The 8 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make About Getting Financial Aid

“The 8 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make
About Getting Financial Aid”
by Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD

What’s the problem?

 College tuition, room & board are going up by 15% each year (USA Today Report, 6/20/12) at a time when it is already unbelievably expensive (Ivy Leagues $230,000 for four years; public universities like UCs $120,000 for four years; 4 year colleges $180,000 for four years).

 The average middle class family has saved about $1,600 for college and at the same time feels it makes too much income to get financial aid.

How I  can help you solve it :

 You can get positioned to receive as much financial aid and scholarships as possible with little or no debt.

 It is not about stuffing more information into so you are overwhelmed, stressed and afraid…

 Rather it about getting enough knowledge and understanding so you can use a clear, step by step process to secure as much college education money as possible.

Why College Financial Aid Officers Don’t Want You to Know These Secrets:

 College and universities are big business and they want to decide how they spend their money and to whom they ration out federal and state funds to.

 Financial aid officers do not like these secrets because they believe these legal loopholes tell rich people how to look poor.

 I believe the financial need formulas (both the FAFSA and CSS Profile) are little more than money rationing system and do not reflect a family’s ability to pay, especially in California.

For instance, if you have a lot of consumer debt that comes out of your check each month, it works against you on the FAFSA because the formula does not count any credit card, car or mortgage debt against your Adjusted Gross Income.

Say you make $140,000 a year but 30% of it goes to your car, your credit card debt and your monthly mortgage.  After taxes (at 20%), you really making $112,000 but since 30% goes toward debt (which FAFSA does not count), you are actually living on $78,400.  But the financial aid formula will only look at your AGI as $112,000 not $78,400?

This makes a huge difference whether or not you qualify for financial aid or not.

The point here is that you can solve this problem by learning to tell your story in such a way that you receive as much financial aid and scholarships as possible.

But first of all, you need to know:
The 8 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make About Financial Aid:

1.  Parents believe that they make too much money to get financial aid at all.

2.  Parents think that if all else fails, they can declare their kid independent and he or she can apply for financial aid.  This went out in the seventies; today it is very difficult to do.  Your child must be married and/or have a child or be in the military full time.

3.  Parents save in their kid’s name instead of their own.  The formula for getting financial taxes your child more  (20%) than you (5.6%) for any assets. There is one happy exception to this which we explain in our workshops.

4. Parents believe the filing dates on the FAFSA form (open ended), instead of filing it as soon as possible after January 1 of the year your child is going to attend college.  This is because the financial aid formula (which the FAFSA is one example) is a system for rationing out funds and it is first come first serve.

5. Parents don’t understand a key concept like ‘base year’.  Base year is the year before your child graduates from high school and is the standard by which your financial aid money is based.  Not understanding this concept and that you want to make as little money as possible and not have any capital gain profits during that year is crucial.

6.  Parents hold off on going back to college themselves or stagger their kids going to college, not realizing that the more family members you have in college the better it is for you to get very substantial financial aid.

7.  Parents beat themselves up because they have lost their jobs or are having a hard time finding them and think their child can’t attend college when this is actually a good thing because it helps you get more financial aid with grants and not loans.

8. Parents don’t understand the power they hold if they run a small family owned business (under 100 full time equivalent employees).  If positioned the right way, you can use it to shelter your assets, including real estate and be eligible to receive substantial financial aid.

All of these mistakes and many more, such as not believing there is a way of sheltering your assets so you can still qualify for financial aid, can be avoided by reading my blog consistently and checking out my website at

How to Go to Out-of-State Colleges at In-State Prices!

How to Go to Out-of-State Colleges at In-State Prices!

“How to Go to Out-of-State Colleges at In-State Prices!”

“The Secret of the Western University Exchange

Blog #9
Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD

One of the best ways to save money on out of state public universities like the U of Arizona, U of Hawaii  and U of Colorado is to participate in the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) .

If you are a resident of WUE states, such as, California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Colorado you are eligible to REQUEST a reduced tuition rate of 150% of resident tuition at participating 2- and 4-year college programs outside of your home state!

Here’s the secret: you must REQUEST it because the WUE reduced rate is not awarded to everyone. And you must APPLY EARLY.

Many institutions limit the number of new WUE awards each academic year so again, APPLY EARLY.

Remember: just as with financial aid, the WUE reduced tuition rate is doled out in a rationing system so it’s first come first serve.

Bottom line what does it mean? You can go to some really good out of state schools at in state prices if you use WUE!

Below is a partial list of participating schools:

University of Alaska
Arizona State University
University of Arizona
Colorado State
University of Colorado
University of Hawaii
University of Idaho
University of Montana
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
University of New Mexico
University of Utah
Washington State University

Go to for more information on how to do it and how much of a reduction you can expect from each school.

Western Colleges with Best Merit Scholarships

Western Colleges with Best Merit Scholarships

“Western Colleges with Best Merit Scholarships”

Blog #8
Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD

Top California Colleges for Merit Scholarships

1. Chapman–1400 scholarships available
2. Pepperdine–300 scholarships
3. University of Pacific–350 scholarships
4. U. of Redlands–UNLIMITED scholarships; 10 full tuition
5. USC–450 scholarships
6. Westmont, Santa Barbara–650 scholarships
7. Whittier–Varies
8. CSU Fresno–900 scholarships
9. CSU Northridge–575 scholarships
10. San Jose State–450 scholarships
11. Sonoma State–500 scholarships

Top Western Colleges for Merit Scholarships

1. U. of Colorado, Boulder–625 scholarships available
2. Gonzaga University–UNLIMITED scholarships
3. U. of Puget Sound–350 scholarships
4. Whitworth, Spokane–UNLIMITED scholarships
5. U. of Washington, Seattle–250 scholarships
6. Baylor University, Texas–UNLIMITED scholarships
6. Trinity University, San Antonio–350 scholarships
7. U. of Portland–UNLIMITED scholarships
8. Linfield, McMinnville, Oregon–Varies
9. Willamette U, Salem, Oregon–Varies
10. U. of Idaho, Moscow–5000 Academic
11. Boise State–974 scholarships
12. Chaminade U, Honolulu–UNLIMITED scholarships

Excellent schools that are popular, such as Claremont (30 merit), Harvey Mudd (10), Pitzer (40) offer very few and they are extremely competitive.
Popular good schools, such as Occidental offer some (100 for Oxy).
Catholic Colleges–Loyola Marymount (few) , Santa Clara U (some) , USF (some) etc. offer some to few. ‘Some’ means–25 or so in total.

