Pinnacle Summer College Planning Clinic

With school counselor caseloads climbing ever higher, families rightfully fear that students will lack personalized help with planning for college at the same time that admission selectivity reaches a peak nationwide. This summer local independent educational consultant Dr. Lisa Ransdell is offering a six-week reasonably priced college planning clinic to a small group of rising high school juniors and seniors.

The clinic provides 12 hours of instruction and personal guidance with key aspects of college planning, including college searching/matching, essay development and editing, career/major planning and assessment, financial aid guidance, model campus tours and interview preparation, and more. After completing the clinic, each participant will be far ahead of many of his or her classmates with much of the work of applying to college complete or solidly begun. Parents are invited to attend the financial aid and scholarship class meeting.

At the conclusion of the sessions each participant will receive a detailed, personalized report with college matches, the student’s edited essay draft, the college major assessment report, a point-by-point college planning timeline, financial aid and scholarship recommendations, and more.

Dr. Ransdell launched her education consulting practice, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC, in 2007 in the Denver area.  Lisa works with all kinds of students, sharing with each insight from her 20-year career as a higher education administrator and 28-years as a college faculty member (ongoing). She is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, and the Denver-Boulder BBB.

Lisa’s past clients are attending or headed to schools like the University of Denver, the University of Colorado, the University of Chicago, Gonzaga University, the University of Southern California, Villanova University, Louisiana State University, the University of Oregon, and many more excellent colleges. The summer clinic is very affordable and offers phenomenal value and terrific benefits to participants and families.

For info/to register:                   303-635-6620

Campus tour at UC Berkeley

Cost of College in Colorado

If one digs deeply enough, there are some interesting data out there that are quite telling with respect to the true cost of college in Colorado. By carefully comparing precisely the same data points, it is possible to make a more meaningful comparison than one can get from the confusing sets of statistics thrown at families in many financial aid information sessions during campus visits.

For the following I went on the College Board website, and looked at the published information associated with cost and financial aid for several Colorado institutions. In particular, I chose to examine tuition, room and board; average percentage of need met; average amount of need-based scholarships and grants (assistance that doesn’t require repayment later); and average indebtedness at graduation.  Here is what I found for several key institutions for 2011:


  • TRB = $20,430
  • % need met = 90%
  • S&G = $7393
  • Grad debt = $22,683


  • TRB = $17,214
  • % need met = 73%
  • S&G = $10,114
  • Grad debt = $19,523

CO Mesa U

  • TRB = $15,205
  • % need met = 59%
  • S&G = $4460
  • Grad debt = NR


  • TRB = $16,373
  • % need met = 61%
  • S&G = $2097
  • Grad debt = NR

Ft Lewis

  • TRB = $13,602
  • % need met = 67%
  • S&G = $3884
  • Grad debt = $18,780

Colorado College

  • TRB = $50,450
  • % need met = NR
  • S&G = NR
  • Grad debt = NR

University of Denver

  • TRB = $48,273
  • % need met = 82%
  • S&G = $22,695
  • Grad debt = NR

Regis University

  • TRB = $31,188
  • % need met = 79%
  • S&G = $20,392
  • Grad debt = NR


One general observation is that there are some real educational bargains available in the state. The winner among the publics for percent of need met was CU-Boulder at 90%. The winner among the privates for the same measure was DU at 82%. Given the far higher cost of attendance at DU, however, this outcome translates into many fewer actual dollars.

I was impressed with the schools that disclosed everything, so hats off to CU, CSU and Ft. Lewis, and a big raspberry for CC, our most expensive institution, which discloses nothing.  Draw your own conclusions as to what might be revealed if they did share their info. I thought CSU looked darn good when their average need-based scholarship and grant amount was deducted from the tuition, room and board charges: $7100, the best outcome among all the schools. Regis looked darn good from this measure as well, coming out at $10,796, far better than DU at $25,578.

Of course this tells us nothing about what might be offered to the most desirable students by way of non-need-based offers; this can be potentially significant, but also highly variable.  So do your homework, and carefully scrutinize those financial aid award letters!

Who Should Apply for Financial Aid?

Who should apply for financial aid for college you ask?

Simple answer: Absolutely every college-bound student! Some families assume they won’t qualify, and miss out as a result of an unfortunate, mistaken assumption. It is important to know that there are some sources of aid, like PLUS loans, that are not related to need, and there are some surprising income exemptions that you may be unaware of. Go for it; all you risk wasting may be some time, since completing and filing the required FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) form costs nothing.

