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Road2College and College Shortcuts Interview

College Admissions

The blog post below is a rough transcription of the video above - so please listen to the video if possible - otherwise, here is what was in the video:

Neha: Hi, everyone this is Neha Gupta founder of College Shortcuts. Very excited to have you guys on for this episode of College Shortcuts TV. I'm really excited because I really love Debbie. Debbie is doing some incredible work here in the space of helping parents specifically around how to pay for college. You know so many people are noticing that there's a lot of costs, you know more than ever before when it comes to the college process. It's something I think most parents, they think about but they don't always know how to communicate that or how to talk to their kids about it. But it's something that's keeping parents up at night. I'm really excited to have Debbie on here today so we can talk a little bit about what it is she's doing and what we are doing together to help make parents lives easier around the globe. So welcome Debbie to our show.

Debbie: Thanks so much for inviting me. I'm excited to talk.

Neha: Awesome! So, Debbie what I'd love to do is just explain a little bit about what you do and some of the active groups you manage. I mean you have. I love the group. I'm in it all the time. I mean it's always in my news feed. So, if you could share a little bit about that, that would be amazing.

Debbie: Sure. Well I started, actually my background is in, I've been in financial services for many years and that's kind of where I grew up, that was my career. I took some time off to actually you know raise my own kids, although some of them are still home, I went back few years ago and did some consulting work. It was actually work with student lenders and it was very coincidental at the same time my oldest daughter was going through college admissions. So, I started to see this whole process not just to how you handle the application but how you handle how to pay for college from all angles. The schools and what information they were providing, from my own friends and parents and not understanding the process. Then the loan companies and it was just a whole mess. So, I started really helping to communicate to parents what they needed to know from a kind of paying for college standpoint. Also, it's like the intersection of pure admissions and understanding how something, how are you going to pay for college. You know it really communicated at everything people needed and then along the way, because I love social media and I love kind of connecting with people. I started a Facebook group, which has kind of created its life of its own. It's called "Paying for College 101". The goal is again really to reach parents as early as possible because that's one of the keys here, and helping them understand the process of the financial aid of paying for college of how you search for merit scholarships. You know what the beauty of Facebook group is that you can kind of have a constant dialogue. You know all day long. We can post information. People can ask questions. Other people can provide their own experience. There are professionals in the group who provide you know their answers. It's a great you know learning space.

Neha: Absolutely. I love posting in there too. Sometimes people ask questions and I'm like "Oh my god!" I have to help. It's really hard not to help because you're like "Oh my god this parent really is confused." So, what I would love for us to do today is because I know I'll be sharing this with our audiences and just make sure all parents are up to speed about what it is that we're doing. Can you tell me maybe what is one of the biggest issues you're seeing in your field of the financial side of things? What is the big thing that you're seeing that keeps you up at night or makes you frustrated about how this whole process works?

Debbie: Sure. Well I actually kind of touched on it a little bit and it's that people don't start early enough. You probably you know you hear that the whole aspect of college admissions. I mean I could see that same thing really related to you know filling out their applications. You know in all those areas it kind of hurts, because if you don't start early enough, you're always behind the eight-ball but particularly in you know financially space. You lose opportunities when you don't start early enough because you know there are certain deadlines that happen. There's certain date that pass that you can't kind of roll back and redo. That's kind of the hard part is when somebody kind of either comes into the group and they're later on in the process. You know do there are things we can help with and give advice, but your kind of like you know your stomach turns, you just want to say "Oh my gosh I wish I could talk to you. Two years ago."

Neha: Yes

Debbie: You would have been a much better situation.

Neha: So this is fascinating because this is the same thing we have to where you know like we feel like the college admissions process starts a lot earlier. It's so hard to watch. I'll talk with sophomore parents, 10th grade parent, They're like "Oh we've got so much time to think about that. Neha, we don't have to think about the essay. We don't have to think about the schools really or like what they're really wanting. We don't have to think about internships." Then I get the dreaded call around November of 12th grade and they still have another S.A.T. to take. When they've been listening to everything we have been telling them to start early, to start early, to start early. We even incentivize by giving them like thousands of dollars off on some of our packages to start early. We see it year after year. I got an e-mail actually recently from a parent, the night before the early decision deadline for Harvard, a student wanted to go to Harvard. It's Saturday at 7:00 at night and I get an e-mail that's like "Oh my god can you check this essay." You know this that and the other and its tough right. We care so much about what we do but we also need to set you know the realistic deadlines of what needs to be happening. First of all, you really shouldn't be submitting the date before. Apps crash, websites crash, common app crashes guys, you know. So, it's one of those things where the common app prompts come out 7 to 8 months in advance. So, let's talk a little bit about deadlines. In my space for everyone that's watching may not know I own a company obviously called College Shortcuts. The shortcut to getting another college of your dreams. We help students from the application process. Find their unique narrative in the application process. What's going to make them stand out over to next to them. What is their story? Help them with the essays, resume, everything. There's certain deadlines that are really important. You know when it comes to a 10th grader, you've got to be thinking about mentorship and a little into the test prep space. You know by junior year it is game on. The whole process is started by senior year. Honestly you should really be applying August, September and just kind of be done with it. If you are really following the schedule to the "T" of what needs to happen. If as a parent you're running the ship to make sure that you know when these deadlines are. I think most parents forget that the deadlines for early decision are October beginning November. Early action is in November and then December 1st. Regular decision is January 1st, February 1st.

Debbie: Really from October to December. There's not that much time you know because

Neha: The holidays

Debbie: The students also have their regular school work so it's not like they can work on this every day. You know they have to still do their regular school work in activities and then carve it out either at night or on the weekends.

Neha: Most of them don't want to. That's the truth of it. I mean most of them don't want to be packing it all in at the end. But they don't think about that when they're in it. I tell parents a lot, I don't know if you talk about this a lot, but so if you look at it from a neuroscience standpoint. I'm a total nerd as most people know. I went to Rice University, triple major like "Spoke in my high school class. I was that brown kid." If you look at it from a scientific standpoint just the data. Teenager's pre-frontal cortex they're not formed. So, if you think that these are all the places where you decide. You make decisions, you think about a vision. You have long-term thinking. These are the things us adults we have but teenagers don't fully have that. Yet, when we ask them questions like "Hey have you worked on your essay or hey what are you doing with your scholarship applications and responses?" "Oh, I'm getting to it." They can't think that deadline is only four weeks or six weeks. Wait they just don't even scientifically have that fully in them. I mean I've seen top students. It's painful to watch. I see top students that totally messed up this whole process. Just because they're perfectionist. They're trying to re-overdo the work and in reality they can get it done way early. So, I love that you're dealing. I don't love it but I love that you feel the same sentiment of not starting early problem. So, in your space, can you talk a little bit about the deadlines on that site?

Debbie: Sure sure. Well I mean actually to that point when I started you know trying to educate people. I purposely tried to communicate to parents because I wanted to get them on board. There's always this tension between you don't want to get kids all riled up you know. It's only about college and I agree and I get that, but I think it's important for parents to kind of understand the whole landscape so that they're kind of ahead of the students.

Neha: Right, and not overwhelmed because I could easily you know put on some snapchat filters and make this all focus on the teenager. But in the end I think it's the parents that really need to be taking lead and taking more focus in this process. I do believe you know and I agree with you. I don't think it should all be for the college applicant. That's not what I advocate either. I think it's about finding your passion. Finding meaningful experiences. I was just at lunch with a good friend of mine who runs a program that helps students to get immersed overseas in these incredible experiences. I said you know I remember that as a teenager. I remember that experience and I remember how incredible it was that I wrote essays about it and how it changed me for life. So, at College Shortcuts, our goals to make sure that we find a way to package all that beautifully at the end. But you can't just shove all that senior year into an application. These are things that have to happen. You know as early as ninth grade where they have these incredible experiences and then we get to talk about it at the end.

Debbie: Exactly, exactly but going back to your question about deadlines from a financial standpoint. This actually happened last year where the government changed some of the processes for financial aid. Your first year of financial aid in college is actually based on taxes from two years prior.

Neha: Can you say that one more time for everybody?

Debbie: Sure, so actually there's maybe a better way of saying it. Fall of senior year parents and students fill out the financial aid applications and that's for money. That's going to be for them for their freshman year of college. Those applications in senior year are based on taxes from two years prior.

Neha: What was the rule before that?

Debbie: The rule before that is that financial aid forms were based on taxes from one year prior.

Neha: Correct!

Debbie: It's always a little bit tricky for parents because you're talking about school year versus tax year. You know they don't line up completely. So, what that means is for first year of taxes is what they call the base year. That's the first year that financial aid information is based on. That really starts in January of sophomore year. Now we're talking about tax year.

Neha: Right!

Debbie: So January sophomore year to December of junior year. That's your first tax year that your financial aid is going to be based on. So think about that. That's January sophomore year. You can't start learning about financial aid then. You really need to know it a year before. If there's a chance that you need to make changes or you need to make changes to you know how income might be received and things like that, you're going to want to know that the year before freshman year.

Neha: That's freshman year.

Debbie: Yeah!

Neha: So how many people would you say Debbie or overall? Have you noticed a lot of parents that do not know this information?

Debbie: I do not blame them because there's two major things going on. One is, this scenario is called it's the you don't know what you don't know.

Neha: Of course.

Debbie: Who is going to tell you this? Unfortunately, you know schools usually focus on what's right in front of them too. They're focusing on seniors and then not necessarily you know starting with the families that are first coming into high school telling them this is what you need to know.

Neha: Right! I do this all the time. People are like "You really hate on schools or you really hate on counselors." So, it's like "Oh I don't hate them. I think their job is very hard." I mean, I don't deal with 800 students in my agency. That would be intense if I was the one human doing that. So, it's clear our system is broken in the sense that we have all of these expectations for one institution. To be able to give you all of this information. You know you have to be resourceful. To me, I mean that change is a massive change and it's something you can't change senior year. Like your kids’ senior, you can't be like "Oh I'm going to see if I could change that like 'no'. There's no way you can make any changes at that point."

Debbie: Exactly, exactly so most times people come into the financial aid process. You know that senior.

Neha: Senior year like fall semester because we get those two.

Debbie: It's a done deal. I mean you can move around assets. That is one thing you can move till the end but you're not fooling with your taxes at that point. You have to go with what you have to go and at least at that point when you start maybe learning. The only years you can impact are junior year and senior year of college.

Neha: Totally, so I mean I noticed in your your group Paying for College 101 and just so for everyone that is listening. My group is called Parents of High School Juniors and Seniors. So, we talk a lot about the admissions staff and all that sort of jazz. Debbie's group is called Paying for College 101. These are great Facebook groups to get added to. Totally free where you get tons of resources and you get to be part of groups of these amazing parents around the world. Here you know to feel like you're part of a community around this topic because so many people feel like there are these little silos and isolated but your story, your problems are very similar to other people. It feels good when you know "Hey I'm not the only mom or dad really struggling with this." What would you say? You know I see a lot of stuff about the FAFSA in your group a lot.

Debbie: Well yes well particualrly now we're still in October. So, October 1st was the day that it was available to be filled out. So definitely we've had a lot of you know talk about FAFSA. We're starting to have talked about this CSS profile form because you know if you're applying to. It's a little over 200 schools that asked you to fill out that additional form. That one actually unfortunately even more complicated than FAFSA. FAFSA shouldn't be that complicated if you know you have just you know regular financial situations. The CSS profile asks for more information. So, it's cumbersome and you know having been in the financial services world before, I know and I appreciate that people don't like numbers. They don't want to deal with finances. You know it's kind of all these difficult topics coming together. So yes, this is definitely you know a lot to talk about. I will tell you I can predict this. Now we've kind of been through in the group discussion for like a year or so. That March, April, May will all be about the financial aid offers that have come in and what does that mean and how do you compare which one is better. June, July and August it will all be about loans and how am I going to actually pay for that. So, you know definitely this year-round chunks of topics that are going to pop up.

Neha: Of course. So, I guess my question is in terms of you know the entire financial side of things and being in your industry. You know for us we see things. So, some of the red flags as I call it, I call it the red flags in my industry. Like when parents are looking for college consultants and they don't compare like apples to apples. So, for example like the to look for a local person and not to say local person is bad but like sometimes we'll just look for a local person who maybe works with one or two students a year. Just doesn't have a side gig. Compared to a company College Shortcuts where we've got like Ivy League teams. Really cool  people that are part of the company. We've done it for over 12 years. Just amazing work that we've been doing. Do you see that in your industry as well where someone will look at another company or another organization of some sort that you're like "This is not the same as what we do."

Debbie: To some extent, I think that the whole space about professionals helping figuring out how to pay for college. There are definitely very good professionals and then there are some I have to say are more questionable. The thing that's really hard is that there is no licensing test. You know that somebody there's no three initials after your name. That's going to tell you that person is you know is qualified to really help you. So, a lot of people don't even know the qualifications that they really need to have somebody you know helping in the space.

Neha: That's scary.

Debbie: I mean I said to look for somebody who has personal financial planning experience who absolutely understands financial aid system. To some extent actually also understands a little bit. It would be more than a little bit but has a good knowledge of college admissions. You're not necessarily going to be the person like you are to help with the whole application process. There is definitely an overlap between admissions and paying for college. That overlap comes with what are the policies that you're going to apply to that.

