Pay now, save later? SW college-prep counselor says yes

Motivated families plunk down thousands to get the edge on admissions and financial aid

So you’ve got a child whose grades are good enough to get into a four-year college. How do you, as a parent, navigate the maze that is the college application process?

Ann MacKinnon’s business is preparing high school students and their parents for just that. The Armatage resident is the local representative of Washington-based College Funding Solutions, which — for $1,695 to $1,945 — offers tips on how and when to apply for admission, how colleges score applications and how to best position a student for financial aid. They also have a data bank detailing what financial help

colleges typically offer.

The program accepts high school students from their freshman year to December of their senior year. An education counselor is assigned to each student and communicates via phone, fax and e-mail.

MacKinnon admits that not everybody needs this service, but the forms, deadlines, time lines, flow charts and procedures can be overwhelming. College Funding Solutions claims that one form — the eight-page Free Application for Federal Student Aid — is submitted with mistakes, errors or inconsistencies that can cause individuals to lose some or all of their financial aid as much as 95 percent of the time. (The form is due Jan. 1.)

Her fee, in essence, is for the professional service of an experienced guide.

"The analogy I like to use is that it’s almost like having a project manager," said MacKinnon "We give families an implementation plan and keep them on task to do what they need to do in the time frame that they need to do it. It ensures that somebody is going to be managing the process and make sure that you are told what you need to do and when you need to do it."

What College Funding Solutions does for a fee, Washburn High School Guidance Counselor Staci Petrich does for free. Each Minneapolis high school offers college preparedness programs.

However, Petrich is one of only two guidance counselors at Washburn, 201 W. 49th St. She is personally responsible for 700 students, including 150 seniors.

In October, Washburn offered senior seminars on such topics as post-secondary planning, financial aid, deadlines, selecting a college and motivation. There are also parent volunteers who work 40 hours a week in the school’s career placement office. About 41 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges and another 42 percent go to two-year colleges.

Seven hundred kids is a big responsibility, but Petrich said that statistically, Minnesota has one of the lowest counselor-to-student ratios of any state. Asked why, she said, "I don’t think people understand what counselors do or how schools utilize us, and so when there is a budget crunch, we get cut."

MacKinnon’s private service fills the public gap, and then some. While her fee may stun those who have been out of the college market for a while, MacKinnon compares it to what college costs.

"A freshman today can expect to pay between $80,000 to $100,000 for a four-year degree," MacKinnon said. "However, very few students pay the full price. Most schools offer financial aid to help defray the cost of school. However, what they actually offer varies, and the result of what students pay sometimes depends on how much the individual family understands the process."

She added, "When parents get their student award letters telling them what they have been approved for, we can usually tell them if it is a good deal or not and offer strategies to appeal for more."

East Harriet parent David Hunt said he is shocked by a college admissions process that has changed dramatically in the 25 years since he attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

His daughter Sarah started her college search during her freshman year but did not get serious until the end of her sophomore year, when she attended Education Unlimited, a college admissions preparatory camp held at California’s Stanford University. She found out about it online and flew by herself to Palo Alto for a week.

Education Unlimited offers its college admission prep camp each summer at four California college campuses — UCLA, Stanford, UC-Berkeley and the University of San Diego. The tuition ranges from $1,275 to $2,109 depending on location and a student’s grade level.

Education Unlimited counselors helped Sarah Hunt write a college essay and advised her about what schools she should apply to based on her grades, her strengths and weaknesses, and where she would likely be accepted.

"The program was a really big wake-up call to me that I really needed to be a more dedicated student," Sarah Hunt said. "Last year, I worked harder than I have ever worked before, and this year everything seems to be going well in that I am taking all advanced-placement courses in school."

David Hunt thought her trip to Stanford was worthwhile.

"They got through to her on the academics, and it motivated her," said David Hunt. "She came back in a markedly different state of mind. I think she was interacting with high-caliber students and came back taking a hard look at herself and realized that if she wanted to go to a top-notch school she had to become a little more diligent."

As for help closer to home, Sarah Hunt said, "South guidance counselors were not very helpful at first. They have to focus their energies on the upper classmen who are closer to college. In the last year, though, they were very helpful about the college process."

Now a senior and track captain with a 3.5 grade point average, Sarah Hunt applied to seven colleges including Carleton, Marquette University and the University of San Diego.

Though it’s undoubtedly part sales pitch, MacKinnon believes money spent on preparation now can reap savings later.

"What it comes right down to is colleges are looking for hot shots who are bright, motivated and talented," MacKinnon said. "Schools are willing to pay to get those kinds of students."

Why?

"College is a business, and their task is keeping costs down and attracting revenue just like a corporation," MacKinnon said. "They are looking for motivated students with a 3.0 and higher [GPA] who have exhibited leadership, community participation, sports and two years of a language; because if those students come in and graduate, go out and are successful in the world, they will give money back to the school as alumni."