What types of aid are available?

For those who do qualify, what options are available? Pell grants, other state grants, Perkins loans, Stafford loans (subsidized and unsubsidized), funds made available from colleges themselves (increasingly available), other private sources for scholarships, and more! Work Study is regarded as a form of financial aid, so to be considered for this type of on-campus employment you must also file a FAFSA.

The FAFSA can be filed after Jan 1 (the best and fastest way is to apply online), so the time is nigh. For some solid comprehensive information on financial aid, see the Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid site, which features great tools, like EFC (estimated Family Contribution) calculators:

The photo below is of my groovy, sweet new foster dog, Shaboo, pictured on the University of Denver campus, while out on a walkie.  Shaboo isn’t applying for college or for financial aid, but you should! To check Shaboo’s adoption availability, see


Is College Tuition Overpriced?

Two days ago I returned to Denver from having toured several selective midwestern private liberal arts colleges with one of my student clients. Each school is on the small side (averaging 2000 students or less), each has a reputation as a fine institution, with multiple factoids of distinction, such as freshman retention rates, graduation rates, percent employed after graduation, etc., and three were even profiled in that overly-touted 2006 tome Colleges That Change Lives.

Two of the four institutions charged students in the current (2010-11) first-year class just under $50,000 for tuition, room, board and fees, and two charged about $52,000. Are these charges worth it in terms of quality of experience and value of degree? Are they worth generating debt that will trail behind graduates and their families for years, perhaps decades to come? I think not, and I’m far from being the only college commentator who thinks so.

Many higher education journalists and bloggers observe that college costs have exceeded the inflationary spiral of health care costs in the U.S., and some forecast a course reversal that will rival what followed after the recent mortgage-bank crisis and consequent recession. So what will stop the craziness? Families that refuse the hype and demand accountability for fees, and students who agree to attend the best college that their parents (and they themselves) can reasonably afford.

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice given by one financial aid expert whom I recently heard at a public forum. He suggested that parents and students have an open talk about what is affordable well before a college list is assembled. Students can apply wherever they wish, within reason, but attendance is predicated on the total cost of attendance quoted by colleges after all discounting from grants, awards, and scholarships is reviewed.

The smart and talented student-client (a junior) who accompanied me on the trip hales from a regular middleclass Colorado family, and she has a sibling who will likely begin college during her third year of attendance. If costs continue to increase I am certain that she will be facing $60,000 in fees at the kind of college she hopes at attend, and her parents will have a dual burden for at least two years. I plan to advise her to apply widely, both in-state and out, and to seriously consider her best offers only. If this posture becomes the norm, colleges will need to take note, and adjust their pricing accordingly.

Great Financial Aid Resource

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.

I recently attended an excellent presentation on financial aid at Smoky Hill High School presented by college money guru Frank Palmasani. Frank’s background includes work as a high school counselor and college director of admissions. These days he privately works with families and spends time making free presentations around the country to help parents understand the ins and outs of college financial planning.

Palmasani is a dynamic presenter, and he manages to cover a lot in a relatively short amount of time. One great piece of info that I gleaned is that many colleges are about to launch Net Cost Estimators on their websites that will make costs and expected family contributions much more transparent than in the past. The technology was demonstrated with the version to be used by local Regis University, which was clear and simple, and should help many families understand better what they are getting into by way of college costs. Here is a look at the Regis estimator:

Those who haven’t had the opportunity to hear Frank in person can check out his superb website and amass a ton of information and tips, including many from a series of detailed videos:


Appealing Financial Aid Decisons

Right now many students are getting responses to their college applications as well as financial aid offers. In the current economic context, comparing financial aid packages is a critical aspect of making decisions on where to attend.

