How hiding money from colleges became a booming business

When it comes to lowering the price tag for college, some enterprising financial-aid consultants are finding that parents are willing to spend nearly any amount to try to save money. 

Tuition costs have risen to close to $90,000 a year at top private universities, and competition is pushing acceptance rates down to the single digits. This year has been particularly daunting because the opening of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid has been delayed until the end of December and colleges can’t finalize financial-aid packages without it, even for students with early admission. 

Cue the parental angst. And the checkbooks. 

“The big question when I started in this business was how will my child get in, and the question now is how will I pay for it,” says Jeff Levy, co-founder of Big J Education Consulting

There are all sorts of options available, depending on parents’ price point and level of desperation: concierge-like packages that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, hourly rate consultations, web courses and access to do-it-yourself software. Of course, there’s free help and information available, too. 

All the consultants are working with the same basic set of known facts about the financial-aid process, but those facts can be pretty opaque when you get down to the school level and how they deal with each applicant. But some tout experience as financial-aid counselors at universities, some have built data-crunching software and some have the kind of bedside manner that anxious parents need. On the purely financial side, plenty of certified financial planners and other financial consultants also offer college help. 

“There’s nothing in what they do that I don’t give away for free,” says longtime financial-aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, a prolific writer of articles about college financing and author of “How to Appeal for More Financial Aid.” and other books. “But they do the hand-holding,” he adds. 

How much can you afford?

Before you can figure out how much you can afford to pay for college, you have to first figure out how much you can pay for the help you need to make that decision. If you can’t afford anything, you can get free help from your child’s school, the government’s FAFSA helpline or various nonprofits. 

For a bit more than that, you can buy a book like Kantrowitz’s or Ron Lieber’s “The Price You Pay for College” for around $20. But Lieber found that after reading his book, people were still asking questions about the chase for merit scholarships, in particular, and wanted a deeper dive. So now he’s offering a $299 web course about the mechanics of merit aid

“A decent merit-aid package can shift the price of college by $100,000 or more,” Lieber says. He surmises that people who will pay $20 for a book containing general information will pay many times that amount for the specific information they need to save the big dollars.

Some parents are willing to pay 100 or even 1,000 times the cost of such a book for personalized levels of service. 

Levy charges $150 for a 30-minute consultation, and while most of his clients do not need more than an hour or so, some have a lot of questions and extend to a deeper engagement. A certified financial planner who specializes in college financial-aid planning might charge in the neighborhood of $300 an hour or more, or 1% of assets under management for clients with an ongoing relationship. Some services offer access to software and webinars, like, which charges $149 for a year of its starter package and $2,999 for full-service help. 

Jodi Okun, a financial-aid expert who has been in the business since 2008, charges $950 for a full-year engagement. Each year she works with a small group of families on their college selection process and on filling out the FAFSA and the CSS profile, a supplemental financial-aid form required by many private colleges. This year, she’s also offering 15-minute strategy sessions about the new FAFSA. 

“People are very confused about the new rules, especially if they have small businesses,” she says. 

Okun says her clients see all sorts of other offers on the web and ask her what’s different about her services. “There’s a lot of rabbit-holing on the internet,” she says. “One family said, ‘What do you think of this guy? We found him on Instagram.’ And I said, ‘I’m not clicking on a link. You can trust me. I’ve been in this business a lot of years.’” 

Concierge-style packages, which often include help with essays and ongoing strategy sessions, can run into the several thousands of dollars. A multiyear engagement can cost tens of thousands, especially if parents start when their child is at the beginning of high school in order to try to maximize extracurricular activities and high-school course selection. 

“They’ll take you by the hand in freshman or sophomore year of high school so you can begin to understand what you might qualify for,” Lieber says. 

Kantrowitz sees the only value here not in what’s become known as “chasing merit” — strategically applying to schools that might provide scholarships — but in helping families be realistic about college costs from the start. If consultants steer families toward less expensive schools, then they can save money overall. “The value could be in the form of preventing a really bad mistake,” he says. 

To give an example, he points to the elite University of Chicago, which has a total cost of attendance of $86,856 for the most recent academic year on his tracker. If a consultant steered the family instead to the nearby, less expensive University of Illinois Chicago, they could potentially save the family $40,000. 

On your own

What you can no longer get from any of these consultants is for them to fill out the FAFSA for you. The government is now requiring that parents themselves fill out the form and sign a statement to that effect. A consultant might sit nearby on a video call while you do it, but you can no longer pawn the task off on somebody else. 

“I’m sure they’ll continue to help, but just change things up,” says Kantrowitz. “They won’t tell people what to answer, but will still tell them how to maximize the answers and choose colleges where they will get more financial aid.” 

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