I received a call today from a frantic mom (let’s call her Lisa — not her real name), concerned about a conversation she had over the weekend with some peers about college and financial aid. 

Lisa was told that financial aid was all loans, and she shouldn’t bother with the FAFSA.

Let’s take a closer look at Lisa’s situation: she has two children, with her oldest a 12th grade boy who excels in school (top 10 in a class of over 550), has outstanding test scores, and is a 3-year varsity athlete.  He’s applying to top science and engineering programs, and he’ll likely get admitted to quite a few of them.  Like many middle class families, Lisa and her husband have struggled financially in recent years, facing a drop in income as well as real estate investments gone south.  

Lisa’s son should qualify for substantial financial aid and discounts.  In fact, he may get a grant in excess of $40,000, plus additional assistance.  And what’s more, he’ll have choices because he put together a solid admissions strategy that consisted of the right mix of reach, target, and safety schools with histories of financial aid and endowment generosity.  And he started at the right time (10th grade),  receiving proper guidance with the ability to follow through in a time-appropriate manner.

What’s important to understand, for Lisa and for you, is that every family’s  situation is unique.  And it’s not just about your financials — it’s also about making sure your child is targeting the right schools.  What may be true for your neighbor might not be true for you.  What your friends say about your financial aid prospects is likely to be completely and entirely wrong, because your friends don’t have much visibility into the details of your financial life, or into your student’s real academic prospects — nor do they have a true understanding of the process.  What your friends often do have are prejudgments — about your income and your net worth — and  misconceptions.  Just because they didn’t get any aid when their older daughter applied to college last year has little bearing on your student’s chances (or on Lisa’s). 

Remember, a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day, so your friends just might be right.  But chances are they are way off target.

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