The Colleges that Offer NO Merit Scholarships

The Colleges that Offer NO Merit Scholarships

“The Colleges that Offer NO Merit Scholarships”

Blog #7 in a series
by Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD

I.  These Colleges are King Kong

As I said in Blog #5 merit money was started about 40 years ago to raise the academic level of a college and university, much the same way that colleges use athletic scholarships to recruit the best athletes.  However, the following colleges listed below do not offer any academic, or fine art scholarships based on merit.  You could have a 2400 on your SATs or a 36 on your ACT, be teaching a high school class and have just co-authored a textbook with your high school math teacher, and you still would not get one cent in merit $$.

Knowing this is very important because for some middle class students whose families have a high EFC (Estimated Family Contribution that the feds and the institutional financial aid methodology, (see Blog #5) will simply not be able to pay their sticker price (EFC) because even with financial aid, the price is too high.

This is why it is crucial that you know your EFC (the price you really will have to pay for college not the sticker price) before you apply.

These colleges are my gorillas, my king kong, because they stand above the other 7000 who receive federal aid (and the 3000+ who give merit money) and you pay them, dearly.  You have to decide if they are worth the price and if you can beg, borrow or borrow (remember, blog #5, the most money you can ever receive from college is in the colleges themselves and not from outside, national scholarships that are almost impossible to get).

Anyway, here is the list.  Don’t cry your heart out when you see it because there are hundreds of amazing, interesting and fabulous colleges that do give great merit scholarships.  I will go into them in Blog #8 “Where the $$$ is or 10 Ways to Become a Terrific College Consumer.”

These Colleges Offer No Merit Scholarships for Academics or anything else

Amherst College Cornell University Princeton University
Bernard College Dartmouth College Reed College
Bates College Goddard College Saint John’s College
Bennington College Hamilton College Sarah Lawrence College
Bowdoin College Harvard University Stanford University
Brown University Haverford College Swarthmore College
Bryn Mawr College Julliard College Trinity College, Connecticut
Bucknell University Marlboro College University of Pennsylvania
Colby College MIT Vassar College
Colgate University Middlebury College Wellesley College
Columbia University Mount Holyoke College Wheaton College, Mass.
Connecticut College New England College Williams College
    Yale University

2.  This is not an exhaustive list.  But it does give you an idea that a lot of the most popular schools do not recruit students via academic scholarships.  The point is for you to make sure to check that the colleges and universities you apply to will listen to and pay good merit $$ for your compelling academic story. This is especially true if you are a middle or upper middle class family with a high EFC that is hard for you to pay.

This is exactly what I am going to go into in blog #8  “Where the $$ Is or 10 Steps to Becoming a Terrific College Consumer.”


Stay tuned for blog # 8 “Where the $$ Is.”  Check out my website at  Leave a comment for me on this blog. Or, ask me a question by email.  I can’t promise I will answer every one but I will carefully read them because you are teaching me where you need my support and expertise. Thanks for listening!

The Secret to Getting Great College Scholarships: Part Two

Great College ScholarshipsThe Secret to Getting Great College Scholarships: Part Two

Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD
Blog # 6 in a Series

Okay, okay, Dr. Barb, you’re saying, we get it! Merit money for the colleges is much easier to get than trying for impossibly difficult national scholarships so we should focus on them.

Yes, absolutely.

Now the question is, how do you get Merit Scholarships? And where do you have the best chance get them?

I.  Four Secrets of How to Get Merit Scholarships

Secret #1:  Every Student Needs to be Positioned as a Star

One of the keys to my success as a college coach has been that I realized early on that my real job with families who needed money to pay for college was to help position their children as stars.  I truly believe that every single student I have worked with has something marvelous to give to a college (and the world).  My job is to see that greatness and help bring it forth like Michelangelo, who saw the magnificence in a block of marble before he even began to carve his marvelous statues.

Today it is even more imperative to bring forth college stars because as I have said in my previous blogs, the bright line between financial aid (Need $), merit scholarships (Non Need $) and college admission is dimming.  Every single student needs to be positioned well to get into college and to get enough money to go.

Secret #2: Good Grades in Rigorous Classes and High SATs/ACTs=Scholarships

It is imperative that you understand that Merit Scholarships at most colleges are overwhelmingly for academic merit.  There are a few colleges that give $$ for outstanding leadership, talent, and community service, but they are rare.  Focus on getting academic scholarships and you will have the best chance to get them.

Secret #3: To Get Academic Scholarships You Must do Three Vital Things:

1.) GPA:

Get the highest GPA you are able to get in the most rigorous classes you are capable of taking (AP, IB, community college); this is the story told by your transcript and recommendations;


Get the highest testing scores you are capable of getting, meaning SATs, ACTS, and SAT 2s (although many colleges don’t require SAT 2 s (subject tests), you can use them to help position yourself) and AP scores. This is the story told by your official testing scores;

3.) Academic Initiative:

 Learn how to tell a compelling story about your Academic Initiative.

The great presidential historian, Doris Kerns Goodwin said recently that the candidate who wins the Obama-Romney Presidential race will be the one “who tells the most compelling story from beginning, middle to end.”

