CC4TheRestofUs: The Series

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It’s time.

Since the very early days of College Counseling for the Rest of Us, I have wanted to do regular video blogs.  In fact, I even set up my YouTube channel many months ago and shot a video that was (very) briefly uploaded to the account.

But, that’s it.  Other than that, CC4theRestof Us Television has been nothing but a rumor.

I think it’s time to change that.  But I want your help.  I am very curious to know what you would want to watch.

Here is what I’m thinking:

  • 3-5 minutes.
  • I’m thinking “weekly” in terms of frequency.
  • Split between a quick overview of what’s happening in the world of College Counseling for the Rest of Us and the world of college admissions and planning, in general.
  • Emphasis on a particular blog topic (current or prior?)
  • Occasional episodes with guests and on-site at colleges and other relevant sites.
  • Promotional shouts and College Acceptance/HS Graduation shout-outs for a minimal cost.
  • Fast, light, loose.  Let the details play out on the blog, website, Facebook page, Twitter account, Linkedin Group, etc.
  • Leaning towards “Ready to Go” by Republica, for the opening.  (Just saying)

Would you watch?  What would you change from the above outline?  Let me know at, on Facebook or by responding to this blog post.

How would CC4theRestofUs TV look to you?

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR. 


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There are several three letter words, acronyms and former acronyms that play major parts in the College Search.  SAT, ACT, MOM and DAD are just a few that we’ve touched on in past blog posts.

I’ve got one more for you.  And, for many,  it can be as influential – and as mysterious – as the SAT or the ACT.  (And as the MOM and the DAD)

I’m talking about EFC, or Expected Family Contribution.

The EFC is a number that quietly sits on the top right of that Student Aid Report generated by all of the “stuff” that you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known affectionately as the FAFSA.   But, as quietly as it might sit, it is the number that is used to directly determine a student’s Pell Grant award, his or her subsidized loan eligibility, many state grants and the limit of aid that can be provided from a college and third party sources.

So, what is this EFC?  Well, as I stated before, it is meant to represent a family’s “expected family contribution” to a student’s college education.

Expected by whom?

This expectation belongs to the feds, not you (who will probably expect to contribute much less) nor the colleges (who will probably expect you to contribute more).

I had the pleasure of manually calculating EFCs when I went through Financial Aid Training (see “One Night in Plattsburgh“).  When you calculate an EFC (Expected Family Contribution) manually, it actually makes sense.  For a second.

The EFC calculation formula is what I like to call “equally unfair”.  The logic is there, but it assumes you live in the 1970′s and don’t own a 2nd flat screen TV, 3 laptops or multiple cars.  It is based on real numbers and real calculations, but it assumes a rate of savings that no longer exists in America.

So, why not change it?

Well, it wouldn’t produce more money, it would just show – for most families at most colleges – how much more of a gap there is between your financial aid package and the cost of the college.  So, unless the feds find more money, the colleges find more money or you find more money, changing the formula wouldn’t really accomplish much.

Here are a few points to ponder regarding the EFC and the College Search.

  • The EFC is NOT what you have to pay.  It’s the amount of money a College has to play with if they give you a dime of need-based aid.  (Unsubsidized loans notwithstanding)
  • Home equity – for a primary residence – is NOT part of the equation in the EFC calculation.  Owning a million dollar home doesn’t hurt you and owing a two million dollar mortgage doesn’t help you.
  • EFCs run from 0 to 99.999.  In case you are wondering.  Or setting goals.
  • Federal Pell Grants are determined directly via the EFC.  The highest EFC, in 2010-2011, that was still eligible for Pell was 5273.
  • Student money (income and assets) and Parent money (income and assets) is not weighted equally.  A much higher percentage of student money is expected to be set aside for college.
  • There has been rapid growth recently in a pocket industry that I will label “EFC Prep”.  It is financial consulting designed to enable families to best arrange their assets for maximum benefit in the FAFSA/EFC process.  5 years ago, I would have told you to stay far, far away from such resources because – generally – the only ones making money in such a relationship were the financial folks.  I have since had the opportunity to speak to a few services that do it right.  I would still be EXTREMELY careful in ‘vetting’ such a service, but there are some good ones.  The problem, even with these services, is that the best time to meet with them is about 3-5 years before you decide to.  The later you try to effectively manage your money, the more likely your best options have passed you by.

So, Mr. Szarek, how does this all fit in to Brad’s College Search?

The EFC lays the framework for what aid colleges can provide to you.  So, its effect is obvious.  But it pushes its weight around fairly late in the College Planning Game.  The FAFSA is not completed until mid-year of senior year (for traditional students).  Your financial aid packages follow after that.

