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Preparing for The College Process: Find Help or Go it Alone?

Now more than ever, you may have questions about how to prepare for the cost of college. Should you involve an outside expert to help you with the planning process? Maybe.

My son recently picked his high school freshman classes, and I realized math is going to be more important than ever. Not for him, though: for me. How many credits does he need of this or that subject to graduate? How many years of Spanish will a college require? And oh, by the way, are we saving enough for college? When it feels overwhelming, I think: “Maybe we should get some help with this.”

High school counselors can be a great help with the college prep process. But sometimes parents want more insight. How do you know when it’s time to seek more help for financial or academic planning? And, in the wake of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, how do you find the right independent college consultant if that’s the path you choose to take?

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“It’s like anything. Sometimes you do your taxes yourself. Sometimes it’s out of your comfort zone, and you hire an accountant,” says Tim Gorrell, executive director of the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, which manages Ohio’s 529 Plan, CollegeAdvantage. “Some people value the insight of an objective third party.”

Here’s some expert advice about when to seek help versus going it alone.

Am I Saving Correctly for College?

With high school graduation approaching for my kids, I look at their savings and wonder if we’re investing correctly. We picked the investments ourselves—in our case, through a 529 plan. But should we have consulted with a financial advisor first?

“There are great online resources to help families navigate college financial planning, including tools that show where you should be at different life stages for your children,” explains Gorrell. “With CollegeAdvantage, about 50% of our participants choose the Direct Plan, meaning they don’t invest through a financial advisor.”

My husband discovered a great resource that was immediately and easily available to us: My son’s 529 plan could be set to self-adjust based on his age. “Age-based investments automatically adjust to become more conservative as your child approaches 18. These plans recognize that you have a target date for utilizing the funds,” explains Gorrell.

Should We Use a College Consultant?

Feeling somewhat reassured about the financial aspect, I turned to my other question: Do we need college process help?

“The common time to find a college consultant is late 10th grade,” says Mark Sklarow, CEO of Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). “If parents start the college talk too early, it creates pressure. Life isn’t just about getting into college—it’s also about enjoying the moment.” 

So, what does an independent college consultant do? As Sklarow describes it, consultants can provide guidance on how to align interests with potential careers and how to create a list of colleges based on those goals. What they don’t do is get kids into a specific “dream school.” The IECA certifies independent college consultants based on several factors, including ethics and experience. 

That leads to more math: How much is an expert going to cost? Fees vary by region but tend to fall in line with other consultative services, like a family therapist. It’s important to note that this cost isn’t something that can be paid for from college savings vehicles like a 529 plan. 

Sklarow suggests parents explore the need for a consultant in three situations:

  1. The college process is becoming a source of tension for a family
  2. The high school counselor’s focus doesn’t seem personalized (or your high school does not provide college counseling)
  3. There is something unique in the child’s experience, like a special skill (music or athletics) or health consideration (such as anxiety or depression). 

“It’s all about finding the best place for your child and the best match for your financial ability,” he adds. “Consultants can really make sense of an overwhelming amount of information that is out there.” 

For the time being, I feel like we can go it alone—but it’s great to know that we don’t have to. 

Julie Grippo Schuler lives in Medina, Ohio with her high school son and middle school daughter.

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