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Admissions 105: The Right School Pays Off
an interview with Dennis Hughner

What is the most costly and common mistake people make when choosing a college?

Families almost always defer to the student to choose the school they would like to attend, and students typically make their decision based on the wrong reasons: because “I’ve heard of it” or “It’s written up in X as the ‘top…’” or “It’s where my girlfriend/boyfriend is applying” or “my friend is going there,” or “my parents recommended it,” or by some other random yardstick.

In contrast, the right college is the one that has all the following: the college major the student most desires, comfortable class sizes for how that student learns, study abroad opportunities to allow the student to become more worldly, opportunities to explore his/her other interests—and the greatest financial aid from all sources, including the federal government, the state government, and, most importantly, the endowment funds of the institution itself. The goal is to find schools that are good matches for the student and will offer him/her attractive financial aid packages. If the student has selected the wrong colleges, they will not offer him/her merit-based scholarships and grants from their institution’s endowment funds.

How do you go about finding “the right college matches”?

Research, research, research. Start the college planning process early, preferably during the student’s sophomore year. Wait before creating a list of colleges. Start by evaluating and narrowing potential careers; after that, evaluate college majors that will take you to the desired career. For example, do you want to become an engineer? If so, what discipline of engineering? Learn each discipline’s function, purpose, potential job market, and educational requirements. With answers in hand, design an academic path for college acceptance as a pre-engineering student. Also, consider related careers that would constitute a good fit for a student strong in math and science, such as finance, forensic accounting, and actuarial science. Once you have selected a major course of study, you can determine what you want from a school outside of academics. Then, and only then, are you and your family ready to begin evaluating colleges and universities.

How can parents evaluate institutions financially?

Go to the College Board's website and enter the institution’s name; all financial data can be found with little effort. One serious financial consideration is the time needed to earn an undergraduate degree. Is the student most likely to graduate in four, five, or six years? Private institutions have a better track record for graduating their students in four years, which often translates into lower costs to earn an undergraduate degree.

From the school’s perspective, what constitutes a good match, and how can you turn it to advantage?

From the institution’s perspective, a good match is when the applicant possesses academic qualifications in the upper 25% of all applicants (upper 10% is better) and perhaps also has something the school wants—skills (such as in athletics, music, art, sign language, martial arts) and/or aptitudes (such as entrepreneurial credentials and volunteer/work experience in the areas of the student’s declared major). If an institution wants the student in its incoming freshman class, the financial aid award will reflect this desire. To negotiate for a better aid package, present evidence of a better offer from a like institution. Don’t compare private to public universities; it will not work.

How can a financial advisor help in this process?

An experienced advisor, given sufficient time, can educate and guide the student and parents through the college preparation process, including career evaluations, family financial review (taking siblings into account and developing a financial plan for all children in the family to graduate from college), and initial school selections that best suit the student’s desires as well as the family’s budget. Once a student has received all acceptances and denials, an advisor can also show the family the financial bottom line for each institution, enabling a student and parents to make an informed, realistic college choice.

What other common financial mistakes do parents make?

Many parents and students fail to do their “homework” early enough to meet the deadlines for private scholarships in the high school student’s junior year. Also, most families learn belatedly about the COA-EFC="NEED" formula (Cost of Attendance - Expected Family Contribution or a family’s “deductible” before financial aid kicks in = Need) the federal government and institutions use to determine how much a family will have to pay out of pocket before financial aid can be determined (search Expected Family Contribution—EFC for more information). Being unaware of the financial aid formula can lead to a rude awakening about out-of-pocket costs when it’s too late in the admissions process. In addition, many parents and students need to understand that if they do not qualify for federal assistance, they can, if time permits, revisit their school selections, concentrating on colleges and universities that are good matches and could provide merit-based scholarships and grants.

You always have to have a plan B.

—Dennis Hughner, partner, Complete College Funding Solutions, Torrance, California,


Union for Reform Judaism.