Official awards are not necessarily the final word on what a school might be willing to provide to an accepted student beyond standard and automatic awards like federal grants.  This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (April 29, 2011) features a great piece on appealing aid awards. Here is a summary of suggestions, both my own and from the article:

  • Anyone has the right to appeal, and you SHOULD appeal if there has been a material change in your circumstances since filing the FAFSA or CSS Profile, such as job loss or reduction, unexpected medical expenses, etc.
  • If you feel your situation doesn’t readily fit the aid-calculation formula used by the college, by all means explain in detail why this isn’t the case. For example, if the college’s formula utilizes home equity, and home values are skewed in your area, this could be reason for another look.
  • The above types of circumstances may be even more likely to tip the balance if your child is a strong applicant and possesses traits that are of interest to the college.
  • Make sure you’ve taken the trouble to get your facts straight. Don’t base the appeal on federal financial aid methodology if the school uses it’s own, for example.
  • DON’T approach financial aid as you would buying a home or a car, where you dicker and try and beat the system, especially if you actually can afford to pay. Appeals committees will be irritated and feel you are wasting their time. Remember, this is an appeal, not a negotiation.
  • DO be polite and observe the niceties of correspondence with the institution, as in addressing letters to the full name and title of the person who signed the award letter.
  • Finally, remember that the classic way of approaching getting the best deal (since merit aid appeared on the scene some 20 years ago) is to compare the relative costs of attendance contrasted with offers of aid from several institutions.  For most families this will rank high as a deciding factor.

Best of Luck!


Battling the High Cost of College

I’ve seen several pieces in educational media recently that suggest that a backlash may be brewing among middle class families in reaction to the exorbitant cost of many selective colleges. This nascent movement isn’t necessarily forming in reaction to the Ivy League tier of schools, which will always attract applicants no matter their cost, but more in response to the next tier of private institutions across the U.S.

A small subset of the schools now costing upwards of $50K for the total yearly cost of attendance include Bates, Carleton, Colorado College, Hamilton, Johns Hopkins, Pomona, Stanford, Swarthmore, Vassar, Washington University (SL), Williams, and many, many more….

There are many wonderful colleges across the U.S. that offer an excellent education at reasonable prices, as well as those that are consistently generous with aid and discounting offers.  Independent educational consultants can help families identify schools and enrollment arrangements that can significantly reduce the cost of attendance, and equally important, student debt after graduation. As a consultant from a working class background who was a first generation college student I am especially sensitive to such concerns, and I strive to keep my own fees at a reasonable levels, with special group discounts, pro bono clients, and offers to assist local high schools with college planning for free. My own summer college planning clinic is just such an effort, with dramatically reduced rates for students participating in an eight week, 16-hour college coaching class: (click on the “summer clinic” page).

Click here to see a pretty cool viral video out of Canada (apparently similar problems abound there) that gets to the heart of the student debt lament: the Student Poverty Song.  It’s pretty catchy and has great visuals:


Financial Aid and Recession

College bound high school seniors, their parents, and college officials are typically anxious at this time of year regarding admission decisions, aid packages, and what colleges call “yield,” which is the size of the incoming freshman class after offers are made, accepted and declined.  Due to the deepening recession, this season those anxieties are significantly magnified.

Here is a quick overview of what national education sources are saying about the status of financial aid for college in 2009, along with some tips for making the best of the situation. Happily, there is actually some good news despite the gloomy economic picture at present!

 Good News:

The best news is that federally funded student loans are secure and have been affirmed by recent congressional legislation; in fact, funding has been expanded somewhat. This applies to Stafford loans, Perkins loans and PLUS loans.

 Many families will qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit included in the recently passed stimulus package, a potential credit of $2500.

 Colleges are aware of and concerned about the ability of families to afford the cost of higher education in the current climate.  As a result, most are trying to contain costs (60% of U.S. colleges have hiring freezes at present), striving to limit the extent of tuition increases, and in some cases, attempting to increase institutional aid packages.

 Not Such Good News:

Private college loans are now much harder to come by and carry less desirable terms than in the past.  These have been affected in much the same way as other forms of credit, unlike federal student loans, which are guaranteed by the government.  

 The continued stability of federal grants, such as Pell grants, may be tenuous, as more families are now eligible given the drop in net worth for most Americans.  While increased eligibility is positive, it is also possible that the unanticipated increase in demand will negatively affect the availability and the size of future grants.

 Virtually all colleges provide aid on their own, based on unmet need as well as merit.  Given the particular strains faced by public institutions that rely on state funding, and different strains faced by private colleges (in the form of decreased donations and diminished endowments), institutional award packages may not match what students have been offered in the past.

 Tips for maximizing aid in the present environment: apply early, shop around for the best offers and packages, appeal award decisions whenever circumstances change, and definitely ask about the financial health of the institution when visiting campus.  Also beware of financial aid scams in the present environment.  Check out “too good to be true” private offers with the financial aid office at your college.  Also check into the background of private entities that promise to secure questionable levels of aid.