Our “Ideal Approach” — Find the “Right” Colleges Unique to You!


Did you know there is a right college for every student at an affordable price?

The 40,000-foot view

How can you pay college fees without going broke? The solution is what I call “my ideal approach.” Have you ever looked at Google Earth, starting in space before drilling down until you can see your backyard? That’s the analogy I’m going to use now, starting with the 40,000-foot view.

Let me talk you through this. First, start at the top and read through to the bottom, as the steps shown are in chronological order. Second, if I draw a line through the middle of the page, from top to the bottom, the left-hand side is the student’s journey, and the right hand side is the parent’s journey. Most importantly, you must do all of these steps together in a comprehensive, integrated way to maximize your college success and get the best results. Every step shown is critical. Messing up even one of them will end up potentially costing you lots of money!

If your child goes to the wrong school, it will cost you. How about these statistics? Did you know:

  • Only 47% of kids that start at a four-year school get a bachelor’s (four-year) degree in four years.
  • Only 64% graduate in six years.
  • 37% of students transfer at least once in the first six years.
  • Only 20% of students starting “the hard way” at a community two-year college received a bachelor’s degree within six years.
  • Only 34% that started at a two-year college get an associate’s (two-year) degree in three years; 14% transferred somewhere else; 10% are still at the same two-year college in three years.

A big cause of these statistics is students ending up at the wrong school, becoming unhappy, and coming home and/or transferring. If any of this happens, it will cost you even more money than the already steep costs of college over four years. Finding the right school where your child will be happy is critical, but it requires planning and hard work.

Based on my personal experience (public speaking, feedback, and webinar polls), there is a constituency out there that says, “Don’t even bother filling out financial aid forms as you will not get any money.” However, most of the free money comes from the colleges themselves, not from the government or private scholarships, and the colleges are the gatekeepers of this money—including government free money and loans. To get the free money, you must go through the financial aid process and complete those dreaded, confusing financial aid forms.

The 10,000-foot view

To get a better sense of what each of the steps are, and the importance of each, let me present a 10,000-foot view by describing each of the boxes in more detail:


Find the “right school”

Finding the right college will ensure the student is happy and graduates in four years (not five, six, or more):

  • Seek best fit: “big, small, country, city”.
  • Research career paths and choose college majors.
  • Efficiently research and visit colleges.

Prepare and position

Make sure the student is attractive to as many schools as possible:

  • Create a “brag sheet”; pursue extracurriculars and develop your passions.
  • Choose the right high school classes.
  • Prepare for and take PSAT/SAT/ACT tests.

Get through the application process

You have to apply to be accepted:

  • Complete applications early—do not miss deadlines.
  • Prepare for and complete all essays and interviews.
  • Submit all supporting materials (“brag sheet,” transcripts, recommendations, SAT/ACT
    test scores).


Find the “right school” for your pocketbook

Do this by using other people’s money rather than your money to pay for college:

  • Identify colleges that have money and are willing to give it to you rather than those that don’t.
  • Match schools with money to your student’s interests.
  • Create options (don’t put all of your eggs in one school’s basket).

Use your money in the most effective way

Focus on a comprehensive, integrated college funding plan:

  • Pursue free money opportunities first—college free money and tax scholarships.
  • Identify college-specific financial planning strategies.

Get through the financial aid process

You have to ask for the money to get it:

  • Complete all financial aid forms early—do not
    miss deadlines.
  • Submit all supporting materials (tax returns, business supplements, non-custodial forms, etc.).

Determine the best way to pay college bills

Yes, you have to pay before your student can go:

  • Understand college payment options (for example, tuition payment plans).
  • Research college loan options (only available to college families, not the general public).
  • Consider your money options (existing savings/ investments, mortgage loans, 401K loans, etc.).

Students and parents

Create a final list of potential “right schools”

  • Apply to a minimum of six to eight colleges that will work for all of you (you must have options).
  • Create competition among schools for negotiating opportunities.

Choose the final “right school”

This should be a family decision.

  • You’re admitted. Review all college acceptances.
  • Perform final college research and visits.
  • Review and compare financial aid packages
    received—determine the true cost.
  • Negotiate with schools of choice for better deal.

Enjoy freshman year at your “right school”

As you can see, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Without an integrated step-by-step game plan as to what to work on and when, it increases the odds that critical steps will be missed.