This is absolutely applicable to merit scholarships.  The student who tells the most compelling academic story from beginning, middle to end wins college and scholarships!

It may be a back story about the challenges and adversity you went through to get those great grades and testing scores.  For example, how you went from a C student to an A student in your high school career, or how you conquered math by doing extraordinary hard work, redoing every problem set before a test.

Or it may be how you took an academic passion and ran with it.  For instance, how you loved science so much you competed for and got an internship at Lawrence Berkeley lab and how it impacted you. Or you developed such an interest in reading classics that you created a Classic Book Club at your high school (very unusual today) and wrote a blog for teenagers about great classic reads.

The key here is that everyone has a chance to get merit money if he can position his story as one that overcomes academic challenges and/or one where she had the initiative to go to the next level with her passion.

Let me tell you two stories that illustrate this.

I once helped a single mother of 4 who had a 2.5 GPA, get into St. Mary College of Moraga with a $10,000 scholarship. We were able to tell her amazing story and have academic recommendations to back it up.

Sarya was going to community college while working full time and caring for her 4 children as a single mom.  She was doing all this because she wanted to have a chance to better her life and certainly her children’s.  But at the college she hit a snag.  She simply could not complete the college math requirement to transfer.  The first time she took Algebra 2, she failed.  The next time she took it, she got a D.  The third time, she not only passed it, but stunned her math teacher by her diligence and comprehension.  She said in her essay, “It was like I was boxing with algebra and the first time I got in the ring, bam! I was knocked down.  So I started my training again and when I thought I was ready, I got into the ring, and bam!  I was knocked down again.  But I got up, even though I was bloody and tired, I did it again, but this time I got up an hour early every day and I went to bed an hour later because I was studying so hard and this time I won.  Now I know I can learn anything.”

Tip: Remember, the compelling story is one thing but you must back it up with evidence:  in Sarya’s case it was through her transcripts and a recommendation letter from the very math teacher who had given her the poor grades and then witnessed her triumph.

The second story is about creating an academic theme.  I am going to get into how to do this in much greater detail in a later blog because there really is an art to it but I wanted underline here how much focusing on your academic strengths helps.

A few years ago a young man name Des come to me who was passionate about drama and English but not very good in math or science.  His mother wanted him to bring up his math SAT score because it was only 550, whereas his verbal was 640 and his writing score was 620.  I explained to Des that he would get much more mileage out of focusing on bringing his verbal and writing up to 700 or so with good tutoring. Then I asked him if he was involved in theater at his high school and he said no, that it was very competitive and he never got any decent parts.  I suggested that he start his own group with some other friends who had been left out.  And that is exactly what he did.  They actually produced two well received plays in a local theater in Alameda.  In addition, he pitched a drama workshop for elementary kids to his favorite 5th grade teacher.  She loved the idea; it was very successful and she wrote him a lovely community (as opposed to academic) recommendation.

We then worked on completing his academic theme of being creative and academically good at drama and literature by his taking the SAT Subject Test in Literature, which, after tutoring, he did well in.  I helped him find schools that were in his GPA level (3.5) which were good in Theater and English. Des ended up going to Whittier College in California with a $15,000 a year merit scholarship because he showed academic initiative.  In sum, Des got excellent grades in English and Theater.  He proved he was competitive with his test scores. He showed real initiative in starting his own theater group and doing volunteer drama workshops at his old elementary school.  And, he backed everything up with recommendations, test scores, and his GPA.

What Des was able to do was put a spotlight on what he was good at and allow those things he was adequate at best, fade into the background. Theater at its best!

II.  Three Secrets about Where You Have the Best Chance to Get Merit $$

Secret #1  Pick Colleges that Have Merit $$$

So where do you get Merit ScholarshipsNOT in Ivy League or Ivy League level schools that are what I call gorillas because they roar and students come. Excellent students are already vying to get into them so they don’t need to recruit them with scholarships (in Blog #7 I will give you a list of these prestigious and popular schools that give no merit money).

And certainly NOT in public universities who have already given students a scholarship by being cheaper than other comparable colleges.

Your best bet for finding merit scholarships is in small very good private schools that are seeking to build their reputation by bringing in students who are good in certain subjects and/or who have academic excellence.

Private schools have more because they have greater endowments, they are not based on the ups and downs of state taxes and they are actively searching for the best students.

It is also true that great public universities like the University of Michigan and the University of California do have some merit money.

In comparison to private colleges, however, there is very little scholarship money in public universities.  CAL, for instance, accepts almost 9000 freshman every year and offers about 10 merit scholarships, whereas great colleges like Emory University, Washington U. at St. Louis and USC offer many more.

TIP:  if your child is good enough to get a Trustee or Presidential scholarship at CAL (which at most is $10,000) out of 9000 kids, make sure it is for 4 years and can be extended because it takes so long to graduate because of crowded classes.  But also, if you’re that good, you probably can get a full ride (tuition, fees and room and board) at a private school.

Remember, the 8 ivy league schools and 42 other ivy league level schools are not going to give you non need or merit scholarships.  In addition, there are many prestigious colleges who give very little merit money.

Secret # 2 : Pick Colleges Where You are an Academic Star

Colleges that will give you substantial money are those where you are positioned as an academic star.  So if you are a solid B+ (3.5) student, look for colleges to give you money where your B is valued.  You’re not a going to a cent from colleges that are ‘dream’ (4.0) schools or ‘possibles’ (3.6+), but your ‘fall back’ schools–those that have 3.2 or 3.3–will give you a good chance to get money.

To me, Loren Pope’s excellent book, “Colleges that Change Lives” is like a consumer report on some of the best and fairly unknown colleges who have great merit money.

Because these are colleges for B and B+ student, a well positioned A student can get good money there, as I have with my students time and time again.

