I’d like to share a couple of thoughts having been in the college planning business since 1995.
The biggest mistake families make is approaching the application and financial aid process separately.
You can’t separate the two processes. They affect each other. Merit assistance, based on the qualities the student, is almost always a part of the application process. So the college application is not only critical because it determines acceptance, it also determines merit assistance.
On the need-based side, looking at schools without knowing your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) provides no financial basis on which to screen your list of desired institutions.
These circumstances demand that planning is done ahead of the application process and the financial aid filing. An analysis of the family’s finances with regard to the EFC calculation should be accomplished prior to January of the junior year of high school. The base year for need-based eligibility is in part based on prior year’s taxes.
This allows for better planning, looking at the cost of institutions vs the family’s fair share and any potential adjustments to the family’s finances which might improve the outcome of the EFC Calculation.
The shopping aspect of the college process is still the most important, but must include both financial and application considerations.
Lastly, families need to be careful of taking advice from private financial aid consultants without first checking out their credentials. Financial aid, tax and investment strategies are not compatible. One must understand more than just the EFC calculation to properly advise a family on their finances. Your college consultant should have a background in the financial sector as well.