Become informed

We established early on that college is expensive, regardless of which you choose. There are two costs for college: one for the informed and one for the uninformed. You must learn as much as you can, determine and analyze the options, and then make an informed decision about what’s best for you and your family. This is probably the second-largest financial decision you will make in your lifetime (the largest being the purchase of your home), so do not take it lightly.

There are lots of myths out there. Most people look at the college sticker price and tell their kids not to bother applying to the more expensive ones. But, of the 82% of students that attend private colleges receiving financial aid, the average discount is 33% (average private school grant of $18,200 divided by the average private school total cost of attendance of $55,800). As a result, the sticker price may mean nothing and many students can attend private schools for the same cost or less than an in-state public college/university.

Further, did you know that there are about 2,300 four-year colleges or universities in the US and that about 67% of them are private with their big scary prices? Keeping the doors open to private schools upfront may increase the odds of finding the right school for both your child and your pocketbook.

Although getting educated about all of the steps in my ideal approach is critical, the biggest piece that is missing is getting the free money from the colleges themselves—the most important but least understood area of opportunity. The lack of information about this still surprises me.

In summary, the “Ideal Approach” focuses on the “right school” for your unique situation — for both your student and your pocketbook. You must perform all of the steps shown here in a comprehensive, integrated way to maximize college success. It is important to avoid starting at the wrong school, which will cost you extra money and time! You must ignore the myths and become informed, most importantly finding the schools with the most free money unique to you.

Right School Vs Wrong School

Did you know that choosing the right school will give your kid better odds of college success?

Choosing the right college

How do you choose the right college? Besides finding one you can afford, what about picking one that your student likes—one where they will be happy? If you don’t, you may end up paying college bills for five or six years to get a four-year degree.

Remember, I previously said that all the ideal approach steps must be done in a comprehensive, integrated way to maximize success. If you mess up one of them, it could affect your whole plan.

So, did your student pick the right school (the best fit for them so they are happy)? Will your student finish:

  • …where they started?
  • …in four years?
  • …at all?

If not, it will cost you!

As we mentioned previously, bear in mind:

  • Only 47% of kids that start at a four-year school get a bachelor’s (four-year) degree in four years. Only 64% graduate in six years.
  • 37% of students transfer at least once in the first six years.
  • Only 20% of students starting “the hard way” at a community two-year college received a bachelor’s degree within six years.
  • Only 34% that started at a two-year college get an associate’s (two-year) degree in three years. 14% transfer somewhere else and 10% are still at the same school in three years.

Think about your community—how many times have you seen kids go off to school and then return back home a few weeks later? The schools know this and overbook the dorms (like an airline). How many times do you hear that kids are supposed to be in “doubles” (two-person dorm rooms) but start in “triples”? For my niece’s freshman year dorm room (at a top private New England university), she started in the student lounge!

Think about this. A kid gets to the school and immediately starts calling home and is unhappy. The typical response from a parent will be, “Oh, come on, toughen it out for a while and you should be fine.” A few days later, the child is still miserable, and now the parent knows this may be a problem. They say, “Hmm, let me check out the school’s refund policy,” and they discover that if the student comes home within two to three weeks of the start of the school semester, they can get a refund. If the student stays longer, the refund is $0. Therefore, many kids come home.

How does this happen? The student picks the wrong school.

Reasons for choosing the wrong school

The biggest reason for choosing the wrong school is that the student does not think about the campus environment and just assumes they will be fine wherever they go. Other valid reasons include:

  • Friends: How many students pick a school because their best friend or significant other is going there? What are the odds of that working out over time?
  • Final Four: How many students pick a brand-name school? Think of the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. It amazes me, but the year after the last tournament, applications for the schools that make the Final Four spike up the following year.
  • Start late/miss deadlines: Many students do not realize that college applications and all related activity must be completed by the beginning of their senior year in high school. If they wait until then to start the process, it results in lots of stress and missed opportunities.
  • Ineffective visits: Many students start at a college without ever visiting it. What are the odds of finding the best fit this way?
  • Sticker price: The vast majority limit their choices based on sticker price.
  • The “easy way out”: Many students, if left on their own, will work only on the easiest applications and will avoid schools that ask for more work (such as essays and interviews).

