Tuition Trauma

Paying for college now doesn’t have to mean paying the price later.

A few years ago, when attending a reunion at his alma mater, St. Joseph’s University, Fred Amrein gave a speech to alumni about the cost of attending college and his relatively new occupation as an independent, fee-only financial planner with an expertise in financial aid.

In his speech, Amrein, a Wynnewood native who lives and works out of a home close to where he was raised, distinguished himself from those who sell—or refer parents to companies that sell—loans, annuities, insurance policies and other financial instruments purporting to assist in paying some portion of the $100,000-$200,000 cost of their child’s four-year undergraduate college education.

Amrein doesn’t sell anything but his time and expertise. And he doesn’t involve himself in the college admissions process, though there is a growing field of consultants who do exactly that.

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Amrein specializes strictly in college financial aid. For one-time fees that range from $595 to $995, he’ll analyze the household assets colleges consider when determining a family’s ability to pay; he’ll assist in filling out forms that disclose a family’s fiscal health; he’ll estimate how much aid a child is likely to receive based on federal guidelines; and he’ll recommend ways families may choose to make up the difference between what a college will offer them and what they have to pay.

Amrein doesn’t advocate for families seeking aid. He doesn’t contact financial aid officers. He has no friends, connections or influence at any college financial aid office. And he makes no promises, assurances or guarantees about what aid, if any, will be granted. But he can take some of the worry out of the frequently humiliating, occasionally confusing, anxiety-fraught procedure by which parents reveal intimate details about their finances, savings and assets to a college financial aid department that has the arbitrary power to make the next four years a punishing, belt-tightening spiral of increasing debt—or something more endurable.

If you’d met Amrein soon after your kids were born, he could’ve told you about the long-term financial arrangements you can make to leave you in reasonably good shape when they apply for college. If you happen to be applying for financial aid right now, he can help with the procedure so you won’t screw it up. At best, the college will award you enough to make your Expected Family Contribution—the amount you actually pay—affordable.

And if there’s an aid problem while your child is in school—say, a merit scholarship is rescinded because of a less-than-stellar grade point average—Amrein can come up with ways to cope that won’t put you in the poor house, or wipe out whatever you’ve saved for retirement.

Two of Amrein’s three daughters are enrolled at Penn State. And he tips his hat to fellow members of his college class who, like him, are concerned about whether they’ll be able to do for their children what their parents did for them.

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Though one might surmise otherwise, Bonnie Lee Behm has no problem with Amrein. In fact, she’s appeared with him on CN8 in programs about college financial aid.

“[Amrein is] more upfront with the longer financial planning—the kind of investments a family might make when the child is born—and what the family should be doing as the child nears college age,” says Behm, financial aid director at Villanova University. “He offers sound advice versus a ‘Geez, you’re a parent of a senior in high school; you have to do this now, and I’m the only one who can take you down the road’ type.”

Since their television appearances, Amrein has asked Behm about financial aid policies. “They were general questions—and good questions,” she says. “And I was glad to see he was seeking insider advice about them.”

Even so, Laura Talbot, financial aid director at Swarthmore College, hopes families “don’t think they must pay for guidance in the financial aid process. We are here to provide that guidance.”

Talbot occasionally offers such direction at financial aid nights at high schools, churches and community centers here and elsewhere. “The first thing I tell the parents is to take a deep breath and relax. Then I say, ‘Talk to me. Tell me what you’re really worried about. Tell me how we can help.’”

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What she hears isn’t always about money. But sooner or later, the conversation shifts to that subject. “Of course they’re afraid,” she says. “Who wouldn’t be? So I try to get them past the fear.”

No two colleges are alike, and Talbot says Swarthmore is fortunate enough to have a sufficient endowment, so its financial aid program can cover every penny of the estimated $47,000 yearly cost (including tuition, room and board, books, and study materials), throwing in even more money for transportation expenses if the student lives far away. In the last academic year, the average aid amount was a little more than $30,000 per student.

“Families shouldn’t look at the price tag as their cost,” says Talbot. “Their cost may be far less. The average price that parents of aided students paid last year was $12,000. This means the price for you is not going to be the price in print.”

At Swarthmore, Haverford, Villanova and other area schools, the application process is “need-blind.” The application committee has no knowledge of a family’s financial status as it selects which students will be admitted. Who gets aid and how much is awarded depends on the family’s financial situation. The college gleans this information from the family’s financial statement, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the College Board Profile and a copy of the family’s tax return.