So it’s not only positioning yourself academically, it’s positioning yourself in colleges that appreciate your value. This is exactly what I did for Sarya and Des.  I found schools where their challenges and initiative made them stars.

Secret # 3 Pick Colleges (with Merit $$) Outside your State!

Here’s a staggering statistics: 80% of students stay in their home state to go to college.

Tip:  go outside your home state to college and you decrease the competition and increase your chances to get in and get money. Because one of the key things about colleges are that no matter how small they are they all want geographic diversity as well as a good racial mix.  And they will often pay for it.

But if you stay in your home state (or those are the only colleges on your list) you are competing with the 80% of students who want to stay near home.  In California, we have over 650,000 students a year competing to get into the same UCs and private colleges in California.  That’s why merit money in your home state often isn’t as good as outside your state.

A few years ago, when we still had some amazing bookstores in Berkeley, I met a mom and dad who were feverishly going through college choice books trying to find a school as good as the University of California where her boy could have a superb science education but not end up a number with 48,000 other students.  I immediately suggested Emory University, a marvelous 4 year college in Atlanta that is not only well funded (it is nicknamed the University of Coca Cola because of its endowment)but has Nobel Prize winners teaching there also.  They took my advice and applied at both schools, among others, and their son ended up at Emory and in his first year there was able to do a research project with a Nobel Prize winner.  This would never happen at a crowded six year university like UC Berkeley.

TIP: This is the bottom line secret of getting merit money–all things being equal, your best chance for getting money is from schools that give it and that are slightly below your GPA and SATs so that you’re considered a star.


Stay tuned for blog # 7 “The 48 Colleges Who Offer NO Merit $$” which is very important to know if you want good money for college.  Check out my website at  Leave a comment for me on this blog. Or, ask me a question by email.  I can’t promise I will answer every one but I will carefully read them because you are teaching me where you need my support and expertise. Thanks for listening!

The Secret to Getting Great College Scholarships: Part One

The Secret to Getting Great College Scholarships: Part One

Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD
Blog # 5 in a Series

Are you like most parents I know, looking for scholarships in all the wrong places? In this blog I am going to reveal to you an ocean of scholarships right there for the taking.

1. The Ocean of Scholarships vs. a Puddle of Outside Scholarships

An Ocean of ScholarshipsImagine an ocean of scholarships in the colleges themselves.The time when you’re going to get the most from a college is going into your freshman year. The other possible time, although it is a smaller amount, is when you transfer as a junior, because some students in every college leave after their sophomore year and money becomes available.

A Puddle of Scholarships
Now, imagine a puddle for all scholarships that you don’t get from colleges and universities upon college entrance.

These are called ‘outside’ scholarships because they are outside the college or university itself.

I am going to address this puddle of ‘outside’ scholarships first because I don’t want you to waste much time on it.

I’ve been doing this for 18 years. Before the Internet, we used Petersen’s Scholarship book and other books on scholarships but because it took so long to publish them,they were always out of date. Then the Internet came and websites like did a wonderful, up to date job culling through all the outside scholarships available in any one year. However, Fastweb doesn’t help anybody get them.

These are outside, national scholarships. And at least 2 million kids apply for them every year; consequently, they are extraordinarily competitive to get.

In fact, in all my years as a college coach, I have not known one student to get “The Got Milk” scholarship, or the “USA Scholar-Athlete” scholarship or the Coca Cola Scholarship, etc. On the other hand, I have helped my students over the years receive millions in inside the college scholarships (Merit Money or Merit Scholarships).

2. Forgettabout National ‘Outside’ Scholarships!

One student I know got the Tylenol scholarship for $10,000. Her parents were very excited because their EFC was $10,000 a year and they could pay for the first year with the scholarship! What an amazing daughter they had! However, when school started they got a bill for $10,000. When they called Stanford’s Financial Aid Office, they were told that Stanford always uses outside scholarships to substitute for grants or free money they have given. They never allow outside scholarships to go for the parent’s EFC or any other personal student expense.

Besides being very difficult to get because of the sheer numbers of people applying, outside scholarships often work against your financial aid!

Many college and universities use them, like Stanford, to replace grants in their financial package. Very few allow you to use them any way you want, for instance, paying your EFC, replacing college loans, or traveling and other college expenses. If the outside scholarship is paid directly to the college, the financial aid will be used by the college as it sees fit. In fact, some colleges ask you on their supplemental financial aid form the amount received from any outside scholarships because they are planning to reduce your financial aid package accordingly.

Unfair? Perhaps, but, remember, the financial aid system is a rationing system and college and universities like to fiddle with outside scholarships to make their money and the fed’s money go further.

Consequently, even though you might be tempted by the email, letters, advertisements online to do so, never pay money for an scholarship search online. First of all, Fastweb and other good services do it for free and, second of all, ultimately, it is a waste of time for the vast majority of students.

3. Local Scholarships are Great!

Why? Because there is only a puddle of outside scholarships and that puddle is on your local high school bulletin board or career center for free. I help students all the time get local scholarships with their already written college essays and because they are advertised at your high school and are your local rotary, gas company, women’s club, etc. they are much less competitive and easier to get. My students get local scholarships every year because we apply for as many as are offered, at the high school career center or the counseling office.

Tip: By the time most students finish their college applications it is very hard to get them to do any scholarship. My trick is that I show them how to re-work their college application essays so they don’t have to start from scratch. I also have them do the scholarships at the same time they are doing their applications.

4. Focus on Merit $$ Inside the Colleges Themselves

You want to get more money to pay for college? Then focus on colleges that have money! Focus on colleges that have merit scholarships because not only are they easier to get, but most of them are renewable every year for 4 years, whereas even the very best local scholarships are only for one year.

Because there is an ocean of merit scholarships available in over 3000 colleges and less students apply or are eligible for them, they are much easier to get than the elusive National Outside Scholarships on Fastweb and the like.

