Paying for College When You Haven’t Saved Enough

Contributing Writer


For many parents with college bound children, paying for that college education can come down to three choices: go broke, go into debt or go crazy. Pete West, president of Empowered College Funding, is offering another option: find free (or cheap) money.

As one who has “been there and done that,” West is taking his more than 20 years of experience as a financial planner and his recent experience of funding his daughter’s college and showing parents a better way.

College expenses today run between $16,000 and $20,000 a year, West says. And even the best prepared parents usually aren’t ready to support that cost.

“When people procrastinate or aren’t able to sock away huge sums of money to send their children to college, the funding begins to affect all options for the student and the family. They may have to choose a lesser school, put off college, borrow, mortgage their home or take from their retirement. None of these are good choices,” West says.

West says his company can help students and families negotiate their way through the college planning and funding process.

“Each family and each circumstance is unique and the process can be overwhelming.

“I would liken it to our tax code. If you don’t really know your way around it and work with it daily you will pay where you don’t need to.
“It’s the same with college.”

West says as he worked through funding his daughter’s college expenses, he became dismayed at seeing the many students who were amassing huge student loan debt that they will spend many years paying off. It was also distressing to watch the families who had to dramatically change their everyday lifestyle or sabotage their retirement.

“Thousands of dollars are left on the table each year because people simply don’t understand the process. And while high school counselors do their best, they are already overworked with far too many students to be able to provide personalized help.

“That’s where we come in.”

West says parents also need to understand that it isn’t a one-time activity.
“Families have to go through the financial aid process every year their child is in college.”

A term students and parents will become quite familiar with is “expected family contribution,” West says. This is something like an “Alice-in-Wonderland” dimension of the financial world where the government has developed a formula of how much a family should be able to contribute to a child’s college education. The formula takes into consideration income, assets and family circumstances – number of kids, their ages, where you live, etc. It is used by public colleges and most private ones to determine how much need-based “institutional aid” a family will get – basically, how much of a price break a school will give you. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form used to determine a student’s need under this methodology.

“We work with families to make that number the best possible. We help them find alternatives to loans including grants, scholarships, merit aid and tuition discounts.
West regularly runs free seminars for parents just to introduce them to the process and offer some advice on what he calls the “Seven Deadly Sins” of college funding.

The Seven Deadly Sins
1. Fall prey to private companies offering assistance. “There are a growing number of companies who promise to do it all for you. What I’ve found is they try to use a ‘cookie cutter’ approach that is only going to work with the small percentage of people who fit their model. College funding is unique to each family. What works for your neighbor probably won’t work for you.

2. Procrastinate until the student is in their senior year. The application process should begin just prior to January of the student’s junior year. “You want to ahead of this but the actual process begins at this time. Because the process changes so frequently, this is when you want to begin understanding the rules and strategies of the game. “

3. Assume the high school guidance counselor will solve your problems. Most schools have a Family Assistance Night and parents should by all means attend. But this is like doing your taxes as part of a big group – it won’t help you take advantage of all the opportunities. West says, “We teach the underlying rules and strategies to maximize what a student will qualify for.”

4. Pick a school without looking at its history of giving out aide. People tend to pick a college because that is where a parent went, where a boy or girlfriend is going, because it’s close to home or far from home. Along with the academic offerings, students and their families should research the school’s history of providing aide. Many are surprised that their student might be able to attend a school they would consider “out of reach” because that school has an excellent record of providing aide. “I see people send their kids to schools that they think are more affordable but wind up actually paying more because that school doesn’t have the financial aid to offer.” Research is key. We provide that.

5. Not having the student take a good or preparation course. It’s pretty simple, West says. The better the score, the more aid the student receives. Prep courses are an investment.

6. Not doing income and asset planning to bring the expected family contribution down. “Not understanding the aide formula costs families thousands of dollars each year,” he says.

7. Not looking at the big picture. A parent’s biggest concern is “How am I going to pay for college without reducing our lifestyle and without sabotaging our retirement.” People need to remember that these decisions will have a ripple effect on the entire family.

Empowered College Funding is located at 7633 E 63rd Place Suite 300. For more information, including seminar information, email

Updated 01-19-2011

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