Winners & Losers in The College Rankings Sweepstakes

September 22nd, 2023 by
Each fall, as you may already know, the US News produces its ubiquitous ranking of American colleges and universities. And not surprisingly, each fall, the heads of admissions of said colleges and universities, wait with bated breath to beat their chests (hopefully) – or spin their narratives (if not so fortunate) – to the media, their bosses, high school counselors, prospective college recruits, alum, bond holders (yes, I said bond holders) and other similar financial stakeholders.

Now, I’ve spent much of my days (and nights) of the last month buried neck-deep in college essays…so, when one of my clients (thanks, Serge!) sent me the latest US News College Rankings, I knew it was time to emerge from my desk and remind my students (and especially, the parents who love them) of the rankings folly.

This year, as in nearly every year prior, the US News board made a few ‘small tweaks’ to the top secret ‘formulas’ it utilizes to determine said rankings. This year, one of those ‘tweaks’ included a few changes that have uniquely benefited larger, public universities (e.g., the omission of class size ratios as a consideration). Thus we saw quite a bit of jostling both at the top and in the middle, with larger universities the beneficiaries. Some notable schools that fell, for example, include UChicago, WashU, Wake Forest and Tulane; while conversely,  Fresno State (CA) and Florida Atlantic jumped up quite a bit. Naturally, the risers had great praise for the new ranking system; the ‘losers’ not so much.

While the new formula was a boon for some, it’s very important to point out that the quality of a university does not change dramatically in any single academic year. I assure you that UChicago wasn’t twice as good a school last year when it was ranked 6th than it is today (ranked 12th). And Tulane, which was 44th last year and plunged to 73 this year, didn’t  become ‘less than’ as a university; just as Fresno State, now ranked 64 spots higher than last year, didn’t become particularly ‘better than.’ These changes reflect a formulaic change as opposed to any educational or operational changes that took place at that school. They are subject to change year-to-year, sometimes quite dramatically, based only on a ‘tweak’ to the algorithm. As a measure of what will make a great school for you or your child, the rankings have very short-term, very limited value.

And still, these new numbers are important because they will impact how students and parents, fundraisers, and Wall Streetperceive these colleges and thus will impact where students apply, how much the university’s fund raising coffers will grow and at what rate those schools can borrow money to fund growth. They are not, however, an effective way to produce a college list.

For starters, the National Universities are not even compared to Liberal Arts Colleges – these schools are rightfully ranked separately, as they often have completely different missions. National Universities tend to have a wider range of majors, they dedicate more resources to research, and they also have masters and doctorate programs. Liberal Arts Colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education and they award over 50% of their degrees in arts and sciences.

A deeper examination of this year’s formula reveals even better analysis as to why some colleges rose and others fell. While some of the changes may be noble, like a greater emphasis on graduation rates among students receiving Pell Grants, or on first-generation college students, they have little to do with the school’s actual academic performance, like in the classroom. Many public universities do have a higher percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, and those students are progressing to graduation. Which is good. The system is working. What’s also true is that private universities have a smaller number of Pell Grant recipients, and the new formula penalizes these universities for that fact. We can argue whether private universities should or shouldn’t be more aggressive in targeting Pell-eligible students, but I just can’t say that the prevalence of Pell-eligible students necessarily strengthens that university’s academic profile. Thus I can’t necessarily support its weight in an ‘academic’ ranking criteria.

As I mentioned above, class size was removed from this year’s formula, which hurt smaller often private colleges. While I’m not here to advocate any one category of school (i.e. private over public), I do believe that class size often correlates with educational quality.

Notice I said correlates. Small class size doesn’t cause an improvement in educational quality. But smaller classes do offer students a better opportunity to connect with professors, to speak up and contribute to class discussion, to interact with and be a part of the curriculum rather than simply sit back and take notes. This can translate to a better educational product, guidance and mentorship.

Please note there are MANY metrics in the US News formula that don’t directly contribute to educational quality, which is why I’m not a fan of the rankings. Alumni giving, for example, does not make a school “better”; we can only infer that the graduates had a positive experience as students and therefore feel the urge to contribute to their alma mater. SAT scores or high school GPA does not make a school “better”, it just means that the student body is made up of more accomplished high school students. And reputation, or peer voting among presidents, provosts and deans has little to do with educational quality, yet this metric accounts for 18% of the overall ranking.

Not to be entirely negative, there are two things I do like about the US News rankings. First of all, it’s helpful to have a collection of college data assembled in one place. Granted, there are other sources to gather college data such as the NCES College Navigator or the College Board, but US News offers another well-known platform. A second reason I like the US News Rankings is that, when a student comes into my office and reads to me a college list that sounds like all the others, I can make a recommendation that the student may not have considered. Often these recommendations come from the list of Liberal Arts colleges such as Swarthmore, Wesleyan or Richmond.

That said, the best way for students and parents to build a great college list starts by looking much deeper than a school’s ranking to determine whether a school is a “good fit”.

You see, what’s most important is not whether a school is “good” based on a ranking, but rather whether a school is a “good-fit” for you/your child. Answering this question requires, among other things, an understanding of you/your child’s learning style and whether that style matches a college’s philosophy, mission and profile. Not everyone is cut out for the Ivy League, or the University of Florida, or Swarthmore College. A great education is largely dependent on academic fit which may include access to faculty and appropriate majors of study. A great college experience is influenced by both the academic and non-academic opportunities that are available to students. Often these non-academic opportunities are not measured by rankings such as US News.

Finally, an important measure of a “good fit” must include affordability. A college that is highly ranked but unable or unwilling to meet your budget has no place on you/your child’s list. Affordability is measured not by sticker price, but by what we call University Generosity, and not all schools are equally generous. Some colleges award substantial merit scholarships, while others (Ivies, for example) only offer need-based aid. Understanding your financial aid eligibility is a critical exercise that should be completed while your child is in 10th grade.

If you are interested in going beyond the ‘rankings’ and learning more about how college admissions, institutional merit and financial aid intersect, or you want to have a frank discussion about your child’s credentials, your financials and what might make a “good fit”, then let’s connect. Sooner is always better than later.

New College Admissions Data You Need To Know – and What YOU Can/Should Do About It

July 31st, 2023 by

Happy Monday… and… you might want to sit down for this.

I’m just kidding… you can definitely stand. However, the new data I’m about to discuss, or at least how I’m using it, might be a little – albeit unintentionally – controversial.

Anyhow, last week, there was a shocking (tongue firmly in cheek) study released by Opportunity Insights. In it, Harvard researchers confirmed that – wait for it – students from very wealthy families (.1-1% income brackets) are over-represented on elite college campuses, like at Harvard, for example.  So, we now have concrete evidence that students from high income families (the top 1%) have been twice as likely to be admitted to, and therefore graduate from, Ivy-Plus schools, when compared with students with similar academic credentials from regular middle class families (like most of our families).

Gee Pete, thanks for the update, but a) wealthy kids at elite schools is not exactly earth shattering news, and b) I’m not in the 1% and I don’t care about Ivies, per se… so.. why does this study matter to me?

I get it… I realize that many of you assumed this AND I (as well as you) already KNOW that individual success is definitely not exclusively limited to students who attend Ivy-Plus schools. We all have multiple examples of people who have attended all kinds of post-high school public and private places of higher learning who have achieved extraordinary success. And yes, I know and have repeatedly argued for years (and with great proof) that it’s not necessarily where you go after high school that defines your identity; rather it’s what you do once there that is the greatest determinant of your ultimate success.