How Merit $$ Started and What It Reveals

Merit scholarships were started about 40 years ago to bring in really good students and to raise the level of the school.

USC is a great example. When I first started College Quest in 1993, USC took about a 3.3 to get in, it had a strong legacy (meaning it favored the children and siblings of alumni), and it didn’t have as much diversity as it does now. It always had an excellent endowment.

Tip: Like very popular schools, USC had a very powerful alumni association who gave generously to their alma mater. If you have over 60% of the alumni giving money to the school, you know that college has lots of stability and scholarship money.

Then in the mid 90′s, USC got a new proactive President and started giving out literally hundreds of scholarships, drawing in remarkable Hispanic, African American, women, students who had high GPA in rigorous classes and very high test scores. Every year the GPA went up for each new Freshman class. Today it takes a 3.8-4.0 to even attempt to get into USC (with 2000 or higher SATs) plus an interesting story on your essays and short answer questions about your initiative, talent and/or generosity.

USC is now a top school in California, right up there with CAL and UCLA. One of the key reasons is because it brought in so many good students with merit scholarships, and like yeast, they have lifted the entire reputation of the school.

One of my favorite stories about USC is about my student, Amatia, whose dream was to get into Northwestern, an ivy league level college that offers no Merit Scholarships. She worked with me and got into Northwestern and, even though her Dad was a doctor and it seemed like he had money, he certainly did not have enough for Northwestern ($57,108). They had another daughter coming up and they realized they couldn’t afford to send Amatia to Northwestern.

Fortunately, Amatia had not applied Early Decision to Northwestern (which would have meant that she put all her eggs in one basket and had to accept whatever money Northwestern gave her), and among other fine schools, she had applied to USC. USC gave her a 50% discount on her tuition (a lovely deal which means that no matter how much tuition goes up each year, you still get 50% off of any price) and room and board for all four years.

Amatia not only received merit money, but she was also able to get out in three years because USC had a strong summer component in her major. Most scholarships, however, do not cover the summer. However, Amatia had maintained excellent grades at USC, and when she went to financial aid office, she used her good grades as leverage. USC paid for her summer school and, consequently, she was able to get out in 3 years, debt free.

On the other hand, I had a wonderful student named Edwardo, from Puerto Rico, who could have gotten into any number of great schools because of his grades and his impact on his high school but he chose to go to CAL (UC Berkeley); however, CAL did not pay for any summer school or room and board. So every June, Edwardo had to pack up all his things and desperately find a place to live and a job to do because he couldn’t afford to return to PR for the summer. It took Edwardo five years to get through CAL and he ended up with an enormous amount of debt that he still has not paid off, years later.

I tell Edwardo and Amatia’s story to remind you that there are huge differences in the 3000+ private colleges and universities that bring students in via merit money and the public universities and elite ivy league level schools that do not (more on that in my next blog).

I honestly believe that if you want to truly be able pay for college you have to look at colleges with your eyes wide open,looking nation wide, and not just focusing on the 5 to 10 schools that everyone wants to get into in your home state or on the East and West coasts.

5. The Money is in the Details

The difference between Need and Non Need grants and scholarships–is simply that you don’t have to worry about your AGI (Adjust Gross Income) or your EFC in getting merit money or Non Need scholarships. Everyone is eligible for them, either when you apply to the college OR from applying via a separate scholarship application.

Tip: Be meticulous about where the money is in the college. Check out your child’s college application and the website carefully. Many colleges make all students eligible for merit scholarships from their college application alone, others require a separate scholarship application. In addition, many colleges make you apply for the FAFSA for Non Need (merit $$) whether or not you have financial Need. Remember: The Money is in the Details! So be sure and carefully check everything.


Stay tuned for blog # 6 “The Secret of Getting Great College Scholarships–Part Two” which is goes into HOW to get scholarships and WHERE to find them. Check out my website at Leave a comment for me on this blog. Or, ask me a question by email. I can’t promise I will answer every one but I will carefully read them because you are teaching me where you need my support and expertise. Thanks for listening!

Don’t Go Breaking a Child’s Heart

Everything a Parent Wants to Know About Financial Aid
but Was Too Overwhelmed to Ask
“Don’t Go Breaking a Child’s Heart” Don't Go Breaking a Child's Heart by Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD
Blog #4 in a series

Since financial aid is such a tangled, complicated changeable mess (Congress changes it’s mind all the time) and I promised you that I am going to help you carve a bright, clear path through it, it is imperative that we take a moment right here, and I give you a thumbnail sketch about the key points I have made so far.

1.  Since everybody is eligible for financial aid today, you want to find out as soon as possible how much you are eligible for before you decide on your college list.

2. Immediately go to an EFC estimator ( for FAFSA (fed methodology) ; for PROFILE (institutional methodology) and see how much $ you are going to pay.

This is true whether you are rich, don’t have much $ at all, or you are trudging along in the middle class like yours truly.

3.  Look at both EFC estimators, if you want to go to an Ivy League or a popular, pricey school (www.profile for the list of PROFILE using colleges).

4.  Once you get your estimated EFC, focus on two quick overall strategies that will make a huge difference in how much you will have to pay for college:

Pick schools that use the FAFSA, or primarily rely on the FAFSA (you can check with the 250+ and see which financial aid form they rely on) because it has a lot more legal loopholes that you can exploit than the PROFILE that is filling in all the loopholes with more forms as quickly as they can.

Pick private colleges over public universities because they are a better buy.  Although on the surface it looks like public universities are cheaper, you are often going to pay more in the long run. You are not going to get as good financial aid, nor get through them in timely fashion, and there are fewer merit scholarships.

This last strategy may sound contradictory because I just said the 250+ private colleges that use PROFILE are not as good a financial deal as the FAFSA colleges, so why am I saying that private colleges, on the whole, are a much better deal than public colleges that use the FAFSA?  Because I am talking about the 3000+ other private colleges that rely on the FAFSA, have merit scholarships, and get you through in a timely fashion.

