may even design the routine and monitor your progress along the way, but at the end of the day, you have to “lift the weights and manage your meal plan” mostly on your own. And even with a person whose background is in education it could be that they know every little about how to actually improve your overall situation; so the scope of their benefits can be very limited in some cases, especially as it pertains to your finances.
Since there are no standardized certifications to complete in order for someone to be a “college planner,” not all college planners are created equally. Because of that you may find a wide variety of qualifications and experience with these advisors, plus a wide range of services offered. Depending on your needs you’ll also probably find a mix of plans and fees available in this category of advisors.
Think carefully about what your needs are and be sure you know what steps you take alone vs. what steps you take together as you consider working with a college planner. Getting your kids into college is a big, time-consuming project and you want to make sure you are delegating the right things at the right times without losing control or getting lost.
o The main advantage to working with a college planner is the level of specific industry knowledge and personal attention you get as a client of theirs. These types of advisors are often some of the ones who come to your high school and host a college planning workshop or speak at a breakout session during financial aid night. They share their knowledge of the general lay of the land and pass along some useful tips on how to navigate the process and manage your timelines. Because of this knowledge and experience, they can usually get better results than other advisors who don’t devote their work efforts exclusively to college planning tasks. Some can also recommend financial solutions that will help you pay less for college and earn more in grants and scholarships. o The biggest disadvantage of working with a college planner is they aren’t free. Just like hiring anyone skilled in a specific area, like a lawyer or the guy who comes and cuts trees down in your yard, using the services of an experienced college planner can save you time and money, making the return on your investment to hire them well worth it! o The expectation you should have when working with a college is one of personal guidance and attention. They may or may not be able to help you locate and get your kids into the colleges you desire more, and they may not be able to add anything extra to your financial aid package - but at least you won’t be going it alone. Your planner will be your coach and help you move forward toward the finish line with more confidence, which should help you get better results and a good return on the investment you made to add them to your team. o If you are a person who typically uses professional, like a CPA for example, to handle complex parts of your life, working with a college planner could be one of the best decisions you make. There’s a lot to learn and finding a planner who already knows what you need to learn can make a huge different in your outcomes and in the way you experience the college planning process all along the way. If you are a “do it yourselfer” or if you don’t want to pay someone for their knowledge and expertise, working with a college planner will seem unnecessary and extravagant. And that’s okay. Not all of these categories are good fits for everybody.
Category 5: The College Planning Specialist
Just like there are specialties in medicine, there are specialists in the world of college planning too. These experienced Specialists, of which there are really only a couple of hundred in the whole country, are experts in all areas of the admissions and financial aid processes, in how to improve your chances to win scholarships, and how to manage your timelines in a way that gives you important advantages at some of the most competitive colleges in the country. The take college planning to a higher level, both with the kind of personal service they provide and with the kind of awards they are able to help their clients receive.
A College Planning Specialist is also more skilled and experienced than regular college planners in how to get the maximum amount of free money for college and how to build a financial plan that allows you to comfortably pay for college without drastically reducing your lifestyle, taking on tons of debt or jeopardizing your retirement.
When working with this type of advisor, you should not only be able to accomplish your college planning goals, you should also be in a better position financially AFTER paying for college than you are when you begin. It’s this kind of expertise and knowledge that make College Planning Specialists rare and valuable.
Regular college planners can assist in making the process of getting your kids in to better colleges easier, but a College Planning Specialist will help design and coordinate every aspect of the process and even help you negotiate final financial aid awards whenever possible at your top schools so you can be sure you are getting the best award possible. To put that in perspective, the typical increase in free money we have gotten for our clients from an appeal is almost $5,000 per student, and we’ve had 3 appeals granted that total over $50,000 each at several private universities this year alone!
Because of the depth of experience and service offerings these advisors provide, working with them can be costly. Like our firm, most require an investment that is only slightly higher than what regular college planners charge (say between $2,500 - $3,500), but some can run all the way up to as high as $25,000 or more for really specialized situations, including guaranteed admission to Ivy League colleges for international students. Most people don’t need that extreme level of attention, but many with high achieving students and established financial situations do opt for a higher level of service than ordinary college planners offer their clients.
Look for value and a track record of success, not just how well connected they are to your local high school. You won’t usually find a College Planning Specialist at your high school doing a college planning workshop because these higher level Specialists don’t usually work with high schools directly like regular college planners do. Their practices are fueled by steady referrals and limited by how many clients they can and will accept each year, so chasing prospects at the high school is not a part of how they operate.
