For College Tuition, Many Families Don't Have To Pay Full Price, Expert Says

A South Florida family turned to College Funding Specialists, founded by Peter Ratzan, for help navigating the college expense minefield

The college years are supposed to be the best of your teenager's life, but the tuition and living expenses can be like black clouds hanging over your finances.

"With three kids, we have three daughters, by the time we're done, we're looking at over 800,000 dollars," said Jamie Harris, who has one daughter in college and another who is a senior in high school.

When Jamie and Cindy Harris started pricing colleges for their oldest daughter, they got hit with a severe case of sticker shock.

"$50,000 a year, $60,000 a year, Florida schools even ($20,000) to $22,000 a year," said Cindy Harris.

Elite schools, such as Harvard, Brown, Princeton or any of the Ivy League colleges, will cost you about $60,000 in tuition alone. The University of Miami charges over $40,000 in tuition. In comparison, the University of Florida is a bargain. Total yearly expenses there, including tuition, are estimated at about $20,000.

The Harris family turned to a company called College Funding Specialists for help in navigating the college expense minefield.

"Many families don't have to pay retail, some families, that's the way it is, but there are discounts available, in fact, about 66 percent, two-thirds of all students are getting some kind of discount," said Peter Ratzan, the company's founder.

He says besides the obvious strategies, like saving money early, when your kids are babies, and using a 529 plan such as the Florida pre-paid program, don't put all of your hope into winning a full-ride scholarship.

"What you really are looking for is a partial discount and to have a multi-prong strategy, there's no single strategy to pay for college, you look for private scholarships, you look for institutional scholarships, you use the Florida pre-paid, and you position the student properly so that he or she can identify the right fit where those opportunities both financially and academically are going to be available," Ratzan explained.

Ratzan's company helped find a package of merit-based and need-based aid for Rebecca Harris, who is now in her second year at the University of Michigan.

"One was the merit scholarship, she also received a grant, she also received work study," said Jamie Harris.

Without the help, the couple could not have afforded to send Rebecca to Michigan, paying out-of-state tuition at her dream school. What's the takeaway for other parents?

"To really explore all the options, to get some assistance from someone who is able to direct you to those schools that are generous with their financial assistance and to not give up," said Cindy Harris.

Harris said she and her husband could've done all the research on financial aid at home, if they had the time to do it, which is almost impossible to find when you're helping a child apply to several colleges.

"All the work that has to go into the applications and the essays and everything, it really is an overwhelming task for the students as well as the families involved," Harris said.

Ratzan said there are what he calls “‘A' schools for 'B' students," which offer aid to kids who are talented and smart but may not have excelled in high school.

"There is a good college out there for every student," Ratzan said. "Don't just focus on the brand-name schools simply because they play football on Saturdays and basketball in March, you might need to find for your student a more appropriate option depending on both their academic needs and your financial abilities."

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