Turn your college spotlight on those colleges and see if you can find some fabulous ones that you really can afford.

5. Think you’re too poor to apply to a private schoolThink again.  I have talked with many parents over the years that chose public universities because they didn’t understand the concept of never paying sticker price for college. They ended up paying more in the long run because it took longer to graduate, there were no merit scholarships and the financial aid wasn’t very good.

Remember you are always going to pay your EFC, not what the college says it’s cost.  That EFC is based on your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and the lower your AGI is, the lower you will have to pay for any college.

So for people who don’t have much but do have a great kid ready for college, private schools are a terrific buy!  Remember also, that if you make less than $50,000 you are going to get lots of grants and free money and if you make less than $31,000 you are going to pay absolutely $0 for college.

6.  When well off parents calculate their EFC and see it comes out to over $30,000, they erroneously think they won’t be eligible for any financial aid. Yes, they make too much to get any help from a public university but they will get financial aid at any private university that costs more than $30,000 so it is imperative they apply for financial aid and look at fine private schools.

7. Bottom line, the most important thing a parent can do from the outset of college financial planning is to do the Need Estimator.  Then once you know approximately what you are going to pay, you’ll be able to use all the tips, strategies and legal loopholes that I am going to teach you in these blogs.

I am emphasizing this because in my work over the last 18 years with parents, I have found that too many parents procrastinate about finding out what they are going to have to pay. 

Some parents are back in the past, “When I went to school, you could plenty of jobs on campus to help pay” (not true anymore) or “When I went to school, you could declare yourself independent and apply for financial aid yourself” (also not true anymore; today you must be 24 to be considered independent), etc.

Some parents prefer fantasy-college-land to learning the truth about college expenses.

But there is nothing worse than meeting with a family whose child has busted his butt to get into a great college and his parents suddenly realize that they can’t pay for it.

I remember in one family both parents had gone to Amherst and were absolutely thrilled when their boy got in.  The only trouble was, they didn’t have nearly enough money for him to go and thought they made too much to get any financial aid so didn’t apply for it.

They came to me at the last minute asking about scholarships.  After all, he was a 4.0 with 2200 SATs.

I looked at them and said softly, “I’m sorry but everyone who gets into Amherst has a 4.0 and wonderful SATs.  And Amherst doesn’t give merit scholarships.” The parents were aghast and their kid was crushed, sitting there with bright tears gleaming on his cheeks.

I felt awful giving them the reality check but it was his parents who broke his heart, all because they didn’t want to really know what it would take for them to pay for college. Ahead of time. So they could have done something.

This is exactly why I am writing these blogs and pouring out everything I know from 18 years of work as a college entrance and financial aid coach. I never want to sit in my conference room with another devastated family.

It is important for you to know what you are expected to pay for college because then you can use all these strategies to position your financial story so you can get plenty of money to go!

But first you must bite your lower lip and take this first step:  go to the Need Calculators online and find out your bottom line.  Then read my blogs and let me help you improve it considerably.


Stay tuned for blog #5 wherein I talk about ‘Non need’ money, merit scholarships, which everyone is also eligible for–”The Secret to Getting Great Scholarship $$$”. Check out my website at  Leave a comment for me on this blog or ask me a question by email.  I can’t promise I will answer every one but I will carefully read them all and learn what you need help with. Thanks for listening!

Two Quick Strategies for Reducing College’s Sticker Price

Two Quick Strategies for Reducing College's Sticker PriceEverything a Parent Wants to Know About Financial Aid,
but Is Too Overwhelmed to Ask

“Two Quick Strategies for Reducing College’s Sticker Price”
by Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD
Blog #3 in a series


The more money you make, the more difficult it is to pay for college using the institutional methodology, the PROFILE.

Why is this helpful to know?

Because one quick way to find a college where you can position your story so that you can have more financial ‘Need’ is to choose one that only uses the federal methodology (FAFSA) and not the institutional methodology (PROFILE) because you will be under less scrutiny.

Always keep in mind though–you don’t pay sticker price, you pay your EFC. And the PROFILE that select and/or pricey colleges use, often will give you a higher EFC than the FASFA because they count everything they can, including assessing your child at a higher rate than the FAFSA does (at 25% instead of FAFSA’S 20%).

These colleges are money machines, and, trust me, they have the man and woman power to go after every last dime, unless you have a strong financial story why they shouldn’t.

Remember, however, we are only talking about 250 colleges ( The vast majority of private colleges in the U.S. use only the FASFA and, sometimes, their own financial aid application.

This brings up the second quick way to pay less for college: for many families, private colleges and universities are a better buy than public universities, even though on the surface public universities have a lower sticker price.

This is because:

–The more expensive a college, the more financial NEED you will qualify for so it will be easier to pay for;

–Private schools are not as impacted as public universities so you can actually get out in 4 years, instead of 5 or 6, which is the average of many public universities;

–Private colleges also have larger endowments and more scholarship money since they are not funded by the vicissitudes of tax dollars.

–Public schools, on other hand, cannot guarantee that they will pay for any “Unmet Need’ you might have (also called Gapping which we will get into later);

–Bottom line, public universities in every state in the nation have already given you a tuition discount because they cost less than private universities. But that doesn’t mean they are a good buy.

Two Quick Strategies for Reducing your EFC

Okay. I have given you two quick ideas about reducing the college sticker price–

1. If you can, focus on the colleges that only use the FASFA because there are more legal loopholes in it than the PROFILE, where rich private schools have the money to track down every loophole. And most often, do.

2. Besides the 250+ colleges who use the PROFILE and are filling up the loopholes with cement, there are 3000+ private colleges and universities that are a much better buy than public colleges because they have much more merit money and you will get through them in 4 years instead of 5 or 6. They also tend to guarantee that they will pay more of your ‘Unmet Need’ than public universities.

