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  • Writer's pictureJason Flurry, CFP

How to design a winning college plan blueprint

When I first started planning for college, I realized there were steps that had to be taken to get from a place of being worried about college to a place of having peace of mind. The problem was it was difficult identify all of those steps in advance. And even now, it seems like the colleges and the government want you to think that all you have to do is follow their path to be successful. In fact, they make it seem like their way is the only way, but that’s not true. The reason they tell you that is because it benefits them. If they can keep you in debt and in need, that serves their best interest. But like trying to get tax advice from the IRS may not be the best idea, following the college’s plan or the government’s plan for your kid’s future may not be in your best interest either.

Over time, and with hundreds of hours of research, I begin to identify the steps that allowed me to build a winning college blueprint. In the years that followed, I realized that not only are the steps critical, but the order in which someone uses them is crucial too. Just like a blueprint for a house, if you build things out of order, it creates confusion and makes it very difficult to reach the result you had in mind in the beginning. However, much like a recipe, if you follow the steps in order and do them exactly right, the outcome is almost always certain. And that’s what I found as I improved my strategies and tactics for beating the colleges at their own game.

In this article, I’m going to share with you the seven steps that I use for our private clients so that you can have an advantage others don’t have when it comes to planning for college. Some of these steps and the order in which I present them may seem counterintuitive, but trust me. I’ve seen them work time and time again with thousands of families and with over 900 colleges and universities ranging from the Ivy leagues all the way down. If you use the tips and strategies I’m sharing with you here, I’m confident it will help you provide a better college experience for yourself and for your family. So let’s get to the first step, which is creating a list of good fit colleges.

Create A List of “Good Fit” Colleges

You’ve probably seen these lists about the best college for this or that, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s a “best college” for everybody. I do believe there’s a “right fit college” for everybody, but the challenge is how you find it? Plus, college has become very competitive and the process to get into college without spending a fortune has gotten very complicated. In fact, next to the purchase of a home, paying for college is one of the largest financial transactions people make in their lifetimes. But we purchase homes very differently than we purchase college educations. For a home, we don’t start with the addresses and work backwards. We start with the attributes we have in mind, like how many bedrooms and bathrooms, price range, location, and so on. We find homes that have those characteristics and narrow them down until we find the one we eventually settle on. At that point, we know the address, but the address is one of the least important characteristics of that new home.

For college, most people start with the addresses and try to make them fit. They know this college or that college based on its brand name, but they don’t really know if that college is a good fit for them or not. What someone should do is start with their most desirable attributes first and then research colleges that offer those attributes. That will create a list that you can narrow down and over time it will help you find the best fit college for your particular situation.

Just like purchasing a home, you’ll eventually discover the address, or the name of the college. But, for most people, the name of the college, just like the address on a new home, isn’t the attribute that made that one THE one for you. Some names may be worth paying for it in certain situations, but many people grossly overpay for a name and ignore or miss out on the real value finding the right fit college could’ve offered them instead.

If you’re doing college visits or researching on your own, think through which attributes are “must haves” and “nice to haves”. Over time you begin to see who offers those things that are most important to you and that will help you definitely develop a better best fit college list.

Position For Admission Success At Each College

With a good idea of what you may want in a college, you can then begin to determine what they may want from you in return as a potential future member of their community. Some colleges focus their admission decision heavily on academics, like rigor, GPA, and test scores. Others go far beyond that and also look at things like the interview, the essays in your applications, and your character traits. They can consider volunteer experience, work experience, and where you live in relation to where their campus. Extracurricular activities, your relationships to alumnus, and even your level of interest as one of their prospective future students can also come into play.

Once you know what these colleges are looking for in an ideal applicant, you can then reverse engineer your student to be the perfect prospect at that particular college. This can give you huge advantage, not only for admissions, but also for scholarships. When working with families, it’s not uncommon for us to get $100,000 or more in merit scholarships simply because our understanding of what that individual college wanted resulted in that individual student being heavily recruited. As you discover these insights about the college is on your list, you can do the same thing too.

Position For Financial Aid At Each College

Just like you position yourself for admission success, you also have to position yourself for financial aid success. After all, what good is a pile of admission letters if you don’t have the ability to pay for college? We eliminate this very common problem up front by analyzing each family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and suggesting proven strategies to lower their share of the college bill.

See, a families expected family contribution is basically their share of the college bill. That’s why you want to figure that out as early as possible in the planning process so you can use the dozens of ways that are available to help reduce it. That increases your level of financial need at each college, and if the college is generous in meeting that need with free money, it can save you a fortune on your college bills.

Most families qualify for some level of financial aid, but in those cases where no aid is expected outside of student loans and parent loans, we can still lower the cost of college by pursuing other approaches to help you save tens of thousands of dollars each year like the merit scholarships I mentioned a minute ago. There may also be ways to potentially reduce your taxes with special education credits and deductions your account is likely to miss too!

Every situation is different and every college handles financial aid awards differently, but that’s where your investment of time to learn these things up front can really pay off. Additionally, this is where working with a qualified, experienced College Planning Specialist can make a world of difference for you and save you from making huge mistakes that could cost you a fortune.

Develop A Solid Plan to Pay For College

No matter how good your financial aid award is you’re likely to still have to pay something to send your kids to college. Full ride scholarships often just cover tuition, but there are other expenses, like room and board, fees, books, personal and travel expenses, etc., that are not covered by most grants and scholarships. Everyone needs to know how they are going to pay for college so you should devote some time and attention to building a plan that allows you to pay for college in a comfortable manner without going deeply into debt, changing your lifestyle, or jeopardizing your retirement.