All true, but here’s why I wanted to talk about this data. The Ivy-Plus schools in this report are not specifically basing their admissions decisions on income or family wealth. Not at all. They are, however, using a more ‘subtle’ selection criteria, and more importantly, it’s the same ‘covert’ criteria used by the vast majority of colleges. This study puts empirical data behind this assertion. Finally. And therein lies the importance of the study to you – this is information that can help you strategically choose, get into, and pay less for your education, regardless of your family background or college aspirations.

Never forget that college admissions AND funding are both complex and uber competitive games. When you know the ‘written’ and more importantly, the IMPLIED rules (as highlighted in this report)…then you can know how best to operate within them to win this game. Without this knowledge, you’re at a significant disadvantage.

Good news is that whether intended or not, this study has given us more insight into the unwritten rules that determine an applicant’s prospects at all colleges, not just the Ivy-Plus that were cited.

Here is what the study indicated was clandestinely, empirically important:

  1. Legacy preferences for children of alumni
  2. Non-academic factors such as extensive extra-curricular records, personality traits, leadership (in other words, what’s on the application but not necessarily on the transcript)
  3. Recruitment of athletes in sports other than football, basketball or baseball (think crew, fencing, sailing, water polo, lacrosse, squash). 

So, legacy preferences. Children of alumni can often enjoy a significant admissions advantage at the schools – often expensive ones – from which their parents or grandparents have graduated. Hence, the subtle advantage towards wealthy students in the findings. Ok, let’s say this is true at some schools, for now at least (see also below). BUT legacy preferential admissions is NOT the case at most large, public universities (as in there is no legacy advantage at UF and similar schools, for example). In fact, the Harvard study determined absolutely no correlation between legacy or enjoying 1% level wealth when it came to admits at public universities. And, that’s an important consideration when building an options-advantaged college list!

Also important is that this study (like most studies) is backwards leaning in that the findings reflect the past. And preferential legacy admissions practices are becoming a thing of the past. Just this summer, some notable schools, including Wesleyan University, Carnegie Mellon and University of Minnesota announced an end to their legacy preferences. They join Amherst College and Johns Hopkins as two other elite universities that have ended their legacy preferences in recent years. More will follow suit, so this is an area worth paying attention to, especially when considering early admissions options.

As for non-transcript student information, we already know that admissions officers across the country frequently tout their “holistic” approach to admissions, which means that they don’t consider one factor alone, such as GPA, when making decisions. The holistic approach gives admissions officers some cover when faced with questions about why certain students with top grades and/or scores are not admitted. Consider that some estimates suggest that anywhere between 70-92% of applicants at any particular school will have similar grades, rigor and test scores. So how do they really differentiate one qualified candidate from another? They do so by analyzing two specific areas: 1) the student’s extra-curricular record, and (2) how well the student’s application reflects ‘personality traits and leadership potential’, often exclusively gleaned from their essays.

Not surprising that these two factors tend to favor students with means. Students who come private high schools or who live in financially advantaged communities will have greater opportunity and community financial wherewithal to participate in extensive (and sometimes expensive) extra-curricular activities that Ivy-Plus schools value, as well as travel to and from competitions (read: expensive). Holistic admissions ‘save spots’ for students who are successful in niche areas like these, including non-mainstream athletics like crew or fencing (see more on this below), speech and debate, Model UN, robotics, etc.

The other differentiator, i.e., how well a child’s application tells their story, is very a much a function of how much access a student has to college-admissions type guidance and training (yes, test prep included). Great students at large public high schools where the ratios are often upwards of 500 students to one guidance counselor, or whose parents did not themselves go through the US college application process are often at a significantly unfair advantage to their counterparts who get earlier and more frequent access to personalized, college-specific guidance.

Empirically, guidance really matters – both in life, and especially in college admissions success. Tests scores correlate positively with test prep. We knew this already. Now, we also know from this study that we can draw a direct line between students who have a knowledgeable person (whether at home, in their school or independently) to help with the college process and their success with admissions. More specifically, assistance with how a student expresses themself on the application and in their personal statement creates an advantage in the admissions office at elite schools. And frankly, at all schools, this is one area that now has a demonstrable return on the investment.

And finally, as the study suggested, athletic recruiting benefits wealthier applicants. That may surprise many, but it’s important to understand that if you examine all athletic teams on a campus, and not just football and basketball, you’ll see that the rosters of the teams are often comprised of students from wealthier families. That’s because all colleges save spaces on these teams… and the entry fees into high school or club sports like travel lacrosse, hockey, crew, equestrian, tennis, golf, even soccer can be steep. The average fee to join a rowing club, for example, is $5,000 per year, and then parents must pay for travel to attend regattas and other events. The recruitment of athletes falls outside of traditional admissions, which gives such applicants an inherent advantage in the process. This is another area where, if interest were to align with ability, then the investment could certainly show a return, especially at smaller, Division 3 colleges. At many schools, there are spots to be filled by wealthy students, even if their grades and/or scores are lower than average…for example if the student is a great goalie and the lacrosse team needs a goalie.

As always, we can choose to react to information like this in one of two ways. On the one hand, we can see only the challenges. We can get annoyed by the lack of transparency, lack of perceived fairness, and do nothing about it but complain. Not my preference. On the other hand, we can read into the data, look for the opportunities, inflection points, and patterns that can help inform the actions we take. I’ve been doing this type of Applied Research with similar data for nearly two decades, with 1000’s of unique families who have benefited. Just because you’re not in the ‘1%’ does not mean you’re not getting into Harvard – or more importantly – it also doesn’t mean that Harvard is even where you should apply (did you know that there are better schools with better outcome for engineers and business students, for example?).  Frankly, there are very few investments like the one you’ll make in higher education, and the choices and effort you make in high school won’t only affect the next four years of your life, but more like the next forty. Understanding your individual opportunities now can reap significant dividends for years to come. And that requires that you take a customized approach for each child.

So, if you take nothing else away from this study, please take this: there is a college seat for every child (more than one), regardless of financial or family circumstance. The key is to understand the ‘game’ and to have a customized strategy for you/your child that helps you ensure a level playing field. With the Common Application opening tomorrow, we are already in the next admissions cycle. Now – before school starts in a couple of weeks – is the time for you to learn where your best opportunities lie.

If you want are entering 11th or 12th grade especially, and you/your child want to enjoy every fair advantage that they deserve, and you’re wondering where the hidden advantages may lie, then let’s have a chat. While I cannot make any admissions guarantees, I can confirm that over the years, we have supported students who have been admitted to every single one of the Ivy-Plus schools, as well as each of the top state flagships like UF, Michigan, UNC, UVA, UC-Berkeley, UCLA and others. This doesn’t happen without enormous effort, dedication, and commitment, both on our part and that of our students and their parents.

If you’re up to the challenge, then I’ll be happy to show you how we operate. I look forward to that opportunity.

How To Overcome the Summer Doldrums & Do Something Positive That Will Help You Get Into (& Pay Less For) College

July 20th, 2023 by

We’re in the 2nd half of July, which means we are closer to the first day of the ‘next’ school year than we are to the last day of ‘last’ year. And that means that too many soon-to-be 12th graders (or more likely, Moms and Dads who love them), are entering a code red, heightened state of college anxiety. This is especially true if you haven’t made much (or any) headway on your college applications this summer.

