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Natural Awakenings Northwest Florida

Dollars for Scholars

Aug 03, 2015 03:50PM ● By By Thomas F. Masloski

The school year is about to start, and families with students heading to high school should really be preparing for college. Almost every day we hear about declining college acceptance rates, the rising cost of degrees for those that get in and the increasing burden of student loan debt.

Figures reported by National Center for Education Statistics ( indicate that even the big colleges in Florida average around 50 percent acceptance; then it takes an average of five-and-a-half years to get a degree, when most families don’t have the money to pay for four. Even the 41 percent of students that don’t complete their degree leave with a huge debt burden.

“The college experience seems to be shrouded in mystery for most families,” says Joe Nelson, of Roadmap to College Success. “There are thousands of college information websites, school counselors, books and meetings with college representatives, but students and families remain unprepared.” The outlook for prospective college students is not really that dismal and depressing if families are willing to begin preparing early.

According to Nelson, whose expertise is in college planning, “No matter what your financial situation, no matter what you don’t know about college, there are things families and students can do to improve the chances of getting a degree in four years or less and doing it with little or no student loan debt.” There are two shares to preparing for college, what the parents need to do and what the student needs to do.

The Students’ Share

In a word, planning. Students tend to think they can deal with problems when they crop up, but don’t realize that planning will stop the problems from occurring in the first place. For example, they should be considering hobbies, skills and abilities to help pinpoint their interests. They should take courses in those areas or volunteer for projects in line with those interests. Not only does this build confidence in the chosen course of studies, but it also opens up scholarship potential. Students need to make a serious effort to meet with professionals in those interest areas and they need to search out internships and scholarships offered by relevant associations and societies.

According to Nelson, it’s never too early to write 500-word essays to use for scholarship applications, rather than waiting until they are under pressure with a due date. When done in advance, English teachers and school counselors can help improve them.

Nelson advises students to research which colleges have better reputations in their interest area, getting the details of those they might be interested in attending, such as graduation percentage, acceptance percentage, average student debt load, number of years to graduate, career placement percentage and more. This is so critical that an associate of Nelson’s whose only business is college preparation maintains statistics on every college in the country.

The Parents’ Share

In a word, participation. It’s really up to parents that are aware of current and future family finances to deal with documents like the free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

Nelson explains to families which assets can increase their estimated family contribution (EFC) number and which don't. It’s important to get this ready early, because financial aid is distributed on a first-come-first-served basis, and it helps to be the first in line.

“Financial strategies should be in place early,” cautions Nelson on his website, “Some of them have to be completed before the high school student becomes a senior. Get assistance in preparing FAFSA and understanding the financial offers from the colleges. If your banker or financial advisor isn’t experienced in this area, a professional college consultant can save you many times their fee. Then you’ll be prepared to positively negotiate the colleges’ financial offers.”


To help students increase the chance of having a successful college career without going deep in debt, college planning expert Joe Nelson and Barbara Britt, a retired school teacher of 37 years, offer some tips and strategies.

Parent Tactics

  • Start the process now.
  • Schedule visitation trips to several colleges during the school year to review the campus.
  • Help the student get an internship in their area of interest
  • A FAFSA form, a very detailed report on all of investments and assets, is used to request financial aid. Complete and sent it in at the earliest time available to be first in line.
  • On the FAFSA, you need to report an EFC number (estimated family contribution). Nelson explains that some assets increase the EFC number and some don't.
  • Learn about scholarships, including how to apply and request financial aid from several colleges. Meet with their financial aid director to negotiate.
  • Have a savings strategy in place to pay for student loan debts when the student finishes college. This will yield at least four years to save and invest.

Student Tactics

  • Prepare intensely to get a high score on the ACT and SAT tests.
  • Be active in as many groups as possible at school and away from school. Colleges consider these activities when deciding admittance and offering aid.
  • Put in community service hours and log them. This also gets admittance and aid consideration.
  • Write 500-word essays as soon as possible.
  • Get recommendation letters.
  • Apply for every scholarship—millions of dollars go unclaimed.
  • Apply to at least five colleges to compare financial offers.
  • Applying to the biggest rival of the college of choice could be a negotiation tool later.
  • Consider smaller or lesser-known colleges that have good curricula in the chosen interest area. They may be less expensive and offer more aid.
Joe Nelson is director of Roadmap to College Success, in Destin. Contact him at 877-955-5025 or
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