She explores why most families don’t apply for financial aid, discusses what families can do to increase potential aid, and unpacks how students can seek to maximize their aid packages. Peg also offers tips on applying for private scholarships and lists best practices for reducing out-of-pocket college costs.
“The other bucket of endowment money that I was referencing, the merit scholarship. So those are the non-need scholarships. So Bill Gates’ kids can get them. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. The Office of Admissions gives those out, and quite often when they’re doing that, they don’t even know the family’s ability to pay.”—Peg Keough, College Aid Pro
About the Portfolio Intelligence podcast
The Portfolio Intelligence podcast features interviews with asset allocation experts, portfolio construction specialists, and investment veterans from across John Hancock’s multimanager network. Hosted by John Bryson, head of investment consulting at John Hancock Investment Management, the dynamic discussion explores ideas advisors can use today to build their business while helping their clients pursue better investment outcomes.
This podcast is being brought to you by John Hancock Investment Management Distributors LLC, member FINRA, SIPC. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers, are subject to change as market and other conditions warrant, and do not constitute investment advice or a recommendation regarding any specific product or security. There is no guarantee that any investment strategy discussed will be successful or achieve any particular level of results. Any economic or market performance information is historical and is not indicative of future results, and no forecasts are guaranteed. Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal.
John Hancock Investment Management is not affiliated with Peg Keough, Way to the Quad, or College Aid Pro.
Hello and welcome to the Portfolio Intelligence podcast. I'm your host John Bryson, Head of Investment Consulting and Education Savings here at John Hancock Investment Management. Today is September 15th, 2023, and September is back to school month. So I've invited Peg Keough to the Portfolio Intelligence podcast to discuss financial aid. A few comments about Peg. When Peg's twins hit high school, she did a deep dive into all things college. She quickly saw how complicated and stressful the college funding process had become. She had an aha! moment and realized she could combine her decade of experience in financial planning and wealth management with her in-depth knowledge of college financial planning to really impact families.
This led her to found Way to the Quad in 2014 where she helped thousands of parents navigate the college financial planning journey so they could proactively secure discounts on the cost of college. Peg brought this passion to College Aid Pro where she currently works as Director of Education. In it, she's an integral part of the education planning process for numerous parents and advisors. Peg is a recognized thought leader and frequent speaker at schools and organizations and she holds degrees from Cornell University and Indiana University. Peg, welcome to the podcast.
Oh, thank you John. I'm happy to be here.
Peg, tell me why is it that so many people don't take the time to apply for financial aid?
I think the main reason is people have thoughts in their mind and sometimes they get it from the media, sometimes they get it honestly from friends and family. I always tell people, friends and family are lovely, but when it comes to paying for college you should disregard what they tell you. So I think a lot of people, a lot of parents have in their mind I'm not eligible for financial aid. So that whole piece is off the table for me. And so they don't take the time to do the FAFSA, which is the main form that most colleges require. And then there's a second form called the CSS Profile. If a college requires that as well as the FAFSA, if you don't submit it, families could potentially be leaving tens of thousands of dollars of aid, of endowment money from these colleges on the table. But that's the main reason. They think they make too much and many times they're wrong, a family can be making $200,000 and still be eligible for need-based aid at certain schools. So I think that's the main reason.
The secondary reason is some people think that if they apply for financial aid, if they are affluent and they don't have need-based eligibility, that that might hurt getting some of the aid that colleges do give out, like merit aid, which is non-need-based aid. So sometimes that's in the back of parents' minds as well. We recommend that every family hands down submits the FAFSA for sure, and most families the CSS Profile. It's interesting, I was just talking to one of our experts, he was presenting last night and he said, he's at University of Oklahoma, the Director of Scholarships. And he said, "If a family doesn't submit the FAFSA, we won't entertain an appeal down the road," which is another part of this process. They won't even look at a family for appeal if that FAFSA isn't on file, even if there is no need-based eligibility. So I'm going on a little bit of a tangent here trying to plug, please submit these forms. But I think that those are the main reasons why people don't.
No, I think it's great advice because you never know what happens in the future. You may have a job changed and all of a sudden, your current financial situation could change. So have the FAFSA filled out regardless and have that as an option. So those that do fill it out and maybe still find themselves they've priced out of financial aid, what should their focus be for increasing potential aid and lowering the overall sticker price?