I hope this isn’t you, but if it is…know that you’re not alone (I promise) — and that you still have about 3 months before the first priority deadline hits. But, also know that the only antidote to this type of anxiety is to take action. My students (and my own kids for that matter), know that I say this ALL the time, but I’m gonna say it again here:  Progress begets more progress. To finish something, you first have to start!!

The Common App doesn’t open officially until August 1, and it will close for a few days beginning on July 27. Before this happens (one week from today), all rising 12th graders can (and should) make major progress, which will…  yep… beget more progress.

Here’s what can easily be accomplished (low hanging fruit, if you will):

1. Your rising 12th grade child can, at a minimum, go to, create an account (WRITE DOWN their password), and complete the College Search Section (where they can add schools). They can also work on several sections, including the Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities, and yes, the Writing Section. Most of these are basic data entry fields (except the Activities and Writing – more on that below) so there’s no reason NOT to fill them out over the next 7 days.

NOTE: they should not complete the individual college sections as they will reset when the Common App reopens on August 1.

Now as far as the more complex, nuanced components of the college application (namely, the Writing section), Carla and I have been working with our students on their apps since mid-May…and last week one of them said something to me about a draft essay that was very simple, yet quite profound:

“The most important part of a draft is that it exists.”

How true this is! Writing a college essay is difficult. Writing multiple college essays as most students will now have to do can be overwhelming. But it need not be. Yes, some students have a knack for it and they can churn out words with aplomb (rare). Most students struggle to come up with a topic much less write a specific story that supports what they want to convey to an admissions officer. That’s why it’s so important for kids to get started early…which brings me to the second action students can take before school starts up.

2. Put down the video games and instead put words on the screen (I used to say “put pen to paper”, but that’s a relic of a bygone era).  Any words. Over the next week, commit one hour every day to put away the video games, or the Netflix, or Tik Tok, and write…anything. If you need a prompt, try this: What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you so far and what did you do to survive it? Motivation is nice…but discipline is critical: The only way your child can complete their first draft is to have the discipline to write it – set aside one hour every day to write and they’ll have a first draft, which can turn into a 2nd draft, which can ultimately turn into a final essay. Again, progress begets progress. Motivation is good – discipline is the key.

Yes, these are the dog days of summer, which is something I wrote about a couple of years ago. At this point in the calendar, some students may feel a bit burned out by the monotony of summer, especially if whatever summer activities they were pursuing are winding down, so the following suggestions would benefit all kids (regardless of school year), both generally for college AND to help get them ready for the next school year. While I would bet that not a single student at this point is eager for the first day of school (28 and 32 to days from today in Dade and Broward Counties, respectively), we all do benefit from a reason to get up in the morning and to have a purpose.

Here are some ways that students can take advantage of the last weeks of summer, if you’re not already occupied with a job, class, travel experience, internship, SAT prep or volunteer work. And even if you are, these suggestions are still  worthwhile:

Read a book (or 5, or more!): There is no better way to exercise the brain than to read. Reading also helps with SAT prep because the test itself is mostly a reading test. Some colleges (i.e. Columbia, Wake Forest) ask on their application what books you have read recently. Some interviewers may ask the same question. I frequently ask students what they are reading. As for me, I’m a history dork and like to read historical biographies – I recently finished Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the book that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write a musical that you may have heard of or seen recently. Right now I’m getting ready for the year and reading a great book about higher ed called Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us. I know, it sounds riveting. You should read what inspires you.

Reach Out to A College Admissions Officer or Visit a local college – Summertime is a great opportunity to visit campus and meet with your regional admissions officer. College Admissions Officers, in particular, are the human faces of your dream school. Emphasis on the human – they are generally young, enthusiastic about the school they represent – and fairly extroverted. And, they will likely be reading your application and are thus influential in whatever decision is made about your fate. Don’t let the first time they see your name to be when they read your application. Reach out this summer, introduce yourself and let them know when you’ll be visiting (if you will be) or ask them if they’ll be visiting your area this fall. Note: parents, stay out of this part – Only students should interact with the Admissions Officers. If you are able to visit a school in the next couple of weeks (local or otherwise), the admissions office will most certainly be open and eager to receive you. If you are not able to hop on a plane and travel a long distance, then at the very least try to visit a local campus and take the official tour. This is something that all high school students and parents can (and should) do, not just rising seniors.

Last night we finished our Summer College Application Bootcamp. Congratulations to our participating students – you’re almost there! As for those of you who may still have teens struggling with where to apply, or how to put together a stand-out application that boosts their chances (or if you’re like most of us who want to pay LESS than the sticker price for college), we can help. Now is the time to reach out…before school starts and before my roster becomes full for 12th graders. There is no worse feeling than having to turn away a 12th grade family in October. So, if you’re the parent of a high school student, and you believe your child will benefit from guidance on the college admissions and application process, then reach out to us. And if you’d like to tackle the complex financial aid process so that your child will maximize opportunities for grants and scholarships, then let’s connect. This is your opportunity as a parent of a 10th or 11th grader to still take action this summer so that you will make progress before summer ends (and of course, progress begets progress).

Literally thousands of other families have utilized our services, and they have benefited both by having multiple admissions options and by receiving multiple scholarship offers for their children to choose among!  I invite you to do the same for your family. Reach out to me and we can discuss your child’s goals, your concerns and how we can meet the former and alleviate the latter.

Oh, and one footnote: yesterday Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota both joined a small but growing number of schools that have ended their practice of Legacy Admissions. This fits with a trend that I predicted in my commentary about the Supreme Court’s recent decision on Affirmative Action. I expect more colleges to follow suit.

What’s Next for College Admissions? A Reflection on the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision

July 11th, 2023 by

I’m guessing that you’ve heard about last month’s Supreme Court decision to reverse Affirmative Action. But just in case you’ve been on an extended summer vacation sans technology (lucky you) and didn’t get the memo, the June 29 ruling effectively forbids colleges from utilizing ‘race-conscious’ admissions practices to diversify their campuses.

Now as you might imagine, I’ve been receiving a ton of questions and requests for insight about the Court’s decision from both my students as well as other educators. But before explaining how I think you (or your children) may be affected by the recent ruling, I wanted to provide a few caveats as well as a little history, and hopefully some perspective.

First the caveats: I am most definitely not a constitutional law scholar and therefore I will not offer any opinion on the court’s reasoning. Furthermore, while I am human and therefore have a personal opinion, my professional obligation in this article is to offer you my insight into how this change might affect you/your child’s admissions chances and overall admissions strategy.

Now for a little history: In 1978 the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of using ‘affirmative action’ as a specific tool for colleges and universities to increase diversity on their campuses. And, for nearly 50 years, this ruling has stood. That said, how states and universities have utilized affirmative action in its admissions practices has varied school-to-school, state-to-state and over time. For example, California banned Affirmative Action at its state universities in 1996 (Proposition 209). So for schools like UCLA or Berkeley, the Court’s decision won’t really affect anything. Truth is Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington had also previously banned Affirmative Action… so… theoretically not much will change in public universities’ admissions practices in these states either. Private Universities are another matter. For them — as well as at public universities in states where Affirmative Action has stood — things will change (assuming they wish to continue receiving federal support). How much remains to be seen.