How to find the right school

To find the best fit and your greatest chance of success, think about the following:

  • Have a purpose: If college is for you, start early. Set high school goals and focus on making the right decisions. For example, set grade goals, pick the right classes, choose what you do with your free time (jobs, sports, community service) wisely, and standardized test strategies.
  • Self-discovery assessments: Learn what’s unique about you and your future aspirations. Think about career options—which college majors or courses do you need to get there?
  • Effective college visits: Have a plan. We always recommend visiting local schools, if possible, to simply get a feel of big vs. small, country vs. city before you travel long distances to see schools.
  • The “best fit”: Ultimately, what is the right school, unique to you? Once you identify the best fit, create other potential best-fit options.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the best fit, unique to your child. Think about these rhetorical questions:

“Will my student be equally happy at a large school and a small school? A school in the city and a school in the country?”

Effective college visits
Although this blog is intended to focus on finding free money, I want to add a little more about college visits—the best way to figure out the best fit for your student. First, I recommend the family do one “official” campus visit by fall of the high school junior year. This official visit comes in two parts:

  1. An information session
  2. A college tour

The information session is typically in an auditorium with PowerPoint presentations, coffee, and donuts. This is worthwhile because you can get a lot of information about why you should apply to their school rather than others.

Then you will go on the college tour, which is usually led by actual students. These sessions are normally done regularly; just check the colleges’ websites and be sure that appointments are not necessary. On these tours, you should ask any candid questions you want answers to. If you are concerned about drugs, crime, dorm conditions, etc. you can gain some real insights. The key is that the school does not want to mislead you and have you come to campus to be unhappy (and complain or leave the school), so they coach the guides to answer these questions directly and honestly. The school wants you to be happy because it affects their statistics.

All you want to accomplish is for your child to walk around the campus and to (hopefully) think, “Hey, in two years, this will be me. Maybe I should start thinking about it!”

The college fair

Second, I suggest you attend a “college fair,” again by fall of the high school junior year. Typically, your local high school will host multiple colleges to come and set up tables and invite a representative. Students or families can walk around, gather information, and ask questions to a variety of schools. The college fair will force the students to realize all the choices available to them and allow them to get their minds working toward understanding that a lot of work and research is going to be needed to pick the right school.

What I hope will happen for your student, as they are walking out with bags and bags of “stuff,” is to say, “Wow, there are so many great college choices, how am I going to pick one?”

If the above two things happen, “mission accomplished.”

Visiting further schools

Next, we want to visit more schools. My philosophy is to make the college visit process as efficient and rewarding as possible. The key is to try and identify what the “right” school is for your student. That will ensure that they are happy and will graduate on time rather than being unhappy, transferring, and graduating in five, six, or seven years.

Big, small, country, city”

Initially, narrow the fit using “big, small, country, city” as an initial guideline. The most efficient way to start is to think local—there is no need to create a preliminary college list and travel around the country to visit schools. Instead, find schools within the local area and visit a big city school, a small city school, a big country school, and a small country school. In this way, you effectively allow the student to see and get a feel for each type of school.

Imagine you are located in central New Jersey. You could start by visiting Rutgers University (a big public university in a small city), The College of New Jersey (a smaller community-based public school in the suburbs), and Monmouth University (a smaller private school in the suburbs). This allows you to get a sense of a large public school, a smaller public school, and a smaller private school, as well as a feel for a more urban school against a more suburban school. You could expand your horizon a little further and visit schools in and around New York City (NYU, Columbia, or Fordham) or Philadelphia (Drexel, University of Pennsylvania, Temple, or St. Joseph’s) to get an idea of different “feels” and gain an understanding of what a city school may feel like. Another type of school we recommend is a smaller private school “in a college town.” For this, we recommend Eastern Pennsylvania (Lehigh, Bucknell, or Lafayette, for example). You can do any of these trips in a day and see a variety of schools.

When should these visits be done?

We are big fans of letting kids be kids and allowing them to enjoy everything high school has to offer. Typically, we would suggest visiting at least one actual campus by the fall of junior year (as described previously). More of these “local” visits can be accomplished leisurely through spring of junior year. Some of you may not be able to wait and you may enjoy visiting colleges earlier as part of a family vacation far away from home. This is fine—if you enjoy doing these visits, please go ahead.

If possible, visit the colleges when classes are in session. You will get a much better feel of the campus that way, rather than when the campus is empty. The key is efficiency. Get a feel for the big, small, country, and city dynamic and have fun with it.

