Dr. Dean P. Skarlis is President and Founder of The College Advisor of New York, Inc., a comprehensive college counseling practice serving clients in New York and across the U.S. Dean’s unique model integrates all aspects of college admissions counseling with financial strategy. Dr. Skarlis has more than 24 years of experience in education including 7 years as a consultant for ACT. He has taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and has been quoted often in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, on ABC World News, and other national media outlets. He has trained thousands of CPAs and financial advisors on the intricacies of financial aid and scholarships. He and his staff of 9 have helped thousands of students and families navigate the complex and expensive college admissions and financial aid process. Dean holds a B.A. in Psychology from Allegheny College, an M.A. in Psychology from Duquesne University, and a Doctorate in Educational Policy and Administration from the University of Pittsburgh. He is also a graduate of the Harvard University Institute on College Admissions.
Dr. Skarlis, please tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you and your consulting practice, The College Advisor of New York, do with college applicants.
I have been in and around higher education for 25 years. I have worked at two universities and for ACT, the company that makes the ACT exam. I hold a Master’s in Psychology and a Doctorate in Education from The University of Pittsburgh. I have helped thousands of students and parents through the college admissions and financial aid/scholarship process for the past 11 years. Our goal for each family is to help the student find, and gain admission, to a college that’s a great fit socially, academically, programmatically and financially.
When during the college admissions process should families begin to think about financial aid?
In the student’s sophomore year of high school. Why so early? Because parents need to understand their affordability as early as possible so their child doesn’t get emotionally attached to a college that they cannot afford. This has become much more important now that many private colleges (and not just the Ivies) have eclipsed $65,000/year or $260,000 over four years. The financial aid “clock” begins ticking in the student’s junior year of high school, and most families can do considerable planning before then to maximize financial aid and/or scholarships.
What steps can students take during their high school years to help them increase their chances of eventually securing merit aid for college?
Do well in challenging courses in school. This is of significant importance. In addition, prepping for the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests is important as well as strategizing on which test to take and how many times to take it. We offer an SAT/ACT Hybrid Diagnostic for our students which gives them detailed information not only on which test, but which portions of the exam they did well on, and where, in specific terms, they need to improve. This helps kids work on precise skills to improve their scores. There is also considerable strategy on when and which scores to send to colleges. These decisions are critical. In addition, very few people understand that the application essay can often affect merit scholarships as well. In these ways and others, the college selection/admissions process needs to be integrated with the financial aid/merit scholarship process to yield the best results. Very few families fully understand this concept.
What are some common mistakes families make when it comes to financial aid?
There are many. Assuming you will not qualify, and not applying for it can be a huge mistake. Many people also complete the forms incorrectly. I’ve seen parents list assets that they are not required to present. This has caused them not to get any aid, when in fact, they were deserving of it. In addition, there are planning strategies – in some ways that are analogous to tax planning – that can help families save thousands of dollars per year. This is an area of focus for our company.
Can you share with us one of your favorite financial aid success stories from a family you’ve worked with and what we can learn from it?
One of our families had several million dollars in assets, but still qualified for need based financial aid. This family saved about $44,000 off the cost of college at a selective, private school. We saved them money, not be helping them implement complex planning strategies, but instead simply by building a list of schools that did not assess those million dollar assets in its financial aid formula. This is what I mean by integrating the college selection/admissions process into the financial aid/scholarship process. Colleges assess a family’s ability to pay in radically different ways, so by teaching the family this simple fact, we helped them find a great school at which the student was happy, and it cost about $44,000 less over four years.
Are there any downsides to applying for financial aid? Can doing so harm a student’s chances of admission at certain schools?
Yes, but it completely depends on the school. Applying for – and qualifying for – need based aid at many of the elite colleges actually increases your chances for admission to those schools. At most colleges, however, it has the opposite effect, so depending on several factors, it may not be wise to apply for aid.
How negotiable are financial aid offers once a student has already been admitted to a college? Should families try to negotiate?
Absolutely they should, except they need to use the term “appeal” rather than “negotiate.” This gives the college the power they seek in these dealings, and helps the family acknowledge that the school does, in fact, have the final word in these dealings. There is an appropriate way by which to appeal an offer of need based or merit based (scholarship) aid. In short, the families who understand the process and appeal based on that knowledge are those who will receive the most money. Hiring an experienced college admissions consultant, who also understands the financial aid process (many of the most experienced counselors do NOT understand it), can save you thousands of dollars. Financial aid terminology is like a different language, and the parents and students who take the time to learn it will be in a much better position when it comes to appealing their aid decision.
What do you tell students who receive unfunded offers from brand-name schools but funded offers from less prominent institutions?
This is exactly the situation in which most of our families find themselves…and we do this by design because it forces them to clarify why “Elite School X” is $22,000 per year (or $88,000 total) BETTER than “Good Fit School Y.” This is a critical point that causes families to make logical decisions based on social, academic, programmatic, and financial fit. While it’s anecdotal, I’ve found that more families have begun to choose the LESS expensive, non-brand name school simply because the prices have gotten out of control. Over the past year, I’ve had several families choose lesser name schools OVER Georgetown, Tufts, Boston College, Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania (U PENN is an Ivy League School). This tells me that at $65,000/year, even the elite schools are beginning to price themselves out of the market. If that is the case, what will that mean for the less elite schools who do not give scholarships and who charge about the same amount???
How can a family be sure that pledged financial aid will continue beyond freshman year?
They cannot. I’m dealing with a situation now where this is not the case. If the aid award changes substantively, they must be pleasant but firm. And they must be sure to understand the logic and the terminology that financial aid officers will appreciate.
Financial aid is admittedly very complex, but if someone asked you for your three favorite financial aid tips that families should remember, what would they be?
First, do NOT assume that you will not qualify for aid. Second, plan strategically (much like many do regarding their taxes) so that you maximize aid. Third, understand your affordability EARLY in the process, and plan to look past the elite, brand-name schools in order to pay less.