As is often the case in major legislation, the Court did leave some room for interpretation in how the ruling gets implemented.  While direct, race-conscious admissions is now prohibited, admissions offices can consider race in the personal statement as it relates to the applicant’s experience. It’s important to understand that the overwhelming majority of  universities will wish to build a multi-cultural student body and will utilize other criteria — such as personal interviews, additional writing supplements (see below), a high school’s profile (or location) — to do so. There are likely quite a few changes to come – some easier to implement (hence, to anticipate), others less easy to project – and thus remain to be seen. 

That said below is a summary of a some changes we might expect to see immediately – as in with this upcoming admissions cycle (as well as in years to come):

1. The application process will become even more difficult – as in both longer to complete and more subjective to evaluate. There will likely be more and a greater emphasis on written supplements and alumni interviews
Today, most colleges require a personal statement, or essay, as part of the application. Students have wide latitude in how they may respond. The personal statement is an important part of the process today, and it may take on an even greater role as admissions offices place even more emphasis on a student’s ability to write his or her story, where race can be a significant factor. Or, schools will seek additional essays, or supplements, where applicants can more directly express their story as it relates to their race, ethnicity, or cultural background. Students applying to universities in California where, as previously mentioned, Affirmative Action has been banned for years, have to write four additional essay supplements. Yikes.

But in addition to the sheer increase in volume, there’s also likely to be some nuanced changes to the content required. Students have always been allowed to share stories about their racial or ethnic background, and schools have been allowed to consider how race may have impacted their life experience. This will continue – and is likely to be expanded to include specific prompts encouraging students to talk about their background. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, “nothing in today’s opinion prohibits universities from considering a student’s essay that explains how race affected [that student’s] life.”

2. This will further expedite the trend to make test-optional or test-flexible admissions policies more permanent.
A movement to lessen the importance of standardized tests in admissions practices has been underway for over a decade. This movement was accelerated during Covid and many of the schools that had ‘temporarily’ eliminated the test requirement have continued to de-emphasize test scores in admissions. There numerous reasons why this movement has grown, which I’ve previously written extensively about so I’ll forgo them for now. What I will say is that I expect the Court’s ruling to further solidify the existing test-optional admissions practices. It’s been well-researched that students with greater resources and who have access to test prep tend to perform better on standardized tests (there’s a surprise!). By adopting test-optional admissions, colleges put greater emphasis on other aspects of the application (see above), which should create opportunities for students with fewer resources and access.

3. Though the Court ruling allows for preferential Legacy Admissions practices to continue, many Universities will face pressure to eliminate this practice
There are still a number of colleges that give preference to Legacy Admissions, which benefits applicants whose parents attended the school, or who are significant donors. Colleges argue that legacy preferences help create a sense of community and encourage alumni giving, which schools naturally want to both preserve and boost. This is one reason why legacy admissions persists at many elite colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Tufts, my alma mater, continues to offer legacy preference. One benefit of attending these schools is to be surrounded by students of privilege who may offer access to elite opportunities later in life – the very students who benefit from legacy admissions practices. That said, research has shown that legacy preference can adversely affect campus diversity. Some schools (like Amherst College, Johns Hopkins, MIT)  have eliminated their legacy policies with the express objective of helping to create more equity and diversity on campus. Look for other schools to similarly eliminate the practice in the face of public pressure to do so.

4. More State Universities may adopt percent-based admissions policies 
Some states, such as Texas, Illinois and Colorado, already guarantee admissions to eligible in-state applicants (often in the top 10% of their high school class) by statute. Florida offers students in the top 20% of their class access to a state university (not necessarily the flagship, University of Florida). By extending percent-based admissions, colleges create access to applicants who come from high schools that are more racially diverse. While I do not expect many state governments to codify such policies, it would not surprise me if specific universities begin to implement percent-based admissions guarantees/requirements to in-state students (as in the top 10% of a class is guaranteed admission). It remains to be seen as to whether this could create a rush of students transferring to ‘traditionally poorer performing’ high schools (not likely) – or to parents reconsidering whether an uber-competitive, pricey private high school is the right choice when they can encourage their children to become a top performer at the local public high school and secure a spot at a top, in-state university.

5. Colleges may place greater scrutiny on a student’s zip code in order to promote diversity
While the Common App will no longer send data on race and ethnicity, they will still share address information about the student. Admissions offices could use this information in an effort to admit a more diversified freshman class.

6. Schools will face pressure to eliminate scholarship programs that target students of color
The Supreme Court’s decision in both the Harvard and UNC cases focused specifically on admissions, and not on financial aid or scholarship. However, many colleges offer scholarship or aid programs that target specific groups, including minority groups, thereby allocating spots in the class to people of color. An example is FSU’s CARE Program, which provides scholarships to first-generation students from minority populations (in this case, first-generation means the student is the first in the family to attend college). In Missouri just last week, the state attorney general ordered all colleges in that state to eliminate race-based scholarship programs. Such practices could be adopted by other states as well. But, new programs will rise in their place…ones that may benefit your child if you know where to find them.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with this: the Court’s recent decision to overturn decades of precedent will actually impact only a small percentage of colleges, mostly the very elite/selective. And while these universities can give students access to the top graduate programs and positions at leading financial institutions, they are not the only — or even the most desirable– path for MOST students. Fact is that the majority of universities in the United States admit well over 50% of their applicants -and at many of these schools, affirmative action is a nonfactor in their admissions practices.

But, college admissions (including financial aid) was already a complex exercise. With the elimination of affirmative action, elite universities will likely implement new methods to evaluate applicants in an effort to maintain a diverse student body. Other universities will follow their lead (that’s just what happens). We’re ready for that and encourage you to become ready as well.  At the end of the day, the college application is an opportunity to share something about yourself that is NOT necessarily obvious from your transcript and resume. It’s your chance to tell your unique story, which may include your race, ethnicity or cultural background, but most certainly includes your experiences. Do that well and regardless of the macro-changes, you will have a positive application experience and a number of great admissions options to choose among!

If you feel that your child would benefit from additional guidance in tackling college admissions, or if you are looking for help in understand how financial aid works, then reach out to us and let’s get connected.

These are the 5 ‘Must Do’s’ for All College Bound Teens (and the Parents Who Love Them)

May 25th, 2023 by

Last night I had the privilege of attending commencement ceremonies for the Xceed Preparatory Class of 2023! And I’m not gonna lie, I got a little emotional. You see, we’ve been advising Xceed families since the school’s inception 6 years ago and we were so thrilled to celebrate with the students, to help shine a light on their varied talents…and to showcase their many successes. This Xceed class was the largest one yet with 39 graduates honored. Congratulations to Xceed seniors and to all seniors who are reaching this milestone!

At YCC specifically, it is long-term relationships (like these) that we forge with all of our college-bound families that is our greatest source of pride. If you think about it, you get it: we’re working with people’s most precious ‘assets’, their children, and their money (hopefully in that order)…and we’re tasked with helping guide the former into adulthood while protecting the latter. It is a tremendous responsibility, one we take very seriously.

So candidly, I feel blessed to be invited to witness graduations like last night’s and to be entrusted by so many for so long — most of our families are with us for years. It’s not uncommon for us to advise a family all the way through their oldest child’s entire college experience, and to then work with multiple younger siblings, cousins and even nieces/nephews. And yet, as every parent knows, no two children — even those with the exact same genetics — are alike. Thus no two college plans are alike.

