Right before we got married, Jill and I went skiing. Jill was just learning, and while on our first lift, we looked down and saw a couple fighting — loudly. One of them screamed, “if you go that way, we’re getting a divorce!”

At that exact moment, another skier (probably an instructor) shouted back, “Save Your Marriage. Get a Lesson!” Hilarious as his comment was, it was also sage advice.

Sometimes there’s no party like a third party.

Which brings me to today’s college planning during COVID bad news becomes good news story (a Happy Mother’s Day edition).

Last fall, I received a call from a nervous mom who had a bright, engaging son (Jayson) who had dreams of attending a top university. His top preferences included Carnegie Mellon University, among the country’s best performing arts and engineering programs.

The concern that they had is one shared by most families: how could they justify paying the sticker price of an outstanding, but obscenely ‘expensive’ private university like Carnegie Mellon when they would likely have several quality and significantly ‘less expensive’ in-state public universities from which to choose?

With a $77,000 price tag, CMU was unaffordable without financial aid. Mom needed advice and guidance, given their complex family dynamic and a couple of small businesses. Jayson would need financial aid, and Mom didn’t know where to begin. So she called me, and we scheduled a meeting.

And then…nothing.

On the day of the meeting, she never actually showed up. And I never heard from them again…until last month.

Mom figured she could complete the financial aid forms on her own. Juggling a family, two businesses, and sadly a marriage that was fracturing, she decided to go it alone in completing the financial aid forms.

Problem is, she made a few too many mistakes.

As expected, Jayson was admitted to Carnegie Mellon, as well as some great FL public universities. The problem was that they got nothin’, nada, bupkes, $0 in the way of grants or scholarships from Carnegie Mellon. Needless to say, they were distraught. They had to make major corrections on their forms, and once again they didn’t know where to start.

So they called me…again.

I offered to meet with them to review their applications; and when I did I saw right away that they had made critical errors on both the standard federal financial aid application (the FAFSA) and on the far more complex and intrusive institutional financial aid application (the CSS Profile). Those errors, I estimated, had likely cost them about $45,000 PER YEAR in Carnegie Mellon grants and scholarships that they would otherwise have been eligible to receive.

I hate when this happens – and it does occasionally.  I see a family who should have unlimited college options fail to take action or take the wrong action which then needlessly limits those options. Then they come back some time later and say, “If only I had actually met with you last year…”

The bad news is that at this point it’s usually too late; the good news is that for Jayson’s family it wasn’t.

We quickly corrected and resubmitted their applications…I filled in the blanks with explanations, and I drafted an appeal letter to the heads of Admissions and Financial Aid at Carnegie Mellon offices.

Within a week, Jayson was offered a $45,630 scholarship (see offer below). Not bad, right?

CMU Before

But you know what, his other option, University of Central Florida, was still a little bit less expensive – and this year especially – I thought we could use that as leverage. With fears of enrollment declines mounting, Carnegie Mellon could do better.

So, we asked… and they received. Jayson got another  $6,500 in grants, which increased his scholarship to $52,130. His remaining expense is $25,094, which is less than what we calculated for him ($28,785) when his mom first sat down with me.

CMU After

Granted, UCF is less expensive, but like many families, Jayson’s parents figured that they were willing to pay a premium to attend a premium university. Of course, every family has its own limit. We decide whether to pay a premium all the time – for cars, for sneakers, for meat at the grocery store (if we can find meat) – and for higher education. CMU at $25K is a lot more digestible (and achievable) than CMU at $77K. Jayson could attend his dream school, which has made his mom very happy on this Mother’s Day.

The lesson is this:

Just like you can learn to ski on your own, you can learn about how to apply to college on your own. But I think we can agree that you’ll probably get better results, in a shorter amount of time and with a lot less stress if you get some help (for either endeavor) from an instructor.

Yes, the information about skiing, college or anything is out there. A simple Google search on how to ‘apply for financial aid’ gives you 1,090,000,000 results in .59 seconds. We don’t need more information, we’re already drowning in the amount we have — and it’s leading to confusion, overwhelm and inaction (or inappropriate action). And when it comes to college, that can be very costly.

We all need a third party at times – someone who already knows exactly how to use the endless information to our benefit, to hold us accountable, to keep us on track. I could do my own taxes, but I shouldn’t. I could have taught Jill to ski, but I didn’t and maybe that’s why we’re still happily married after 25 years. There are times when we all need a coach or an adviser to help us move through complex information and tough psychological barriers that come with taking action on something completely new.

Planning for, applying to and getting money for college is most definitely one of those times. This would be true for a normal admissions cycle… and it’s even more true for this cycle, which is most definitely not going to be normal.

We’re here to help. We’ve already aggregated all of that fragmented information and have resources that will help you help your teenager take appropriate action. And if you have an 11th grader, I definitely suggest you consider our upcoming College Application program. As of this writing, we have just two spots remaining in the May – June program, so if you’re considering this, you’ll want to take action soon or your child may be shut out.

Finally, to all the mom’s, I want to wish you a very Happy (and Healthy) Mother’s Day!! I hope you find a special way to celebrate the day.

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