This is why it is so important that you understand down to your toes that you don’t ever pay sticker price for college, you pay your EFC.

Remember this means that even if Private College looks on the surface outrageously more expensive that Public U, it is not, because you will never pay sticker price. You will always pay your EFC.

Got it?

This is why it is crucial that you know AHEAD OF TIME your EFC from FAFSA’s point of view and the PROFILE’s point of view (if you want to apply to any of those colleges) so that you can use some good strategies to reduce it.

Find Out Your EFC Right Now!

Now it’s time for you to find your EFC so that you can begin to lower it before your child goes to college or even if he/she are in college (your EFC is always based on the previous year; so if your child is a college freshman now, he/she will look at the year 2012 finances to calculate your EFC for paying your child’s sophomore year (2013). It is never too late to apply for financial aid now that you know you are eligible, depending on the sticker price of the college.

To calculate your EFC for the FASFA:

–Go to and hit the link that says Calculators. Use the Quick estimator first. It is very easy and will give you an idea.

–Or, go to the FAFSA4CASTER at which is the fed’s estimator.

To calculate your EFC for the PROFILE:

–Go to and hit Paying for College. Go to the Net Price Calculator ( and hit participating schools and pick one to estimate what you’d have to pay if you had to use the PROFILE in conjunction with the FAFSA (all 250+ participating schools use both forms).

This is your first step in never paying sticker price for the college of your dreams.


Stay tuned for blog # 4 “Don’t Go Breaking a Child’s Heart” which is a thumbnail sketch of the key ideas I have given you so far. Check out my website a Leave a comment for me on this blog. Or, ask me a question by email. I can’t promise I will answer every one but I will carefully read them all. Thanks for listening!

Nobody Pays Sticker Price for College

Nobody Pays Sticker Price for CollegeEverything a Parent Wants to Know About Financial Aid,
but Is Too Overwhelmed to Ask

“Nobody Pays Sticker Price for College”
by Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD
Blog #2 in a series


Getting into college and getting enough money to pay for it is a complex, competitive, constantly changing issue in the 21st Century.

My job is to help you carve a clear, bright path through the tangled mess. This is what I have been doing successfully with parents and students for the last 18 years.

What I am giving to you in these blogs is not simply information (which you can get all over the Internet) but specific, up-to-the-minute that explanations and applications which make all the difference, because you will then know and be able to put into practice the same strategies and use of loopholes that the experts do.

You will be able to apply for college, scholarships and financial aid much more easily and effectively.

First of all, I want to reiterate what I said in my first blog, “Everyone is Eligible for Financial Aid”Practically nobody can afford the sticker price of 4-year colleges today when it rivals the price of a house–anywhere from $120,000 a year to $300,000–and they are going up 15% each year!

At the same time, I said to not let yourself be fooled by a college’s huge sticker price. Nobody has to pay it.

This is because the real price for college is your EFC, that is, what the feds and the college’s calculate is your Estimated Family Contribution.

Long ago when the federal government set up loans and grants to pay for college, they made a commitment that every one who had financial ‘Need’ would get help to pay for a college education.

This commitment has not changed.

But the concept of financial ‘Need’ has.  The first step to never paying sticker price for college is to understand that financial ‘Need’ is a relative term.

Your job as a parent is to find and focus on ways of reducing your EFC.

What is Financial ‘Need’?

If your EFC comes out to be $30,000 a year, you won’t have Need for financial aid at a community college or public university because their costs (today) are below $30,000 on the whole.  However, if you pick Loyola Marymount or Ithaca College or Emory University who all have a sticker price over $30,000 you will have some Need, and consequently will be eligible for financial aid.

Your financial Need is based on your EFC and how expensive or inexpensive the college or university you choose is.  Thus financial ‘Need’ is relative to your college choice.

This is a very important distinction.

It allows for a multitude of money-saving strategies.

The FAFSA is More Favorable for Most Families         

I will go over all of this in another blog, but right now I want you to viscerally understand that the federal financial aid methodology used by the vast majority of colleges and universities is going to help you position your EFC more favorably than the institutional methodology (CSS PROFILE).

If you choose a public university or one of the over 7100 colleges and universities that only use the federal methodology to establish Need (FAFSA;, you will have a lot more wiggle room to lower your EFC and while increasing your apparent financial need.

For instance, the feds allow the Financial Aid Administrator (FAA) to have more discretion in awarding money, so you can actually tell them your story about unusual expenses or situations that are not obvious on the FAFSA.

Additionally, if you make under $50,000 you can use a much simpler version of the FAFSA where your assets are not counted.

If you make under $31,000 you automatically receive the sweetest number a parent has ever seen: $0 on your EFC!

Also, the FASFA does not count equity or sibling assets and its assessment of your child’s assets is lower than the institutional methodology.

The CSS Profile Used by Only 250 of the Priciest College & Universities

If you choose the approximately 250 (and counting) private colleges and universities that use the institutional methodology (CSS PROFILE), you will find yourself under much more financial scrutiny.

This is because years ago, colleges such as Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Northwestern, Amherst, USC etc. wanted more detail and control over the financial information they received from families so they could make absolutely sure they were paying their fair share.

Thus, the CSS (College Scholarship Service) financial PROFILE was created (

These select colleges wanted to know if one parent fills out the form, how much the other (custodial) parent made so he or she could be also assessed (thus increasing the amount of your EFC).

They wanted home equity and sibling assets to be counted, as well as student and parent assets, and they wanted a level playing field so rich or poor, everyone’s assets were always a factor in measuring a family’s ability to pay (the FAFSA does not count your assets if you make less than $50,000).

But not only the most select schools in country use the PROFILE, many others, such as Occidental, Whitman, Lewis and Clark, Pitzer do also (college list at online).