And though this is indisputable, there is, however, one common denominator to all of our students successes. Preparation. Actually, advanced preparation.

Which brings me to today’s point (admit it, you were beginning to wonder if I had one?)! We have a saying in our firm:

In order to…GET AHEAD, it helps to GET A HEAD START.

Even as we process what we learned in the last admissions cycle, we’re already starting to prepare our next class.

Hey 11th graders: (and the parents who love them), time to get serious about applying to college.

Actually if you have a child in high school – of any year – you should probably pay attention. You’re likely already receiving a fair share of college-related ‘literature’.  And by the end of 11th grade, it’s easy it is for you/your child to become overwhelmed by this constant barrage of information and misinformation from every source imaginable about the college application process. So if you think it’s a nuisance now, once your student begins 12th grade, it can get a whole lot worse. 

But it doesn’t have to be. Applying to college can be systemized, stress-free, efficient, even ‘enjoyable’… and… gaining admission to school that you’ll love and paying a reasonable price you can afford without dipping into your life savings or taking on onerous student loan debt is achievable! That is…if you start early, get good advice and act upon it.

The most widely accepted college application, The Common Application, officially goes live on August 1st, BUT you can actually create an account now and begin filling out the basics. Which is a very good idea. You can also get a preview of the essay prompts and begin putting together a resume outlining your extra-curricular activities, awards and honors, community service and volunteer activities, etc., as this info will need to be entered on the application. 

Here are some other college-related activities you should be considering this summer:

  • Building (if you’re in 9th/10th grade) and/or Finalizing (if you’re in 11th)  Your College List – Though many students reflexively apply to as many as 20 schools, an ideal list is perhaps half that size and is a focused one that includes a balance of reach, target, and safety schools.
  • Visiting Colleges – While summer is not always the optimal time to see colleges at their most vibrant, it is convenient for families.  Not surprisingly, colleges expect many visitors during summer months, so there will be frequent tours and info sessions. Visiting is the best way to express interest in a college, which can sometimes help in securing an offer of admission.
  • Preparing for Fall Standardized Tests – We recommend that all students take the SAT or ACT before the end of 11th grade. The Fall dates (September – November) represent the last opportunity for many students to secure the score they want for the EA/ED deadlines. Summer is a great time to prepare for these exams.  Get yourself a tutor or private class (call us for a recommendation).
  •  Putting your finances in order – Make sure that you look up the priority financial aid filing deadlines for every school on your child’s list. You will definitely want to complete everything ahead of those deadlines. To that point, make sure you complete any financial planning or strategic changes now, or well in advance of the end of the year. In this regard, 10th grade parents, you are already half-way into what is called your ‘first base income year’ year – the tax return year that will be utilized by the government and the colleges to determine how much you may warrant in need-based grants and scholarships. Also, don’t forget that there are some big changes coming to the world of financial aid this fall (click here to see my review of these changes and how it could affect your family).
  • For 11th graders, specifically! This is a true game changer: Registering for our College Application Boot Camp (First class is June 15) – This 6 week live-taught program is exclusively for rising 12th grade students (parents are invited to the orientation on June 15). The best part is that by the end of the class, ALL enrolled students will have a completed college application, including a fine-tuned college list, a well written/edited Common APP essay, application resume and activities list. Guaranteed!  NOTE: This is the 17th year we are offering this class and we guarantee a seat for our Platinum and Gold clients. We deliberately keep class size low so that each student receives the kind of individual guidance to ensure their success. We are reaching our capacity, so claim your spot here. Our Early Bird savings will expire on Monday, May 29, so we urge you to take action today!

Finally, on behalf of our firm, on this Memorial Day weekend we remember those who have lost their lives in service to our country and extend our gratitude to all those who have and continue to serve. And to all, we wish you  a safe and enjoyable start to the summer season.

Our offices are open all summer and we are here to answer any college planning related question you may have.

Huge Changes in Financial Aid Rules- What Every Family Needs To Know!

May 8th, 2023 by

In 17 years of helping students and parents navigate the college admissions and financial aid landscape, I have personally prepared and submitted around 4,000 financial aid applications. During that time, there have been a few, relatively minor tweaks to the main financial aid application – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Well that’s about to change.

What we are about to see with the next admissions cycle (2023-24) and, in particular, the changes to the Title IV financial aid rules, represent the most significant change to higher ed access in years. Parents of current 11th graders and younger students should pay close attention.

A few years ago (December 2020) Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, a piece of legislation that was long in the works and was attached to a Covid relief bill. The new rules incorporated in that law are scheduled to take effect in the Fall 2023, impacting the academic year 2024-25. Like most legislation, if you know the loopholes and the landmines inherent in the rules, you can greatly benefit. If you don’t, there is a much greater risk you’ll needlessly suffer. Below are some highlights – including our researched analysis of its likely impacts.

1. The FAFSA will be simplified (hence the name of the law), with questions reduced from 108 to 36. This is very good, and it should make it easier for families at all income levels to apply for aid and not be deterred by a complicated application. On the other hand, with fewer data points to feed the algorithm, it becomes even more critical that your application is completed/submitted sans any mistakes – particularly in the interpretation of what information is being requested (i.e., never ever identify a 529 or Prepaid plan as your child’s asset AND you don’t value your business in the same manner as you would on an IRS document or on a loan application).

2. Pell Grants should be available to more families. This is also good, making college more affordable to low-income families. Separate from the legislation, the maximum Pell Grant is likely to increase, benefitting the most needy families. That said, it’s important to remember that while Pell Grants offer the largest aggregate of grant dollars available, they are distributed in relatively small increments (currently the max Pell Grant is around $7,395) and are only available to lower income families (generally, AGI less than $60,000). Many of our readers and the families we work with will be unaffected by this change as they enjoy the largest discounts — as in sizable five figure scholarships –  in the form of Institutional (not Federal) grants. At the ‘right’ schools, these are available to families with considerably higher incomes – even to those whose AGIs are greater than $200k.

3. The definition of “untaxed income” is changing, with the most common types no longer reported on FAFSA. Untaxed income is a traditional killer when it comes to financial aid, as these amounts are added back to a family’s income when calculating what the family can pay. Examples include 401K contributions and child support. While some untaxed income will still be reported, the definition is changing which will benefit many families, particularly those where child support is a primary source of income.

4. Colleges must be more transparent when disclosing their costs. Many families are confused by the published information about how much a school actually charges. Some colleges have been traditionally (and intentionally?) opaque when it comes to sharing their cost of attendance. Starting next fall, colleges must adhere to federal guidelines when disclosing how much they charge. It remains to be seen how well this new regulation will simplify the cost structure but I will stay optimistic for now.

5. For divorced or split households, the definition of a “custodial parent” is changing. This new rule may impact which parent is required to disclose financial information on the FAFSA, which in turn could negatively impact how much financial aid a student will receive.  Prior to this change the FAFSA only required the financial data of the household where the child resided 51% of their time. The new law defines the custodial parent as the one who provides the most financial support. This definition may be subject to interpretation.