The approach I’ve developed for our private clients helps them protect their savings and investments and manage their cash flows efficiently so that most of them are in a much better financial situation as a result of their plan AFTER paying for college than they were before they began. This step is a critical part of the planning process and few people truly understand how to solve the college dilemma like they need to. Many times the answers are hidden in plain sight, but it’s hard to see the picture when you’re in the frame. Getting an outside perspective can be very helpful with this step because without a game plan you can understand and know is guaranteed to work, you’re taking risks that are simply unnecessary. And, that’s never a good idea…especially when it involves your kids and your money!

Ace All Of Your Admission Applications

By having the right list of colleges in place and knowing what they want from an ideal prospect, we can implement the plans we’ve develop to reverse engineer each student into being the perfect match their colleges want to see. Whether it is helping students design an awesome college resume, write compelling essays, or prep for admission and scholarship interviews, you need to be prepared to ace each step of the application process and leverage it for maximum effectiveness with every college on your list. It’s a hands-on process that’s unique for each student but the milestones and the principles behind what you do at each of those milestones is the same for everyone. By learning to speak the college’s love language back in step two, you can implement a strategy that can help you stand out, stay on track with your timelines and deadlines, and gain essential advantages over the competition.

Apply For Financial Aid Without Making Mistakes

Just like we planned for admissions and financial aid in steps two and three, the next step in your blueprint is understanding the financial aid process and completing all of your paperwork without making mistakes.

Colleges use different formulas for financial aid in each one asks for different things as they try to determine your Expected Family Contribution. Some of these financial aid formulas can have 200 to 250 questions, so you have to do your homework ahead of time and understand what counts against you, what REALLY counts against you, and what doesn’t count against you at all at that particular college. You also need to understand how much of your financial aid they will meet, how much they will meet with free money versus loans, work-study, etc., and how long on average it takes for students at that college to graduate. These insights give you an advantage to know how much college is going to cost before you apply for financial aid.

Also, by getting to know the school well and what they look for, like I told you about in step number two, you have a good understanding of what they’re willing to pay for in terms of merit scholarships. Whether you’re combining merit scholarships with need-based aid, or simply using strategies to reduce your EFC to a low-level, it’s possible to get huge grants and scholarships, the free money that everyone wants, totaling over $60,000 per year and even more.

It’s not in the college’s best interest to correct mistakes you make on the financial aid forms, so getting everything filed correctly the first time is THE best way to help ensure you receive the full amount of FREE money you deserve.

Work Your Best Offer And Make Final Decisions

Nothing is more rewarding after months, and sometimes years, of planning than to see everything come together in a way that pairs a great opportunity with a tremendous value. That’s the finish line in the college game, but before we cross it we need to evaluate all of your scholarships and financial aid awards to make sure you got the full amount you were due. That’s why before making any final decisions we often help our private clients successfully negotiate with their colleges for thousands more through the colleges’ formal appeal process. Most colleges will swear they don’t negotiate, but they do it all the time. They just call it an “appeal,” which is fine. Don’t let their terminology stop you from negotiating.

Colleges under-award students all the time and like I’ve said before, you get to make the final decision where your students are going to go to college – and the colleges know that. That why they have an incentive to work with you to close the sale. Whether you approach them as a parent dealing with a financial hardship or as an ambitious student trying to find a way to close the financial gap she’s facing between her #1 school and others who have offered more generous awards, we’ve found that about 80% of the time when we ask for more money, the college is willing to work with you. In fact, our average appeals over the years have averaged around $4,800 more in free money than students would’ve received otherwise with the award the college originally offered. I can’t say for sure that asking for more money will guarantee you an increase too, but I do know that you won’t get any additional money if you don’t try. You have nothing to lose by asking, and you may be potentially leaving thousands of dollars on the table that could be, and should be, yours – simply by asking for it.

If you follow the seven steps I’ve outlined here, you can design a blueprint that will help your kids get the best colleges possible to help you build a game plan to pay for college without going broke. The only way to truly get the results you want is to build a winning blueprint. And I believe the only way to build a truly proven blueprint is to follow the experience and advice of a College Planning Specialist. That’s why I’ve shared our system with you today so that you won’t make the mistakes that other people do that cost them tens of thousands of dollars and cause their kids to have to settle for less than they deserve.

If you’d like to learn more about each of the steps and how to build your own wedding college planning blueprint, I occasionally host free webinars and workshops where I go into much more detail on each of the steps. You can check out when the next events are coming up by visiting I can show you more in an hour and a half about how to make college affordable and make the process of planning for college enjoyable than most people never learn.

You can do everything on your own, but it’s complicated and time-consuming. You can also handle your college planning process very easily by simply writing checks to the college. It’s painful, but it’s easy.

What I’ve shared with you today will help you create a process that’s manageable, which is exactly why so many people attend our workshops and webinars. They’re looking for a better way to provide the best education possible for the kids and to provide the best life possible for themselves and the ones they care about the most.

Because you read these articles, I’m guessing that pretty well describes you too. So keep reading and keep learning. Join me for an upcoming webinar or workshop, if you’d like. And always remember that you get to make the final decision on where your kids go to college, so you’re in charge of the relationship with the colleges. College can be affordable if you have the right game plan in place. And with this blueprint I shared with you today, you know have an action plan that will help you get the best results possible. Remember though, an action plan doesn’t do any good if you don’t take action. Take your next steps, even if they’re your first steps. You can do this and if I can help in any way, please let me know.



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