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Part Four Of Student Loan Series: Education Consultant Offers Ways To Cut Costs

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Choosing a college, getting admitted, and figuring out how to pay for it are complex decisions with long-lasting consequences.  Because the stakes are so high more and more people are opting not to be do-it-yourselfers.  A growing trend among high school students and their parents is to hire an independent educational consultant.

Eric Goodhart has been an independent educational consultant since 1992.

“Colleges always say it is an investment, but I say what is it an investment for.”

He said he is alarmed by the ever increasing level of borrowing to pay for college

“A factor not often talked about is that loans taken by parents has increased enormously.”

Federally guaranteed loans to parents to pay for college costs were initially capped at $4,000, but now there is no limit.  Goodhart says it just one example of how colleges have convinced Congress to put more money into loans and grants at the same time colleges were raising their costs and giving the illusion that financial aid would pay the tuition bills.

“ Universities have a very strong lobby in Congress,” said Goodhart. “ There is no collective lobbying effort by parents paying the costs.”

Out of the approximately 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States there are exactly three that don’t use government guaranteed loan programs.  One of the three, Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., has a cost of attendance, which includes tuition, room and board, and other expenses of less than $26,000 a year.

But since nearly all colleges do rely on federal loan programs, Goodhart says other strategies must be employed to avoid, or at worst, limit debt.

“ Doing mature due diligence ahead of time, and not winging it.”

Goodhart, who is director of Programs for Education -- which has offices in Massachusetts and California -- works with high school students to identify their natural strengths and interests to lock in a career path, select a major, and then pick colleges that are the right fit.

“We spend a lot of time working with the student and getting them to understand their natural strengths and academic profile and what it has to do with certain careers,” explained Goodhart.  “ Then we build a college list from the ground up.”

Changing majors or changing colleges are expensive mistakes that add  to the college debt burden.

“In 1992, only 35 percent of high school graduates who went off to college graduated in four years. That has not changed by much today.”

While Goodhart’s clients are in college they can access the latest information on job opportunities to make sure their courses match the current needs of employers, so when graduation day comes there is a job waiting that will pay enough to help manage any debts.

“It is a level of responsibility that students are not prepared to take on as 17 year-olds, but by having parents listen to the steps there instills an accountability about what needs to be done to graduate in four years.”

Goodhart says to avoid loans, he advises clients to look for schools that offer accelerated programs, take community college courses, and get good grades to earn merit scholarships.  There is still no substitute for saving money for college.

“ The best time for parents to start saving for college is when the child is still in the womb,” said Goodhart.  “It is difficult to save all that is needed to pay for the cost of college, but the more you save the less you have to borrow.”

Even if a family has not set aside enough money to cover the cost of college it may be possible to literally pay-as-you-go by squeezing the household budget.

“You may be able to pay from cash flow alone, if you understand what the bottom line will be,” said Goodhart.  “Many don’t start budgeting until after the student has been accepted to college and then they are shocked to see what it will cost.”

Goodhart offers what he calls a “dry run” so parents can see the option.

The financial aid offers that come with college acceptance letters are not – contrary to what some advisors say – negotiable, according to Goodhart.  But, it is possible to appeal because of hardships such as a job loss or unexpected medical expense.

It is a myth that there are millions of dollars in college scholarships that go unclaimed. There are legitimate private scholarships available that Goodhart said he encourages clients to pursue.

“The ones worth going for are the ones you have to research,” said Goodhart, who said a client who is studying art obtained a $5,000 scholarship through a foundation in Canada.  “ She found it and did the work to apply and was recognized for the work in her portfolio.”

Goodhart would not disclose what he charges for his services.

Even before families take on the costs of higher education in the form of a tuition bill, more and more are paying for educational consultants and test prep for high school — and even younger — students.

David Wang started working with Goodhart five years ago when Wang’s son, who is now at the University of Michigan, was a high school freshman.  Wang said he and his wife saved for their son’s college education, and he earned a $20,000 merit scholarship so he’ll graduate debt free with a degree in industrial engineering.

“ You don’t want to get into a school where you have to go more than four years to make sure the cost is reasonable. We worked with Eric to choose the program that is the most efficient way for him to get an education.”

Educational consultants, such as Goodhart, come with a range of backgrounds and price tags. The Independent Educational Consultants Association cautions people to thoroughly review a consultant’s credentials before signing up.

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