6. The new FAFSA formula no longer considers the number of students in the family who are enrolled in college. This is perhaps the most significant, most problematic and possibly the most devastating change, especially for middle and higher income families with multiple children attending college at the same time. Under the current rules, when families report income and assets to determine what they can pay, the federal formula divides that amount by the number of students who will be enrolled. For example, let’s say your family’s AGI is $150k and the FAFSA determines that you have an Expected Family Contribution of $40k. If you have two students enrolled in college then each contribution would be $20k, which makes sense. But that rule is going away, and you would be expected to pay $40k for each child. So, on the face, this change seems devastating… BUT… and it’s a big BUT… the CSS Profile (the Institutional financial aid application) is NOT changing this rule — and according to my sources, colleges who use the CSS Profile to determine institutional aid have no intention to follow the FAFSAs lead on this matter. Equally important, it is the CSS Profile (a very complex and intrusive financial aid form with about 250+ questions) and the colleges/universities that require it, that offer the highest amount of scholarship and grants! CSS Profile schools are also the most generous schools. So, net net when you apply to the right (as in generous) colleges, your opportunity to reduce the cost of your child’s education increases significantly.

And, the average ‘discount rate’ has reached an all time high of 56%, so don’t let these changes deter you. So, while sticker prices are rising and financial aid rules are making it more challenging for some families, the schools themselves (especially private ones) are still finding ways to offer significant discounts which allow middle class families more opportunities to afford what appear to be very expensive universities.

In fact, over the past 17 years, our students have received approximately $33,500 per student per year in institutional, federal and state grants. So, while there is most certainly going to be disruption in the financial aid system this coming year, it need not be a negative experience for your family. Financial aid is somewhat of a high stakes game in that when you know the rules – of both Title IV finance regulations AND college admissions, you know how to work those rules to your family’s advantage. When you don’t, you do risk missing out on opportunities and needlessly leaving thousands of scholarship dollars on the table.

For parents with current 11th grade students, we will be discussing these changes and exactly what you/your child can do to take full advantage of them during our summer application bootcamp. Specifically, we will be incorporating the changes and how it should impact your child’s college list during our Parent Orientation which will take place on June 15. As this program is guaranteed to all of our Platinum and Gold families we have limited seats still available. You can click here to see our syllabus and to ensure your child can participate.

As always, please call my office (954-659-1234) or send me an email if you have any questions about the new Financial Aid regulations or any other college planning question or concern.

Record Setting LOW Admit Rates – What you need to know about your child’s admissions chances

May 1st, 2023 by

Today is ‘Decision Day’ for our college-bound high school seniors  (and the parents who love them). May 1 is the day that the deposits are due, and let’s just say it can be an equal parts anxiety-inducing and euphoric day. Mostly euphoric we hope, but the day can be anxiety-inducing for many because this year has been yet another record-setting year for low acceptance rates among the ‘top’ (read: popular) colleges. More schools than ever are reporting single-digit admit rates – schools you may have not considered ‘selective’ even 5 years ago. NYU, for example, is reporting that they received more than 120,000 applications – and accepted only about 8% of those. UPenn also claimed a record number of applications – 59,000. As did Dartmouth with nearly 29,000 applications. Duke had over 44,000 applications and accepted only 4.8% of them. Fueling this madness are the usual suspects: unrelenting marketing by colleges with a healthy assist from a number of ‘nonprofit’ educational services (like The College Board, to name one). There’s also more and easier ways to apply to multiple schools than ever before. And then there is the sad truth that there’s an appalling lack of access to college guidance (national average is 502:1, as in 502 12th graders to every college counselor).

The result? We see a growing number of high school students (and the parents who love them) who are finding themselves adrift, reflexively applying to dozens of colleges regardless of fit, spreading themselves thin and failing to do the ONE THING that can actually move the needle on this whole process.

Though there will always be a lot of uncertainty inherent in College Admissions, the fact remains that ultimately, the decisions are still made by people. We’ve been saying this for over a decade. In that time, technology has advanced, applications have changed, tests have been overhauled…and yet, there remains one constant in the Admissions and Scholarship Process.  It’s that with the right strategy – and more importantly – with the right execution of that strategy, your child can positively influence the outcome.

From an admissions standpoint, please understand that nearly all colleges will be rejecting legions of qualified applicants – MANY of whom would have been admitted just a few years back.  

In fact, back when most of today’s parents were applying to college, it was rare for a school (even the Ivies) to accept fewer than 20% of its applicants. Today, there are many schools with single digit admit rates!  And they are all ‘proudly’ setting (and celebrating) new record low acceptance rates. And many, many more will admit between 10 and 20% of applicants, including schools you might not expect.

This is happening despite the fact that overall college enrollment reached its peak in 2011.

This news shouldn’t surprise any of our clients or our readers– we’ve been reporting on and preparing our students for these type of long odds for 17 years.

One irony is that while college admissions has become increasingly competitive, the tuition discount rate (the amount of institutional grant and scholarships offered to admitted students) has reached a record high of 56%, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). Yes, that means that we expect most of our students to pay LESS than half of the published price for their college education (which can equate to literally tens of thousands of dollars).

These types of outcomes and opportunities do not happen without a proactive and strategic effort. For years, we’ve emphasized the importance of niche positioning when it comes to standing out in a crowded Admissions and funding process. That’s because despite the mania, the college process remains a very ‘personal’ one, managed by real people who are moved by emotion and subtleties that are not reflected in scores, GPA or class rank.  What separates two seemingly identical students on paper are intangibles – what we call an ‘X’ Factor.

In our practice, we develop an individualized and targeted Admissions strategy for each of our families. During high school this allows the student to shut out the noise and work on their plan…and when the time comes, they resist the pressure to defensively submit applications to ‘cover their bases’ and instead focus on building their case before a list of 8-10 schools that we know will consider their value (be it academically, socially or even geographically) and be capable of meeting the entire family’s needs.

The truth is that while there is now more information available than ever – including various school rankings, net cost calculators, ROI estimates, etc.,  the process is becoming more daunting and confusing than ever. This need not be the case for you and your students. There are 4000 universities and many right options for each child and budget. The goal is to identify those that meet your family’s needs and implement a strategy well before your child hits submit on their first application.

In just over a month, we’ll begin our summer Application Bootcamp for rising 12th graders (current 11th graders). In that 6-week program we will be working with each student to fine-tune their college lists and admissions strategy, create a killer college application and write a unique essay that will ensure that their application gets the attention it deserves. Every single student who participates is guaranteed a submit-ready college application prior to the beginning of 12th grade.

This is the 17th year we’ve offered this program and past students who have participated have been able to receive their first ‘yes’s’ early in the Fall. You can click here to see our 6-week syllabus and/or to register your 11th grader. Note – this class is guaranteed for our Platinum and Gold clients and it does fill up – we usually have a wait-list so if you’re interested, reserve your student’s place today. 


P.S. One way you can judge the results of our program is by the number of options our students get to choose among. So with our heartfelt congratulations to our seniors and their families, here is a sampling of the places our students are heading next fall.

Babson College  Brandeis University  College of Charleston  Cornell University
Dartmouth College Elon University  Embry Riddle  Emerson College
Florida Atlantic – Wilkes Honors College  Florida Institute of Technology
Florida International University  Florida Polytechnic  Florida Southern
Florida State University  Georgia Tech  Indiana University  Marist  McGill University
New York University  North Carolina State  Notre Dame  Nova Southeastern University
Ohio State  Penn State  Purdue University  Reed College  Skidmore College
Southern Methodist University  Texas A&M  University of Central Florida  University of Florida  University of Illinois  University of Maryland  University of Miami  University of Michigan  University of Pennsylvania  University of South Florida  Virginia Tech  Wellesley College

A New College Rankings System – And How to Build Your Optimal College List

April 13th, 2023 by

Faced with what The Wall Street Journal once called a ‘mind-numbingly complex’ process of evaluating 4000 universities and determining which are the ‘best’, families often turn to independently produced and widely-touted but rather dubious indices and rankings systems (yes, US News, I’m talking ’bout you).