So that other bucket of endowment money that I was referencing, the merit scholarship. So those are the non-need scholarships. So Bill Gates's kids can get them. It doesn't matter how much money you make. The Office of Admissions gives those out and quite often when they're doing that, they don't even know the family's ability to pay. And these colleges know they are giving merit aid to a lot of families that honestly could afford to pay full sticker price, but they don't care. They are starting to discount the price of college because that's how it works, this cost of attendance or sticker price, whatever you want to call it, all the schools are discounting. It's just a matter of how they're doing it. So that's the first way if you truly are not eligible for need-based state is merit scholarships. And when I talk about these, I'm talking about typically five figures a year, guaranteed for four years as long as the student maintains a certain GPA. So it could be a $20,000 scholarship, that's an $80,000 discount. So we're talking about some big money here.
The second bucket could be private scholarships. So this is money that the big guys do. But then there's also a lot of smaller private scholarships. So that's another way to reduce the cost of college and find these discounts if you're not eligible for need-based aid.
Okay, very good. You mentioned a couple of things that I want to dig into a little bit more. You mentioned the appeal process. How can people appeal for the best possible aid package?
So there's two different kinds of appeals. There's an appeal for need-based aid and then there's appeal for merit aid. So there're a little bit different on best practice. So let me go through them one at a time and just to set the stage, what happens is the student applies for admission, the parents submit the financial aid forms with the student, then they wait and then they get this admission letter. They might get merit aid right away from the Office of Admissions, but then the financial aid office produces something called a financial aid award letter and that has your whole package on it. Hopefully it says what they cost, laid out, itemized, not always though. And then they're going to say, "Here's your need-based part. Here's your merit, whatever's applicable. Here's loans, here's work study, whatever that happens to be." That's what you look at and compare the schools that you're applying to, that's what starts the appeal process.
So if it's a need-based appeal, it might be that the school, what we call under-awarded the family and we see this quite often and there's some schools that actually deliberately under-award to the tune of 5 or $10,000 and they think to themselves, well if the family doesn't appeal, we just made some money. If they do appeal, we'll give them the money and they'll feel good about themselves. That's not a practice that most schools do, but some schools do under-award and I've helped families and said, "You're under-awarded here, let's go back and make our ask." And it's usually very successful. In those kinds of appeals, the parents have to be pretty involved. We're talking about the money part. So I usually have the parents lead the charge on that one, but the student should always be involved in an appeal.
And the reason is the colleges want to feel like, okay, this family's appealing, we are their number one choice and if we give them some more money, they're going to come. They have yield targets, they're nonprofits, most of them, but they are very big businesses with enrollment management departments, with MBAs in there sometimes and they really are running a tight ship. So you want the child always involved touching base with the financial aid office and saying how much they want to go to this school and they want to be a Badger next fall or whatever the school's mascot is. But then the parents are also involved kind of giving the nuts and bolts, like this is my situation and say like what you said John, say there was a job loss with COVID. Major things happened to people's families and the finances. So that's how you reach out on a need-based appeal.
On a merit appeal, you're going to be actually appealing to the Office of Admissions because as I said, they're the ones that give out that money and the student should really be leading the charge. The family should be armed with information. Maybe the student got 15,000 but there's another presidential scholarship at 20,000. They can use that as leverage. They can also use competing offers. So if there are two schools that are competing schools, you can absolutely say, "You were very generous and you gave us this, but X, Y, Z school gave us this, can you match it? Or if you can raise our merit award $3,000, that will make it affordable for us." There needs to be an ask because the colleges needs to know what the family's looking for.
So a little bit different way to do it. The student's going to lead the charge there and the parent can always do a backup. Like the student sends the email and I've attached a letter from my parents giving a few details about X, Y, Z. But the main thing is you want to be persistent but you want to be courteous because the college departments will say, "Is this a family you want to deal with for four years when you're applying, appealing?" So you want to make sure that you're having a conversation. I really stop people from saying, "Hey Peg, can you help me figure out how to negotiate this?" You're not buying a car. You are talking to these colleges and having a conversation back and forth. So a little bit different best practice on how to do it.
And also with appeals, some appeals I could tell you if somebody says, "Hey, I want to appeal this school," I'm going to say you're really not going to get anywhere. And other appeals there's a lot of opportunity to get funds. I can get in the weeds more on that if you want John, but it really depends on the type of school and what's going on with the family. But that's really best practice for the two different types of appeals.
