College planning is a relatively new field and more and more families are just now learning about this industry. The problem with this new field is that you have a lot of very talented and capable planners looking to make a difference and you have other planners just looking to make a quick buck. This is a time of year when many families are in panic mode and can find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when they are desperate and many unscrupulous planners can take advantage of these families. So how do you protect yourself? I really want to take the time to talk about this, because the hacks that are out there make the rest of us college planners look bad. By understanding these basic concepts you can begin to separate the real planners from the pretenders.
1. What are your certifications? – Certifications are a give and take. Some certifications are legitimate. Some certifications are simply bogus letters after a name that anyone with an internet connection and a few marketing dollars can obtain. Certifications alone are not an indicator of a capable college planner. A local organization here in Atlanta even throws around their “5-star” wealth management credentials, but just follow the link below to see how easy it really is to get this award.
CFPs, CPAs, and RIAs certainly have familiar alphabet letters after their names, but do not confuse their financial or tax planning credentials as indicators of effective college and financial aid planning. Very often, the techniques that they use for college can actually hurt your financial aid. Need an example? Just follow this link and read the very bottom of this article. See how the popular 529 plan can hurt your financial aid.
2. The dabblers: This is where you can really spot the pretenders. Dabblers are usually college planners that hold other full-time jobs. Often, they work in related fields and simply use college planning as a means to find more clients to support their true core business (such as wealth management). This presents an unusual conflict where often times you can find yourself wondering if your planner is more interested in your student getting into a great college or if they just want to manage your IRA or other investments. Don't get me wrong, college planners should have a financial background and a working knowledge of investments, insurance, and taxes. Just be wary of their true motives. Is the financial planning being used as part of the plan to pay for college? Or is the planning being used in tandem with a comprehensive selection strategy? Just Google search your planner, if they have more than one business or hold more than one job title, it's time to find a planner that is more focused on college.
3. How many families do you help DIRECTLY? Many planners like to claim success based on the efforts made by other planners or a “network” of planners. Here’s a Harvard acceptance letter that some other college planners are throwing around. You can actually find this acceptance letter posted below featured on a few other sites across the country. How can different college planning organizations show-off the same award letter and claim the success as theirs? Your college planner should be able to get you in touch with current families and students that have successfully graduated from their process. Your better planners should be working with over 90-100 families per year, per planner. And by working, we mean working with DIRECTLY. Again, don’t let a college planner quote numbers based on what their “network” is doing and don't accept a recycled award letter that is over 5 years old.
4. How many students did you get into an Ivy League College? I hate to burst your bubble, but getting into an Ivy League College is extremely difficult. It's just too competitive. Ivy League colleges can fill their seats several times over with valedictorians with perfect test scores. The best a planner can do is ensure that the Ivy League College is the right academic fit for your student and create a financial plan to cover the costs. Some other specialists may have "connections" that might help but are too costly for most families to work with. There is simply no magic formula to admission into these elite colleges and anyone that claims otherwise is just not being truthful. Anyone bragging about more than 1 or 2 Ivy League acceptances in a single year is simply not being truthful.
6. Social Proof. Your better planners should be very easy to find online. Are they engaged with the online community and sharing real experiences? Are they active on social media? What are clients and students saying about them? Google, Facebook, and YELP reviews can give a lot of insight into how an organization is run and how paying clients have experienced these organizations. How old are the reviews? Are they from families that they worked with recently or old reviews from a few years back? Results that are both current and local should serve as proof as to whether or not you are dealing with a reputable planner.
7. Does your college planner work with low-income families? Some college planners won’t give families the time of day if the family doesn’t meet a base income requirement. This goes back to point number 2. A client that does not support a planner’s mission from the wealth management side of things can easily find their calls not being returned. A reputable planner should charge a reasonable fee and have several payment options for families with limited means.
8. What college planning platform or network do you use and how long have you been using it? There are several college planning platforms and networks out there and some are better than others. I myself have used the same network during my entire college planning career and this network has been around the longest. Some college planners lack consistency and jump around from one platform to another. Some planners are actually fired or forced out the more reputable associations based on questionable behavior. Does your planner jump around? Have they ever been fired from a college planning association? Are their certifications expired? These are very important questions that many families don’t even know to ask but should.
9. Just let them talk. This is my favorite one. Does your planner have a true understanding of college admissions or financial aid or are they speaking in vague circles with promises of more financial aid and scholarships. Are they up-to-speed with the latest issues around college and higher education? Are they aware of the latest changes in legislation? There’s not a lot of explanation needed here. You will know it when you hear it. If your planner is more well-versed on money, taxes, and finances…it may be time to find another planner. The feedback I get most from clients that have shopped other planners: "They just don't know what they are talking about."
10. References. References. References. What are past clients saying about your college planner.? Did they get the result they were looking for? What did they like or not like about their experience. Your better planners should have plenty of references for you to talk to. College planners shouldn't be judged based on empty promises or how many students they supposedly got into Harvard. Instead, they should be judged based on their results and what past clients have to say about them. Just be sure you know the difference between the truth and marketing hype.