You’ll usually have to apply to be accepted with a Specialist, but for someone in the right situation making the extra effort is definitely worth it because of the extra value they get in return.
o The main advantage of working with a College Planning Specialist is the personal attention you get and the holistic solutions these advisors offer that can generate huge returns on your investment in their services. Most of them have smaller, boutique style offices and they often place strict limits on the number of clients they work with so they can ensure a close, hands-on working relationship while delivering the kind of peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve done all you can to ensure your family’s success, both for college and for your entire life.
o The biggest disadvantages in working with a College Planning Specialist is finding one since they are so rare. It can also be challenging to distinguish a Specialist from an ordinary college planner because at first glance they can look similar to someone just getting started with the college planning. Unlike in medicine where each specialists is clearly defined by what services they provide, regular college planning advisors can appear to offer the same holistic approach that their more qualified and more experienced specialist do. There are, however, very distinct and important differences between what each one provides. Look for how much engagement and hands-on guidance you get from the specialist directly vs. how many tasks are handled by staff members or outsourced to third party service providers. The more detailed and tailored the approach, the more likely it is you‘ve found a Specialist. They should also be able to demonstrate their track record by showing you sample awards their clients have received as a result of working with them. “The proof is in the pudding” as they say, so be sure to “taste the pudding” before you work with any advisor. Verify their CFP® Professional credentials through the CFP Board too. (www.cfp,net – select “Find a CFP® Professional and then select “Verify a CFP® Professional’s Status) A Specialist may be slightly more expensive than a regular college planner, but if they get you the results your after and ease your mind during the process, hiring them could be the best investment you’ll ever make!
o The expectation you should have from a College Planning Specialist is one of high engagement, specific college and industry knowledge (especially in the area of finances and getting financial aid awards), and great overall performance that leaves you in a better place personally and financially than when you started. They should hold your hand during each step of the process and be a trusted authority you can call with any questions or concerns. Your kids and their future are at stake and you have a lot of money involved in paying for college, so expect this type of advisor to value both outcomes highly and develop a coordinated plan that incorporates your college plan into your overall life plan. o If you have a strong student who is looking to attend an expensive out of state university or get accepted at one of the more elite private universities, a College Planning Specialist is your surest way to meet those goals. Learn what you can from other advisors and the regular college planners who host events at your high school, but if it’s important to you to get the best results possible for your family, commit to finding and working with a College Planning Specialist.
Now that you know the differences, which one should you choose? When deciding with type of advisor to use, look at these two aspects first.
1. Which advisor you use depends completely on your desired results and how much effort you want to put into conquering the learning curve yourself vs. letting someone else handle it for you. The more complex your situation or the more accomplished your student is, the more you may want to consider advisors with more experience and expertise.
2. The second aspect is a matter of efficiency and targeted results. Many people use a combination of the lower level advisors and supplement their input with research of their own. That requires a commitment of time and energy and the ability to decipher loads of often conflicting information and opinions to develop an action plan you can use, which you may happily embrace and enjoy doing. For those who want to delegate most of the process to someone else, working with a college planner can help you consolidate your efforts and save time. And for those who are really serious about working with an expert who can cover everything related to college and your overall financial wellbeing as a “one stop shop” provider, a College Planning Specialist is your best bet.
The Bottom Line
The truth is that everything you need to learn about how to get your kids into the best schools possible for the least amount of money possible is available on google for you to learn on your own. That’s what I did when I first started on this journey for my own kids. It took thousands of hours of study and practice, but now the experience of working with more than 900 colleges and universities has allowed me to serve thousands of families and become one of the most highly regarded College Planning Specialists in the country. I didn’t start out with that as my objective, but my path has led me here, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to be instrumental in many, many family’s success stories.
If you’re looking to just send your kids to a decent college and stay in-state for tuition purposes, you may not need the high level of service and expertise I and other Specialists offer. You can use a regular college planner or another lower level advisor’s resources to find your way on your own. Use the money you have saved to pay for college instead of paying for help you may not need. Many people do fine on their own and in the right situation, you can too!
The Big Lesson
The big lesson to learn here is this – college can be far more affordable than you realize if you have a plan to make it so. Don’t assume that the free resources online, at your high school, or in your network of friends and family will add enough value to you to make using them alone sufficient. You owe it to yourself, your kids, and your family to explore the possibilities and see how to get the best outcomes at colleges you may have thought were out of reach. When you work with a college planner or Specialist, they are almost never out of reach.
The Choice Is Yours
As you make plans for your children’s college years, choose your approach wisely and enjoy the journey. Recognize early on that you may need to bring in a well-qualified “who” if you are struggling with figuring out the “how.” Your time is valuable and planning for college will be one of the last and most important things you do with your kids before they leave to start their own lives away from home. You have to get this right the first time - and the clock is ticking.
Remember, there’s no shame in admitting things are hard when they are. The shame is pretending they are easy when they are not. The process of planning for college definitely won’t always be easy, but with a good plan in place, it doesn’t have to be stressful. Now that you know your options, get help if and when you need it. And good luck with whatever route you decide to take.