So, my advice is this – keep your options open as you go through your college search.  Do not rule out a school because of their ‘sticker price’ or because of what you think your EFC may be.  Like so much of the college search, let the process play out, take good notes and only cut bait when it is appropriate to do so.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR. 

It’s Complicated

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One of the more persistent themes I find myself having to impress upon families and adult students I work with, as well as colleagues involved in various components of the College Search is the idea that there are no magic answers.

What is the right school for Caitlin?

Should Brad take the SAT or ACT?

What about online courses?

Is it worth it to have him live on campus?

Should Ashley take  AP German or ‘just’ German 4?

Is a community college better for Justin or a four year institution?  What about trade school?

Is a Gap year the answer?

Should we apply to that expensive private school, when we know we can’t afford it unless a big financial aid package comes in or we finally hit Powerball?

The answer to these, and other, exciting questions is – it depends.  And the answer to most “BIG” questions during your college search will be  – it depends.

I don’t say this because I don’t know the answer.  I say this because I think I DO know the answer.  It depends.

In a previous post, I stated that there are no magic answers, but lots of good information, good people and good advice.  And be wary of those who sell you the reverse.   I think it’s hard to overstate that theme.

You may think that this is fairly obvious.  But in the heat of the moment, when your living room floor is covered with glossy college brochures and the phone is ringing and the emails are binging – it is VERY tempting to say, “Just tell me what @^^@$#$ school we should pick, already!”

I won’t, and neither should anybody providing you with advice.

Some answers are “less gray” than others.  But, ultimately it is not my life and not my college experience.  (And not my money.)  My responsibility is to provide you with the pros and cons of each choice.  One of my mantras for College Counseling for the Rest of Us has been to teach you how to fish rather than provide you with fish (or to teach you how to drive rather than chauffeur you through the college search journey, if you are not a fish person).  I hope I have done that, and continue to do that, throughout my role as college counselor.  For the Rest of Us.

Since today is my birthday, I’ll keep this week’s blog post short and sweet.  I wish you happy and safe travels in your college quest; please always feel free to reach out if you have questions or concerns!

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR. 

A Test of Us for the Rest of Us


What if there was a standardized test that also helped you figure out “what do I want to be when I grow up”?

What if there was a standardized test that was based on the content of the courses you actually had taken in school?

What if there was a standardized test designed specifically to meet the needs of all students who are looking at post-secondary schools?

If there was such a test, there are many who would raise their #2 pencil in the air and ask, “Is this Heaven?”

No, it’s Iowa.

Iowa City, to be exact – home  of the standardized exam taken by more high school students in this country.

But, Mr. Szarek, I thought the SAT was based out of  New York.

It is.  The College Board’s main offices are in New York, Washington, D.C. and Reston, VA.

But…  As of this year, the SAT is the Pepsi of standardized tests.

Uh, Mr. Szarek, I don’t even know what you’re talking about…

Pepsi.  Coke.  Oh, never mind.

In the past year, more test takers in the United States have taken the ACT than the SAT.

Yes, really.

That little test, designed by Everrett Franklin Lindquist, and first administered in 1959, with a goal of offering a way to measure all future college students, provide career guidance and to be based upon knowledge of curriculum rather than aptitude is now the #1 selling standardized exam in America.

Uh, but everyone here at Union HS takes the SAT and I only have a few friends who are even thinking about the ACT.

Here in New Jersey, the numbers are a little different.  Last year, 17% of graduating seniors took the ACT, while 76% took the SAT.  But the growth has been dramatic.  In 2006, 7823 graduates in New Jersey took the ACT.  In 2010, that number had grown to 19,177.  That’s a 169% increase over the past three years.

So, what should you know about this ACT?

Pronunciation.  It’s A – cee – tee, not act like in a performance.

It’s curriculum based.  So – for good or for bad – it’s an attempt to measure what you have learned in class.

Structure – Instead of the Reading/Math/Writing breakout of the SAT, the ACT has the following sub-tests: English, Math, Reading and Science.  And an optional writing component.

Scoring.  Instead of the SAT’s 800/800/800 scoring, the ACT has the equally mysterious 36/36/36/36 breakout.  Another difference is that the ACT Composite Score is an average, not a sum of those sub-groups.  So, the “perfect’ score on an ACT is 36, not 144. 

That Really Cool Wheel Thingy.  Your ACT report will contain a “World of Work” map.  This circle will suggest logical options for future career paths based on your Interest Inventory results.  It’s hard to explain, easier to show, so here’s a link: ACT World-at-Work Map.

How many colleges accept it?  Every.  Single.  One 

Really?  Yes, really.

How do Colleges Compare Results from Both Tests?  Colleges realize that these tests asses different criteria.  Some look at both scores individually.  Those more familiar with the SAT generally use a chart that “converts” an ACT score into an SAT equivalent.  And visa versa.  Your admissions counselor wants to report your top score to best represent you in the admission decision and the College wants to report their ‘best’ scores back to all of those wonderful rankings and listings.