Common mistakes

Imagine all the mistakes people make throughout this process. Think about all the marketing materials you are going to receive at your home and all the leaflets and information you will be picking up here and there. The colleges will all try to connect with you, but out of 2,300 or so colleges and universities across this country, what are the odds of you opening a brochure for the “right school” for your student? If something catches your eye, that is fine, but otherwise try and ignore these mailings, because all schools look perfect on glossy paper.

Driving and/or flying around the country to visit a list of schools is inefficient and largely unproductive, especially early in the process. There is a much better and more efficient process to follow (see above) that will succeed in providing superior results. (However, I do want to acknowledge that if you live in a rural state, “local” visits may not be practical; my general recommendation still applies – start with “practical” local.)

College is one of the costliest decisions families make in their lifetimes—in fact, it is second only to buying a family home—but most people do not spend the time to truly get educated and understand their options. If your family becomes one of those statistics that it takes more than four years to get a four-year degree, it is going to cost you.

Your student should create options. Applying to only one or two schools is a risky strategy. What if they are not accepted? We recommend you come up with a minimum of six to eight best-fit alternatives and apply to all of those schools. In addition, create a competitive mix to increase your odds of acceptance, for example, three to four “targets”, one to two “reach” schools, and one to two “likelies” (what many call “safeties”).

However, what I describe above is a minimum “rule of thumb.” There are some situations that require applying to a minimum of many more schools. For example, what if your family goal is to go to one of the eight Ivy League schools, plus you learn your SAI (for need-based aid eligibility) is $10K, and all you need to happen is your talented student needs to get accepted at one of these schools and you are guaranteed $70K+ of free money if accepted? As a result, you may need twelve to fourteen, at minimum, schools to make sure your student accepted into at least one of these.

In summary, not every college is right for every kid, but finding the right one gives them a head start while minimizing costs.

The Right School For Your Pocketbook

Did you know some schools provide more financial aid than others?

So, your child has done their part and found the right schools for them—great job! If money is a factor, however, it’s important to note that even if your student does all of the above and applies to a nice mix of right schools, it does not mean you can afford them.

This is one of my biggest general criticisms of our high school guidance departments. Many high schools provide resources to help students research and select colleges to apply to, but they generally do a terrible job in helping people figure out how to pay for them.


One of the things that frustrates me is that high schools put together what I call “scattergrams” of college admissions. It would be a much more valuable tool to create a scattergram of where high school kids actually go. This would allow communities to focus on getting students into four-year colleges they could afford versus “going the hard way,” or worse still, not going at all. (Please check out actual college enrollment statistics I describe in a separate blog post titled “Getting FREE Money from the Colleges Themselves!”)

Have you seen a scattergram of college applications/ acceptances from your local high school? What it typically shows is, for a given class year, where the kids applied and what the results were. Also typically included is the students’ GPA and test scores. Scattergrams can be a useful tool to show kids and parents how they may fare by applying to a particular school relative to other students from that high school.

Let me give you an example:

Although these scattergrams show where kids were accepted (or waitlisted or rejected), what they do not show is where each student actually ended up.

What happens if a student is accepted at ten schools but never goes to one because they can’t afford it? They may “go the hard way,” if the schools are close by and, if so, what are their odds of success? Not good, based on the college graduation success statistics I shared earlier. Even potentially worse, what if the schools are not close to home? In that case, they may try to start by going to a local two-year community college, or not go at all!

As a community, wouldn’t it be better to have kids in four-year schools that they could afford; ideally also in the right schools to maximize college success?

Some typical family scenarios

Let me give you an idea of what typically happens to most families’ college decisions depending on individual family budgets. In addition, I am going to show you how to “solve the matrix” by finding schools they never thought they could afford, regardless of the family budget. Remember, I believe, “I can show each of you how to get thousands, even tens of thousands of free money from colleges no matter what your financial situation!”

1. $10K budget/year

In a separate blog post (“Getting FREE Money from the Colleges Themselves!”), I presented a scenario to show you how a typical family that does not think they can pay more than $10K per year may miss opportunities? As a reminder, let me present it again here:

Assume the budget is $0–10K per year (all the family think they can afford and/or the student assumes that’s the case). That family’s student will never pursue options; therefore, the student will either not go to college at all or may try to “go the hard way,” i.e., live at home and commute.