That's great. That's really helpful. I like the courteous, but persistent. It's a great recipe for success in life, not only getting additional aid for college. Peg, you also mentioned private scholarships, money that is not from the government or from the school. What should people know about private scholarships and how to apply for these?
Basically, I usually tell families that the best place to start is in their counseling office at their high school, because most of these offices will get private scholarships from outside companies that are just trying to pay it forward in the community and offer kids some scholarships. They're not going to be usually huge money. It might be $500, $1,500, and it'll just usually be for freshman year.
Typically, that's how private scholarships work. Just so people understand, They're not typically for all four years, so will require families, if they're deciding that this is a key part of the college funding strategy, they want to keep in mind that this could be a side hustle for all four years, continuing to look for private scholarships. There are search engines out there. They can find those online.
Also, it sounds funny and simple, but it can be very effective. It's for the student to think about organizations that they're affiliated with through their outside interests or even Googling, "I'm a female who lives in Nebraska, who's a trumpet player." I'm making this up, obviously, but finding your niche, and there might be organizations that support kids like that demographic that are looking to go to college. It's a bit of an arduous way, but there are people that pay for college by finding lots of private scholarships, and they just keep that ball rolling all four years while they're in school and keep applying to different scholarships.
Gotcha. Really good to know. And then my last question here, if you had ... And you've already listed off some best practices, but if you had to list off the top best practices for any client, no matter their income level or age availability amount, what are the best practices they can utilize to try to reduce the price of college? What would those be?
Yeah, so the first thing they want to do, and preferably when they have a sophomore or junior in high school, that timing is better than right now for seniors in high school in September, take some time or work with a professional to understand financial aid and how it works. Then take the time to understand where they fit as a family at different schools. And what I'm talking about here is what are your projected net costs at a state school, at an in-state school, at a state school, private school, elite private school. Just get a ballpark idea of where discounts might be coming in for your family.
And then what parents want to do. And they could do this at the beginning or at this point, sit down and if the parents haven't talked about a budget and it sounds kind of funny, but some parents just really don't and I bring it up and they kind of cringe. They haven't even talked about it between each other and one maybe had dad pay for Yale and the other one worked through college. So they have a very different thought process about it. So they sit down, figure out a budget, and then most importantly sit down with the child and set those expectations. And I'm speaking from personal experience here with my two, that's what my husband and I did, so it was very clear, we have a 529 and we're going to pull money from here and this is what we can afford.
So as families are looking for schools and they see ones that are maybe pushing the envelope, they're a little too pricey, then you can say to the child, "Hey, you're going to have to find private scholarships if you get in here." Lay that groundwork because then when admissions acceptances come in and then award letters, one, the family is not shocked, which happens every year, second semester senior year. And then two, the parent, they don't have to have that awkward conversation of, "I know you applied to these schools and you got in, but I'm sorry, Johnny or Susie, we can't afford it." And that is avoidable. Or the parents decide we're going to go into major debt to afford it and "make it work." That's where people really go down a black hole and start leveraging their retirement or pulling massive amounts out of equity on their home or loans or 401(k)s. All this stuff that probably isn't advisable.
So those are the steps that I really recommend. There's academic, personal, and financial fit when families and students are building their college list and I just urge people, keep the financial fit in there. It's three pieces, don't make it an afterthought because it can cause a lot of tension and stress and make that last year that you have with your child before they go onto their next chapter, it can make it really stressful and it is avoidable.
Yeah, those tips can really help you set you up for disappointment or success and we want people to be set up for success. No doubt. Well Peg, that was really helpful. Thank you so much. I appreciate you being on the podcast. Folks, there is more information available to you if you're interested. Peg and the team at College Age Pro, they have two great websites, one for advisors, it's advisorscollegeaidpro.com. And then they have their public site, collegeaidpro.com, that's for anyone to learn more. We here at John Hancock Investment Management also have resources on our website, jhinvestments.com. We have a bunch of investment related information and we have college planning tool and an education planning center where you can learn more about colleges and scholarships like Peg said. So there's a lot of resources out there. So we encourage you to do your research and find out different ways that you can make saving and planning and funding college a lot easier for yourselves. As always, folks, thanks for listening. We look forward to talking to you again soon.