Testing Sites.  There are currently 117 listed for the state of New Jersey.  Here’s the link.  New schools are added regularly.

Preparation.  Should I ship Brad and Caitlin off to ACT Test Prep classes?   You could.  But, since the test is based on curriculum – what you’ve already taken in the classroom – I would focus on getting comfortable with the format and learning how to pace yourself for one of the longer exams you’ll ever take.  Until you take your graduate admission tests, that is……  To access a free ACT sample test booklet, just click on this link.

Accommodations.  One comment that I have heard is that it is not a simple process to obtain accommodations for learning support, medical and other concerns.  But I have also heard that 92% of all requests are honored.  So, if you are in need of such accommodations, make sure you submit all necessary paperwork and maintain due diligence.

Price.  Currently, the cost to take the exam, without the Writing Test, is $33.  That’s 42% less than another standardized test you may know of.  

Although everybody is different, my general recommendation would be to take each of the two major standardized tests at least once.  Do understand that there are differences between the two, but both will provide your child’s prospective colleges with the testing information they need.  I wish your student success and minimal angst as they move through the world of standardized testing.

People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom.  – Terrence Mann,  Field of Dreams (1989).  Click here to hear the full speech.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR. 

Six Years of Degree Separation

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Trying to find a way to make college more affordable?  Looking for every angle, every left-handed scholarship for Lithuanians, every nickel under every cushion?  Is your spouse ready to channel William Shatner in a Priceline commercial when you meet your financial aid officer?

Well, I’ve added a little story as part of my recent college planning workshops that may be of interest to you.

It’s all about our dear friends – Ashley, Brad, Caitlin and Justin.  They finally go off to college and – lo and behold – they attend the same college, receive identical financial aid packages, obtain the same job after graduation AND hold the same part-time job until they find professional employment.

Uh, so what’s so interesting about that?  How are you saving me any money?  Aren’t they all, then, paying the same amount of tuition and earning the same amount of money?

Ah- ha!  (I might shout, if I shouted such things…)

Here are the rules:

  • We are going to look at where Ashley, Brad, Caitlin and Justin are after 6 years by subtracting tuition costs and adding salary.
  • They each receive the same financial aid package and are left with a $20,000 annual bill (Fall and Spring).
  • The College raises tuition by a standard 5% each year.
  • The local community college costs $100 per credit (with the same 5% rate of increase).
  • The wage at the local ice cream parlor is $10 an hour. (They all work there after graduation)
  • The entry level salary in their profession is $30,000, with an annual increase of 2%.
  • It takes 6 months, after graduation, to find a job within the profession.

ASHLEY: Takes the “standard” track.  4 years, 15 credits a semester.  Finds the professional job after 6 months and works there for the last 1 1/2 years of this study.  Tuition: -$86202.  Salary: $55,700.  NET: -$30,502

BRAD: Also full-time, but takes only 12 credits a semester.  5 years to graduate.  Only 1/2 year in a professional position.  Tuition: -$110512.  Salary: $25,4000.  NET: -$85,112.

CAITLIN: 1st year in school is a disaster.  Takes a year off to re-group and dish out ice cream.  Comes back the following year, but because of failures and a change in major needs 150 credits (and 5 full academic years) to graduate.  Therefore, does not start her professional job search until after the 6 year survey period.  Tuition: -$115487.  Salary: $20,800.  NET: -$94,237.

JUSTIN: Justin goes full time (15 credits per semester), but takes 1 extra credit each year.  He also takes 9 credits in the summer and “wintersession” at the local community college.  He finishes in 3 years, works at Do Me a Flavor for 6 months and is working in the profession for the last 2 1/2 years of the study.  Tuition: -$65,887.  Salary: $86,606.  NET: +$20,719. 

 Same tuition.  Same salary.  Same job opportunities.  And the difference – over 6 years – between Justin and Caitlin is well over $100,000. 

While my husband – Mr. Shatner over there – negotiates an extra $500 in our Citizenship Grant.


Now, it may not surprise you that – when I finish telling this little story – parents tend to really, really, really want their kid to grow up to be Justin.  But I have to caution them – and you.  If your “Justin” isn’t able to handle the commitment of year round education, he could easily fall right past Ashley and directly into Caitlin’s territory.   There is no magic answer.  Not everyone is Justin, nor should they be.

I would, however, suggest 2 very powerful “takeaways” from this little exercise.  First, how you do in college – what courses you get and what grades you receive – matters in so many ways, but one of those ways is financial.  And it can matter in a BIG (i.e. – $100,000) way.  Second, there are multiple ways to reduce costs in college AND – maybe just as importantly – there are multiple ways to ADD costs rather easily.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR.