November 15, 2018


Paying for College, 2019 Edition: Everything You Need to Maximize Financial Aid and Afford College. By Kalman A. Chany, with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.

     This annual guide to college costs, now in its 27th year, was a lot more fun when it was called Paying for College without Going Broke. Well, not “fun,” exactly – it was never that – but the former title encapsulated the knowledge of college-financing consultant Kalman A. Chany that college costs are a huge strain on the budget of most families and need to be thought through very carefully so they do not torpedo the rest of a family’s financial life (including the parents’ retirement). The 2019 edition of what is now simply called Paying for College contains the same sort of straightforward advice and assistance as previous editions, including excellent line-by-line guides through the enormously thorny thicket of federal forms – notably FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), some of whose questions can be answered in various ways that will have different impacts on student financial assistance. There is similar detailed advice on handling the CSS PROFILE form – required by many selective colleges in addition to FAFSA. There are even 2017 versions of IRS forms 1040 and 1040-A in the back of the book, just to make the whole paying-for-college experience even less enjoyable.

     To be fair, Chany does not want to make college finances frustrating, difficult, time-consuming and overwhelming, but that is what they will be for most families. “Almost every family now qualifies for some form of assistance,” Chany asserts, and while that is a bit of an overstatement and over-simplification, it is true enough to make it worthwhile to use this book to find out if your family can indeed get assistance and, if so, how to go about getting as much as possible. Chany minces no words when it comes to the way a college financial aid officer (FAO) works: “He will be much more invasive than the IRS ever is, demanding not just your financial data but intimate details of your personal life such as medical problems and marital status. …The college FAOs don’t really want you to understand all the intricacies of the financial aid process.” Chany’s book is intended to show how parents, once they do understand the way an FAO operates, can use the rules to their advantage.

     Paying for College is not intended to turn parents into financial-aid experts. Its objective is to guide families to the circumstances discussed in the book that most closely resemble theirs, then show them how to use those circumstance as effectively as possible to maximize aid. Some of Chany’s advice applies to almost everyone: “If you have any hope of financial aid, never put money in the child’s name” (because colleges insist that lots of the funds held by a child be used to pay for schooling, far more than the percentage they insist parents contribute). And some of the information does apply to everyone: “Colleges now use the tax year two years before college begins…as their basis for deciding what you can afford to pay during freshman year.”

     Much of the material in Paying for College, however, is of the “it depends” type: its value depends on your family’s specific circumstances. For example, there are good reasons to file a Form 1040A or 1040EZ if IRS rules allow you to do so – even if an accountant says it is better to file a more-standard 1040. If you own a home, federal financial-aid methodology does not include its value in determining eligibility, nor do calculations at most state schools, but highly selective private colleges (and even some that are not as highly selective) do include it. And so on – and on and on. Yes, this gets extremely complicated, and Chany can simplify it only so far; in fact, the firm he founded, Campus Consultants, charges nearly $2,000 to help those who can afford it get through all the ins and outs of college financial aid, and he would have no business if all the complexity could be learned for $22.99. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be gained from Paying for College. Chany includes a chapter on what students themselves can do while parents wade through all the forms and numbers: take an SAT review course, take AP classes, plan to transfer to a desired college after spending two years at a less-expensive one, and more. He provides very helpful lists, such as one of state agencies that administer college aid and one of the different types of financial aid (with explanations of the pluses and minuses of each). And he delves into all sorts of pragmatic issues, such as what to do if you are divorced, separated or a single parent, and how to file an appeal if the FAO does not offer enough aid. The bottom line – an apt term to use when discussing money – is that Paying for College will not solve every family’s financial concerns and will not pre-empt the need for at least some families to seek help from Chany’s firm or a similar one in order to maximize college aid. For many families, though, Paying for College will be a highly useful guidebook showing what to look for, and what to look out for, when negotiating the morass of forms and requirements and tax laws and individual colleges’ quirks – and how to do all this without going broke.

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