Here is an overview of what typically happens:

  • The family looks at four-year college sticker prices to live on campus.
  • Cost of attendance/sticker price (living on campus):
    – In-state public—on campus: $35K; commute: $20K
    – Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
    – Private—$80K

Quickly, most will determine living on campus is not an option and will not even bother to apply, and private colleges will be ignored due to the assumption there is no way they are affordable. At this point, one of three things happen. They either:

  1. Apply to an in-state public school and hope they receive financial aid, based on myths (from friends, family, and neighbors)
  2. “Go the hard way” (live at home and commute) OR
  3. Do not go to college at all

However, what if the following choices were made available by finding the right school, solving the matrix, and getting free money?

  • In-state public—on campus: $35K; commute: $20K
  • Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
  • Private—$10K

Now that you are more fully informed, let’s assume that the family who thought they could not pay more than $10K per year for college had an SAI of $10K. In this case, the matrix solution would be what I call a “College B”—a school that meets 100% of need. If the school costs $80K, and the student was accepted, the family would end up paying only $10K/year, guaranteed. Imagine that!

2. $20K budget/year

Overly simplified, a family budget of a maximum of $20K per year will give you the following sticker price options:

  • In-state public—on campus: $35K; commute: $20K
  • Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
  • Private—$80K

The vast majority of people are going to focus on price, so if the family determines the most they will spend is $20K, the college plan will most likely be to live at home and commute. If the budget is even less, they may commute to a two-year community college or not go at all. This will dramatically reduce the chances of college success.

What if the following choices were made available by finding the right school, solving the matrix, and get-ting free money:

  • In-state public—on campus: $35K; commute: $20K
  • Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
  • Private—$20K

Remember, 67% of the schools in this country are private with scary sticker prices, but that is where you get the money. Wouldn’t you want to learn about those schools for your student rather than limiting them to one or two choices close to home and hoping they are happy?

If the family’s SAI was $20K or less, once again finding 100% need-based schools would be the best option.

What if the family’s SAI is $35K per year, or more, but the preferred budget is still $20K? The solution would be schools that are willing to give tuition discounts. The family would not be able to go to a 100% need-based school (College B) unless they were willing to pay close to their SAI ($35K).

3. $35K budget/year

Let’s use the same assumptions as the second family scenario, but in this case the family is OK with an in-state tuition—say a budget of $35K/year—but not willing to pay anything more. Overly simplified, here are the following sticker-price options:

  • In-state public—on campus: $35K
  • Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
  • Private—$80K

Essentially, once their research is done, this typical family will limit choices to in-state public and:

  • Avoid/eliminate private schools with big, scary sticker prices
  • Try to get out-of-state publics on list (with relative sticker prices less than privates) and hope that the parents let them “escape from them” (get further away from home)

Again, this means huge missed options for a vast majority of families. Why not seek options?

What if the following choices were made available by finding the right school, solving the matrix, and getting free money?

  • In-state public—on campus: $35K
  • Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
  • Private—$35K

Assuming this was true, wouldn’t you want to know about those schools/options? If the family’s SAI was $35K or less, once again finding 100% need-based schools would be the best option. If the family’s SAI is greater than $35K, look for schools that also offer tuition discounts.

4. $50K budget/year

Let’s assume the family budget is $50K per year. Overly simplified, you have the following sticker price options:

  • In-state public—on campus: $35K
  • Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
  • Private—$80K

In this case, essentially all public schools in-state would be options, plus most of the out-of-state schools in the country would be in reach. Once again, the family may not pursue the private schools that they do not think they can afford.

This is a huge missed option for a vast majority of families. What if the following choices were made available by finding the right school, solving the matrix, and getting free money:

  • In-state public—on campus: $35K
  • Out-of-state public—on campus: $50K
  • Private—$50K

Assuming this were true, wouldn’t you want to know about those schools/options? If the family’s SAI was $50K or less, once again, finding 100% need-based schools would be the best option. If the family’s SAI is greater than $50K, look for schools that also offer tuition discounts. This would open up the odds of finding the right school for your student, rather than limiting them to public school options.

5. $80K+ budget/year

Lastly, what if you are OK with spending $80K+ per year and your family’s SAI was over $80K? Wouldn’t you be interested if you could save money at schools just like your student’s top choice (where you do not expect any free money to be available)? This could mean saving money for grad school, law school, or medical school; for other siblings going to college later; or, if not, preserving your money for your own retirement.

In summary, finding schools that will save you tens of thousands of dollars per year may be worth checking out. Whatever your budget — whether it is $10K, $20K, $35K, $50K, or $80K+ per year — you have options! The key is to “solve your matrix” and, no matter what your college budget may be, find the “right schools” that will give you tens of thousands in free money!

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