This doesn’t mean you can’t position yourself to get the best possible money from them (and a few of the expensive, prestigious and very popular colleges are reaching out to middle and upper middle class to make college more affordable (and increase your ‘Need’ for financial aid). I will show you how in a later blog.

Bottom line, though, if you make more than $70,000 a year, it is much more difficult to pay for a college or university that uses the PROFILE.


Stay tuned for Blog #3 in this series, “Two Quick Strategies for Reducing College’s Sticker Price”.

Email me a question. Check out my website.  Or leave a comment to this blog.  I can’t promise I will answer every one but I will carefully read them all.  Thanks for listening!

Everyone is Eligible for Financial Aid Today

Everything a Parent Wants to Know About Financial Aid but Was Too Overwhelmed to Ask
"Everyone is Eligible for Financial Aid Today"
by Dr. Barbara Austin, PhD
Blog #1 in a series

Whether you are rich, poor, or middle class, everyone is eligible for financial aid today.  It is the one good thing that has come out of this too long recession: the feds want students to go to school and they want them to graduate, so they have not only increased financial aid but they have made it easier to get.

Since 2008, colleges and universities on average have gone up 15% (USA Today Report, 6/20/12)). If you want to go to one of the 25-most popular, prestigious and expensive colleges in the U.S., you will pay an additional 15% after your freshman year.

Let’s take Harvard for example. The current cost, 2012-2013, is $57,950.

At 15% added on to the tuition price every year, you will pay $289,364 for your four years there!

In addition, public universities like UCs in California are currently $120,000 for 4 years (if you can make it through in 4 years; average time in public universities is 5 to 6 years because of impacted classes); other private colleges average $180,000. And they are also going up at an average of 15% a year.

Bottom line, you are going to pay the price of a house to go to college.

Let me tell you an important secret:  you don’t apply for financial aid, the story you tell on your application applies.  Financial Aid officers don’t have time to sit down and interview you personally before they award you money.  They award money for the story you tell on your financial aid application.

This is why parents need to get their story right about financial aid.

Everyone needs financial aid and scholarships today.

Because nobody can pay that much.

And now I am going to tell you the most important secret:  Nobody does.  Nobody pays stick price for college. (See Blog #2 Nobody Pays Sticker Price for College)

You won’t pay sticker price for college.

What you are going to pay is your EFC.  This is the abbreviation, in financial aid lingo, for Estimated Financial Contribution.

Whether you’re rich or poor, if your EFC comes out to $20,000 or $200, this is what you’re going to pay, no matter which school you go to. The balance will be picked up by financial aid, which is a combination of free money (grants and scholarships) and self-help money (work study, and loans).

This is why it is important for you to learn to talk about your financial situation (via story and back up evidence) to your best advantage.

There really are legal loopholes for you to use to reduce your EFC, because EFC is what you want to focus on.

Even if a college costs $58,000 a year like Harvard, if your EFC is $3000, you will only pay $3000, the rest will paid in a ‘financial aid package’ (more lingo).

If your EFC is $30,000 which would make you ineligible to get financial aid at community colleges or state schools, you will be still eligible for financial aid at more expensive schools like Harvard or Pomona. 

You will pay your $30,000 (EFC) and Harvard (and the feds) will pay the $28,000 left.

And if your child is positioned well, in other words, if his/her story is told well (with back up evidence, meaning recommendations, transcripts, testing scores, awards, etc.), you are going to get even better money.

This is because the bright line between financial aid and admissions is dimming. (See Blog #5 The Secret of Getting Great Scholarships)

Colleges bring in remarkable students with good financial aid packages, which always means less loans and more grants and scholarships.

But first things first.

Why College Financial Aid Officers Don’t Want You to Know These Secrets:

College and universities are big business and they want to decide how they spend their own money and to whom they ration out federal and state funds to.

Financial aid officers do not like these secrets because they believe these legal loopholes tell rich people how to look poor.

These secrets also tell the poor how to squeeze out every bit of financial aid they are entitled to (and if you make less than $50,000 a year you are entitled to a lot!).

And, believe it or not, they help the rest of us–the middle class who make enough to support our families but certainly not enough to pay full price for college–learn how to use everything we can to position ourselves for the most money.

Personally, I believe the financial need formulas, both the FAFSA (federal methodology) and Profile (institutional methodology), are little more than a money rationing system that does not reflect a middle class family’s ability to pay, especially on the West and East coasts.

For instance, if you have a lot of consumer debt that comes out of your check each month, it works against you on the FAFSA because the formula does not count any credit card, car or mortgage debt against your Adjusted Gross Income.

Say you make $140,000 a year but 30% of it goes to your car, your credit card debt and your monthly mortgage.  After taxes (at 20%), you really make $112,000 but since 30% goes toward debt (which the FAFSA does not count), you actually live on $78,400.

But the financial aid formula will only look at your AGI as $112,000 not $78,400! This makes a huge difference whether or not you qualify for financial aid or not.

The point here is that you can solve this problem, no matter how much money you make, in three ways:

–Learning how to tell your financial story in such a way that you maximize your ability to get as much financial aid and scholarships as possible;

–Learning how to help your child tell her story in such a way that way that she not only gets in a great school but gets plenty of scholarships to go;

–Learning how to be a terrific college consumer so that you not only help your child find a number of dream schools where he will thrive but also colleges where you can afford him to go! (Blog #6 How to Find the Best Colleges with the Best $$ for Your Child).

I will help you do all of this legally, legitimately and in such a way that it not only makes your child irresistible to a great college but gets you great money to go!

That’s my promise.


Stay tuned for blog # 2 Nobody Pays Sticker Price for College. Check out my website at  Leave me a comment on this blog or ask me a question.  I can’t promise you I’ll be able to answer each one but I will carefully read them all.  And learn from them.  Thank you for listening!