The FAFSA (available online at fafsa.ed.gov) categorizes and qualifies students for government financial aid programs by listing assets and income. No fee is charged for its filing and processing.

The College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (available online at profileonline.collegeboard.com/index.jsp) requires a $5 registration fee and another $18 for each college to which it’s sent. It asks some of the same questions about family assets as the FAFSA, but also includes space for details about medical expenses and the costs of educating other family members.

At some schools, the FAFSA is sufficient because the majority of aid granted to students comes from federal sources. At Swarthmore, federal funding accounts for about 5 percent of the scholarship aid its students receive. The 95 percent that falls under the category of institutional aid comes from Swarthmore itself. For that reason, Talbot steers families away from financial aid consultants, as they can’t accurately determine what Swarthmore considers when granting aid.

Amrein agrees with Talbot regarding institutional aid. “I can calculate, to around 1 percent, what the Expected Family Contribution should be after analyzing their income and assets. I can’t say what a college will do at its discretion. And I don’t.”

Ultimately, the initial aid application—which begins with a FAFSA form—is crucial in coloring a financial aid office’s first impression of the family applying. “You can fill out the FAFSA by yourself or you can have an accountant do it, just as you’d do with a tax return,” Amrein says. “Both are legal documents. On average, colleges audit one out of every three FAFSA asset statements they get. So you’d better be sure the information is accurate and complete. I know of one situation in which a financial aid award was rescinded when the college found an error on the FAFSA.”

Amrein considers filling out all the forms a rather small part of a service that he admits is not for families of severely limited means. “A family with a combined income below $60,000 is likely to get an award that will cover most of the costs, though I know of instances in which this hasn’t happened. I also know of families with combined incomes of $120,000 who have received higher awards than families of similar incomes in similar situations. That’s another reason I make no promises, no guarantees.”

And all the experts agree that somewhere out there is a college—probably more than one—that will provide sufficient financial aid to bring to a satisfying close an anxious moment in a family’s life.

“Financial aid is there to make it possible for any capable student from any background to enroll,” Talbot says. “My job is to give away as much money as I can.”
 


Money Crazy
17 tips for a sane financial aid process.

1. Don’t limit your college choices based purely on cost. You won’t know what your actual cost might be until you hear it from a financial aid officer.

2. Attend financial aid nights at your local high school.

3. Consult the college’s website for financial aid qualifications. Don’t go on hearsay.

4. Contact the financial aid office on your own. Financial aid officers are forbidden from discussing individual applications or divulging personal information to third parties.

5. Be wary of dubious websites offering assistance for a fee.

6. Adhere to deadlines. Late filers may not get as much aid.

7. Pay attention to details. Fill out forms accurately and completely—don’t leave questions blank. Use your legal name as it appears on your Social Security card—and make sure the Social Security number and birth date are correct.

8. Be wary of anyone promising admission or an aid package. There are no guarantees.

9. It’s all about the EFC. The Expected Family Contribution is the amount the college thinks you can pay for the next four years. Come up with your own EFC as far in advance as possible by looking at what you earn, future earnings and projected assets over the next several years.

10. When visiting a college, ask about how effective the college’s career center is in helping graduates find jobs in their chosen professions. You want those student loans to be paid off as quickly as possible.

11. Beware of scholarship scams and the sales of financial products (life insurance, annuities, etc.) that purport to lower your EFC. They may lower your EFC for one year, but they also may result in heavy penalties or tax liabilities if you want to take your investment back.

12. Take a good, hard look at your cash flow. Realize that whatever strategies you employ to pay for education will have to endure for a minimum of four years.

13. Take advantage of federal and state tax incentives, because they can lower your out-of-pocket cost of education.

14. Evaluate various financing options, not just those the colleges offer or recommend.

15. Consider what might occur if your child decides to change career goals, transfer to another school, take a year off, pursue foreign study or continue college on a graduate level. Whatever financial plans you’ve made for four years can become considerably longer.

16. Be aware of the differences between “need-based” and “merit.” Need-based awards are determined by a family’s financial situation; merit scholarships are tied to academic performance. Merit money can be reduced or eliminated if your child’s grade point average dips below a certain point, and you may be forced to make up the difference. Need-based aid isn’t necessarily fixed; a college may increase or decrease your EFC in light of the information you submitted as part of the financial aid process.

17. Be wary of advice from neighbors, friends, college financial officers, state agencies, banks, guidance counselors, CPAs and investment advisers. Understand the limitations of their expertise. There are significant misconceptions and myths.

Sources: Fred Amrein, Bonnie Lee Behm and Laura Talbot
 

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