I have so many students who, when they’re first building or paring down their college lists (which we’re doing right now with our sophomores and juniors), will point to the rankings and say that they’ll only consider the top schools, which presumably are the ‘best schools’.

My response is often: Rather than consider what’s ‘best’, let’s look at what’s ‘best for you.’

Let’s start, for example, with identifying schools that offer academic programs, or majors, you’re interested in pursuing. My alma mater, Tufts University, is currently ranked #32 by US News, but you can’t take a single business class there. Is that a better choice for a DECA kid who is keen on studying business than #41 Boston University? or even #44 Case Western Reserve University? Probably not.

Now I’m not against using data to inform your college planning decisions. Data can be very useful. It’s just that ‘rankings’ are just a starting point. They are not an absolute.

As a whole, the rankings like those in US News do offer a singe place where data on schools is collected. And when that data is deconstructed, students can learn some interesting things about the schools they’re researching. But, when rankings are used as whole-scale evidence that the 15th ranked school, Washington University of St. Louis, for example, is ‘better’ than the 25th ranked school, New York University, there are real problems. There is nothing geographical, cultural or academic that makes it possible to really compare these two universities and assign a generic ranking that determines whether one is better for your child than the other. Fit matters – academic, social and financial!

In an effort to address these issues (and, let’s face it, to compete with the aforementioned rival media outlet, US News), the NY Times recently introduced a ‘Build-Your-Own’ rankings tool with 900 colleges and universities in its database. It’s an interesting endeavor with an appealing premise — and you can try it here. My concern is that any ranking system based on an individual student’s preferences is actually far messier — and thus less reliable — in execution than it is in its intent. That’s because many of the data points utilized to feed the algorithms include factors like post grad earnings of former financial aid recipients and racial diversity. These are measurable considerations but not exactly quantitative in that they are subject to the human interpretation of the people feeding the system. Like most any data, rankings data might be ‘numerical’, but not exactly objective.

So, how do you build a ‘perfect list’ of colleges? First, be mindful that there is no optimal list that applies to all. There is, however, an optimal process by which to build that list. And that process starts with each individual student identifying preferences (academic interests, high school performance, career aspirations, campus lifestyle, location and locale, student organizations, average class size, etc.), while taking into consideration the family’s ability to pay (budget, expected family contribution, financial aid generosity, availability of merit scholarships, etc.). Then it moves to looking at the schools that can meet those criteria.

The list-building process should be initially inclusive (think 40 schools to be researched in 10th/11th grade). And then a good college list is one that is ultimately focused, intentional and strategic (think 12 max by the summer before 12th grade).

Remember to consider the financial realities and make sure you understand your family’s Expected Contribution and your particular talents/achievements so that you can anticipate the level of discount you’ll receive from each school you’re considering (We utilize software that can accurately project this in advance). Nothing is worse than including schools on your list that you categorically won’t or can’t attend. And finally, recognize that a large majority of any applicant pool will meet the school’s requirements – this is competitive – so make sure you build a list with a mixture of reach, target and likely schools from an admissions and financial basis.

As we move into the final stretch of this academic year, we begin to focus in earnest on making sure our 11th graders are positioned to submit their applications BEFORE they get mired in the academic crush and pressure of 12th grade. This includes making sure that each student has the right colleges on their list!

If you’re an 11th grader (or a parent who loves one), there are steps you can be taking now to ensure that the entire application process goes smoothly – without the needless stress that comes with doing things late or without the proper guidance. We like to say, to get ahead it’s good to get a head start!

And with that in mind, we’re opening our early bird registration for our 17th Annual Summer College Admissions Bootcamp. This is a 6-week program with live instruction and one-on-one office hours. We guarantee that every attendee will have a submit-ready college application (including a stand-out essay and activities list) BEFORE the start of the next school year.

You can review the syllabus here – and if interested, register your child today. Please keep in mind that this program is guaranteed to all of our Gold/Platinum clients at no additional charge and has sold out to the public every year. We often have a waitlist of students, so be sure to register your rising 12th grader and avoid being on the outside wishing your child enjoyed the necessary support. We hope to see your soon-to-be rising 12th grader in our class!

Again, check our our syllabus by clicking here – and feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions about this program – or any other component of the college planning process. I know it may appear daunting right now, but I promise that with the right support, it need not be!!

Secrets to a Successful Financial Aid Appeal

March 29th, 2023 by

Here’s a little something that many of our newer readers are surprised (in a good way) to learn. Unlike typical admissions decisions, the financial aid offers that accompany your admissions letters are far less final. With financial aid, you have more room to maneuver, to appeal, even (gasp!) to negotiate a stingy offer than you do an unfavorable admissions decision. Notice the language difference: admissions decisions, and financial aid offers.

The latter can be countered, as in you can make a counter-offer, request to ‘be reconsidered’, or appeal for more money. And here’s the best part. Quite often, when done so correctly – you’ll get more. Sometimes quite a lot more.

So, should you be appealing your financial aid offer?
Well, that depends (which I know is annoying, but it’s also true). Actually there are many good reasons to appeal a financial aid offer, but first and foremost, you have to determine if the offer you have received is fair (as in, is it consistent with both the school’s stated financial aid policy and it’s historical practice).

The first thing I do when presented with an award letter is calculate how much the student deserves to receive. This way I have a benchmark to compare the award with, instead of merely crying “it’s not fair!” 

How do you calculate a “fair” award?  By applying the financial aid formulas and researching what percentage of financial need the college meets.

The financial aid formula is:
Cost of Attendance – Estimated Family Contribution = Need.

Cost Of Attendance means how much it takes to send your child to school for one year – tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, travel expenses, insurance, and so forth.

Estimated Family Contribution is an amount that the government determines that you can afford to pay each year.  It’s derived from filling out the FAFSA and in some cases, the CSS Profile. 

(Most families are unhappy with their EFC because government formulas often have little relevance to a specific family’s financial circumstances.  For example, a family of 4 with an adjusted gross income of $150,000 and one student in college will have an EFC of about $30,000, or approximately 1/5 of their income.  There are ways to reduce your EFC, but that takes advanced planning of a year or two.  So the best time to start is when your student is in 10th grade or earlier).

So if Cost of Attendance is $80,000, EFC is $30,000 you will show financial need of $50,000. (COA-EFC = Need).

The next step is to research how much need the college says they’ll meet and how much they have historically met.  All schools discount to some extent. Perhaps your child’s dream school is a generous one, and meets 90% – in this case $45,000, leaving only $5,000 unmet.

I realize your eyes could be glazing over right now, so I’ll stop with the calculations.

But if you’re still following, we just figured out that a fair award is $45,000. If you receive that amount or more, I would not bother appealing, but it depends on the allocation (grants vs. loans and work study). If you receive less than $45,000, I would question the award and consider an appeal.

Now, all of the above assumes that the financial aid applications the family submitted did not contain any errors that may have inadvertently inflated the family’s expected contribution. Many applications do contain such errors, and these can be costly. But they can also be addressed, explained, and/or appealed.

