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College Planning for the 21st Century

By Tom McGrath & Todd Fothergill
Managing Directors
Strategies For College, Inc.

Today's annual college costs range from $12,000 to more than $25,000 at state institutions (depending on a student's state of residence and the actual institution involved.) For private colleges, an annual cost in excess of $35,000 is rapidly becoming the norm. For more than a decade, increases in these costs have outpaced inflation. So it’s no secret that today's college education has become a major financial hurdle. In addition, the competition students face for admission to the college of their choice is very intense and on the rise. Applications to top schools have increased to ten plus thousand per year while only a fraction of that number of admission slots are available. To add to the stress, the financial aid and admissions processes are multi-layered, have their own jargon, some important but not so obvious nuances, and require adherence to a strict set of deadlines. This often creates misunderstanding and scheduling problems due to the limited free time available to both students and parents. And there are many myths and lots of bad information distributed to the public on regular basis.

We do not suggest that everyone throw up their arms in dismay and give up. Relief can be found if one takes the time to do some planning, understands some of the essential facts, avoids some of the myths, and becomes a savvy education consumer.

Financial Facts:
  • College tuition rose on average 4-5% per year in recent years.
  • Room and board has increased 3-5% annually during the same period.
  • Despite the fact that most families do not pay the full "sticker price," these cost increases could make college the single most expensive financial burden many families will bear.
  • This latter point is particularly true when one considers the time value of money…i.e. the impact on their savings and retirement if they were able to invest these funds. Assuming a hypothetical 10% return on invested funds, a family that pays $6,000 a year for four years will find that the real cost of college - over time - will exceed $100,000 after just 20 years.
Message: Even seemingly small annual differences in the cost of college have a significant impact on a family's financial well being particularly during the retirement years.
Advice: Contrary to what you may think from the above, we do not advise that you shop by "sticker price". These values are very deceptive because of the financial aid process. What is critical is to use the Internet, your high school guidance office, a college financial aid officer, or an independent college planner and find out what colleges will expect you to pay annually based on your family structure, size, assets and income. Do not use rules of thumb - no matter who might be providing them or where you read them. With the proper analysis, many of you will discover that you are eligible for some kind of financial assistance. Once you know this, you must apply and you must apply on time. The only certain way to get zero aid is to not apply.
Some College Admissions Facts
  • There are over 1,500 four-year colleges in the United States. Well over half of these colleges are consensus quality institutions based on their admissions criteria, their programs of study, academic and recreational facilities, their faculty and the success of their graduates.
  • Consensus quality colleges with selective admissions criteria look at grade point average trends with particular emphasis on the junior and senior year in high school. They also focus on the strength of a student's high school curriculum.
  • Yes, Virginia, most colleges do consider the results of standardized testing (SAT I, II, or ACT). With the diversity of high school grading systems, a standardized test is the common denominator that many admissions officers are generally inclined to use.
  • Each year in the United States, there are almost 300,000 students in the top ten percent of their high school classes.
  • The top 50 national liberal arts colleges and national universities are capable of enrolling only 50,000-60,000 students each year. You do the math!
Message: More than two thirds of the very best students enroll in quality institutions other than the top 50 and have very happy and productive college experiences and prosperous lives thereafter.
Advice for students
  • Pay attention to your academic business, particularly in the junior and senior years.
  • Prepare for standardized tests. Take sample tests early in the junior year, seek assistance from your high school faculty. READ, READ and READ some more.
Some Generic College Planning Tips
  • Start your college planning as early as feasible, but no later than the first semester of the junior year in high school. This will afford you maximum flexibility with regard to any financial matters that you may have to address.
  • Develop a challenging and diverse high school curriculum with a balanced course load that incorporates 4-5 core academic courses each year. Don't drop math, science or foreign languages in your senior year, if at all possible.
  • Students interested in the visual or performing arts should prepare audition tapes and portfolios before senior year begins. Attend portfolio days, schedule your auditions and allow time to upgrade your materials based on a qualified evaluation of your talent.
  • Avoid premature commitments (actual or even emotional) to one or two colleges. Apply to 6-8 colleges at which your profile (both academic and personal) is a strong match. This will increase your odds for a favorable outcome, both in terms of admissions and financial assistance.
  • Consider colleges that offer merit scholarships. If successful, the enhancement to a student's resume may be as great as a bachelors degree from a "name brand" college.
  • Parents, no matter how noble you feel it is, take every possible step to avoid draining your emergency funds and your retirement accounts to pay for college. Consider very carefully however, what your family can really afford (where the money will come from) before committing to a college search strategy.
  • If money is an issue, don’t separate or isolate the college search from the elements that will affect your family's financial health. In today's environment you must integrate your college search with a sound financial plan in order to achieve results that are a win-win for both student and parents.

Tom McGrath is President of Strategies For College, Inc. He has been counseling families about college admissions and financial aid strategies since 1989. He received his Bachelors degree from the United States Merchant Marine Academy and his Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Tom is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling and an active member of the faculty at the Boston Tax Institute. He is also a registered professional engineer. Tom can be reached by email at

Todd Fothergill founded Strategies For College, Inc. in 1990. He has worked with college bound students and their parents for over 25 years in high school settings and in private practice. He received his Bachelors degree from the University of Vermont and his Masters degree from Towson University. He is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling and an active member of the faculty at the Boston Tax Institute. Todd can be reached by Email at

For more information, tips, and tools for college planning, visit Strategies For College, Inc..

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