Perhaps, for example, upon review, we realize that you have accidentally inflated the value of your small business by using an IRS standard as opposed to the Dept. of Ed. formulas. Or perhaps, you included the value of the 529 your parents’ purchased for their grandchild or worse, you misclassified this asset as a student asset (note: student asset are more heavily penalized in both the federal and institutional financial aid methodologies). In those cases, we submit corrected applications along with an explanation for the changes. I’ve seen cases were retirement accounts or home values are included in assets, and this, too, can be unnecessarily costly.

We’ll also appeal on behalf of families who may have experienced a change in life or financial circumstances that is not reflected on the financial aid applications (note that the financial aid applications are using data from January of your high school child’s sophomore year to December of their junior year — and things do change). We’ll request reconsideration for an award if the family has experienced a job change, a medical issue that results in high expense or time away from work (lost wages), a natural disaster, or some other event that has a significant financial impact.

The best way to appeal is to write a letter to the financial aid office and copy the admissions person who signed your child’s acceptance letter. Admissions has a vested interest in having your child say ‘yes,’ so keep them in the loop. Some schools have institutionalized the appeal process, with websites explaining their process and specific forms to complete. You’ll want to follow their rules and procedures, or you’re simply wasting your time.

Make sure that you are both thankful and positive in the letter – tell them how much you appreciate their original offer (even as you are about to ask for more!).  Describe how eager your child is to attend this prestigious school.  Then mention that, as it stands, what they have offered is not enough for your son or daughter to be able to attend. If you can demonstrate that you were under-awarded, do so here.

If you have background about your finances or other relevant information that did not show up on the initial financial aid forms, this is the time to explain it.  And don’t be afraid to use emotion to paint a vivid picture for the financial aid officer, who, for the most part, tends to be an actual human being with feelings! 

If you were laid off, describe not only the financial impact but also the pain and suffering that you experienced. If you’re self-employed and your business suffered a downturn, this letter is the place to demonstrate it and make the reader feel that they’re right there with you.

Before you ‘appeal’, you should probably wait until you have received all of your ‘offers’. That way, if you received a more compelling award from a competing university, you can mention it!  Sometimes (not always), you can use it to play one school off the other, particularly if you can honestly say something along the lines of “Your fine college is Charlie’s first choice, but he received $12,000 more in grants from Faber College. If you can come close to matching Faber, he’s coming to your school!”

One cautionary note – don’t bluff!  You’d better be able to prove that you were offered a better award package elsewhere, because you may be requested to produce it.  And finally, make sure you call it an “appeal.”  Never use the word “negotiate” – the theory (still unproven) is that financial aid officers think that word is too transactional so to be safe, stick to the more academic ‘appeal’.

If you’re the parent of a 12th grader who is currently reviewing your financial aid offers and would like more in depth information, check out this podcast Carla and I recorded a couple of years ago. If you still have questions, you can send me an email and perhaps we can improve your offer.

As always, thank you for following our content and allowing us to help support students and their success!


How March Madness Can Lead to Real Money in April

March 8th, 2023 by

March Madness is around the corner, and with it comes my 15th annual University Generosity Bracketology. So I’m going to get right to the point.

Some colleges are generous.
Some colleges have strong basketball programs…

…and some colleges are both generous AND have strong basketball programs.

Why does all of this matter? There are two reasons – one is critically important, and the other is, well, trivial but fun.

In my 15+ years of guiding high school administrators, students and families, the issue of affordability is often central to the conversation around assembling a list of colleges. It’s no secret that the cost of attendance (COA) at both private and public universities has been on the rise. Back in 2007, when I began advising families, the average COA at a private university was (only) about $56,000 per year; that number is closer to $80,000 today and still on the rise. I just spoke with a family whose daughter was admitted to NYU. Their COA at the Tisch School is a whopping $93,132 per year! However, most families we work with will pay far less than the COA.

Remarkably, the COA at state universities, especially here in Florida, has only increased slightly to about $23,000 annually. State costs have risen steadily across the country, but not at the same level as private college costs. But that’s only half the story.

What is less understood is the way colleges “discount” by offering need-based or merit-based aid, or a combination of the two. In fact, all colleges offer discounts, just not in the same way or at the same level, nor do those discounts apply across the board to all students. What is of critical importance to you and your family is to know: 1. which colleges are likely to offer a discount to you; 2. whether that discount will be in the form of need-based or merit aid; and 3. how you can maximize your chances at either or both.

Just looking at the numbers below from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), tuition discounts have been on the rise for several years, approaching a whopping 54.5% during the 2021-22 academic year:

These numbers largely reflect merit discounts, or awards based on grades, test scores, and other factors based on high school performance. Truth is, many colleges offer discounts as a strategic incentive to lure students to enroll.

In brief, the merit discount strategy works like this:

Colleges charge a high price so that the public perceives an intrinsic value. Then, they will offer a big “scholarship” (read: discount) which makes both student and parents feel good and will make the student more likely to enroll. The amount of the discount may vary based on academic performance, but it also might be a way to target students from specific socio-economic backgrounds, high schools, or zip codes. After the discount the remaining cost is still significant so that the school enjoys an impressive sum, but it’s low enough that mom and dad can figure out a way to pay. And, they can tell all their friends that their brilliant child earned a scholarship.*

The other way that schools discount is by offering need-based aid to families who demonstrate financial need on the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. The calculation for need-based aid is more direct and transparent, though changes to the federal formula in the next admissions cycle (2023-24) will result in some confusion for many families. Still, most schools publish the amounts they award, on average, as a percentage of the need. So if a school meets over 80% of the demonstrated need (there are many of them!), we would consider that to be quite generous.

There are about 70 colleges who meet 100% of the demonstrated need. You might conclude that these schools are particularly generous, and therefore you should apply to them to get the best financial aid package. But that depends on your own family’s income and net worth. An Ivy League school will appear super generous to a family earning less than $100,000 per year, but that same Ivy will offer exactly $0.00 in merit aid. So, for families earning in excess of, say $300,000, an Ivy League school isn’t generous at all. This is one reason why students should apply to schools that are right for them, not only academically and socially but also financially, as opposed to selecting the same colleges that your friends are applying to.

So what does this have to do with March Madness? Long time readers may recall that each year I take a look at the Men’s Division 1 basketball bracket of 68 teams, and I apply my own “University Generosity” formula to predict the winners. By doing this, we can see how schools differ in their degree of generosity. My methodology may not win you much money in your office pool, but it could yield incredible gains in terms of scholarship and need-based aid when your child receives his/her acceptance letter in April of 12th grade.

Selection Sunday is next weekend, March 12. Next Tuesday, March 14 I’ll be announcing my #UniversityGenerosityBracketology bracket live on Facebook, at approximately 12 pm ET. I’ll send a Live link before the event, you can follow us on Facebook at

No athletic event gets me quite so excited as March Madness. The Cinderella stories, the buzzer beaters, the upsets – every March this event always delivers. So I figure, let’s try to learn something about these colleges and their generosity in the hope that it will aid in the process of selecting colleges for your child. Come and enjoy the excitement with me, and let’s identify the most generous colleges among the 68 lucky dancers, er, participating teams.

If you would like more insight into the college admissions or financial aid processes, don’t wait until the last minute when your child is already in the midst of his/her senior year. The best plan is an early plan – reach out to me at or call us at 954-659-1234 to learn how we might be able to assist you and your child with this exciting yet complex exercise that is college admissions.