Neha: That was the next thing I want to talk about. On the financial side of things. Tell me a little bit about how. So, you do look at the college list because for example I was at a college fair recently and it was quoted Duke's First-Year 72,000 as a first-year tuition. That's a very pretty penny. Oh, my goodness! So, you know I mean unless you've got you know unlimited funds which some people do just fine. How do you handle these types of conversations around the school's list and around financial aid? I think this is the thing that really keeps my parents up at night. Out of all the parents we talked to.

Debbie: Well let me just say one thing that you mentioned. I personally think that this whole sky rocketing process college affects families and social economic levels.

Neha: I agree with you. I think it's insane. I mean look it's doubled since I went to college but Rice now versus what it was when I went. It's literally 100 percent. I mean that's a whole another bucket of worms we could get into. Let's steer clear of that. I'm in total agreement that you know it is expensive. So, these are what I call delicate conversations that are happening around finances going to college that you really want to. From the teenager's perspective or majoring in something that.

Debbie: Yes!

Neha: May not pay for the bills later. So, tell me a little bit around that topic from your perspective. I'm curious on you know how are those delicate conversations handled?

Debbie: Well I think that parents between you know whether they're single or a father and mother need to kind of come together and really decide how much do they have that can go towards college. Either hopefully they saved or they can figure out from their own daily income and budget that maybe they cut back but they really need to kind of do that work I think before they come and sit down with their students. That's working point that they can go, go from. So, if they have an understanding of what they're willing to contribute to a school, to college and then you start to look at they should sit down or look with their student as to what's that student academic profile. What are their hopes and desires.

Neha: Yes! They should and honestly this is something that they could probably doing 10th grade even though they might not have those test scores.

Neha: Of course!

Debbie: You can start to look at the schools that you know you think you heard of. That you might like to look at just and then go to the websites run the net price calculators. That's a calculator that every college is mandated to have on their website.

Neha: That's a great tip, everyone did you hear that? Net price calculator that's a big one. I don't think most of my audience even know that.

Debbie: Right and then you know they're not 100 percent accurate but they will start to give you a whole part. The go again to start to give you something to use for discussion points. You know if you go to a school that you might you see your child you're interested in. You run that net price calculator, you see what that cost is going to be for you and for your family. It's not something you can handle. Now the conversations start because it can go into different directions depending on the type of school. Especially if you start this in 10th grade. You might say to your student this is what the school's going to cost us but potentially this school might cost us less. Depending on how you do on tests. You know on SAT and ACT. If you want that conversation in 10th grade they have a direction in which they're going. They have a goal and then there's time to potentially reach that goal. You start looking at cost and having that conversation after all their test preparation and the test taking is done.

Neha: Totally!

Debbie: I mean you just have the conversation but you just won't have the different possibilities that you can work from there. Again, the story is done. You can't necessarily change the academic profile. Instead you might have to start looking at different schools so there's lots of pieces to this conversation.

Neha: Yeah!

Debbie: I think it's again should start early. You don't have to finish the conversation early but you just start having it so that students know how much their parents can contribute. They have a sense of what schools are going to cost. They might have known what they want to reach from testing’s and GPA standpoint. As they get closer you start refining.

Neha: Absolutely, so what I would love to do and I know this is such a large conversation. It's a beautiful conversation you have in your Facebook group with a lot of parents really just shipping in and chiming in on a almost hour to hour basis. Guys it's phenomenal. You know I've been talking with Debbie through e-mail we've kind of connected a few times. You know I love her work and I what I would love for us to do is to kind of let parents know how we're serving families. Debbie do you mind sharing? You know I'll share some of mine at the end but I would love for to share. What are the ways for parents from free all the way through paid that you offer to get the help that they absolutely need?

Debbie: Sure, well free starts with a ton of content on our website which is actually called Road to College. A ton of content that is shared in the Facebook group besides you know content that we write ourselves. We share a ton of information because there's a lot of good information out there. So, we post that to the group and obviously all conversations that are happening is good information. So that's great free stuff. My goal is really to help the parents who are really in the middle. They may not necessarily end up working one on one with somebody from a financial standpoint. They don't necessarily have the time to put this all together. So, they need a little support in the middle. So, everything that we have is very very reasonably priced. We're kind of adding more to it. So, starting you know low, we just did two webinars which were $9.99. One was for FAFSA for people to understand what they had to fill out. What the issues were. There's always a lot of questions related to what assets should be included but they shouldn't be included. We spent actually we had two. Each one was probably an hour and half so it's three hours’ worth of webinars and two downloads. All about all the information you need, all the possible questions that could be asked for $9.99.

Neha: So just to clarify that's nine dollars and ninety-nine cents? I mean that's less than an entree people.

Debbie: That's exactly what I said. I said it's the cost of a hoagie and a drink

Neha: That's awesome!

Debbie: We just want to make it.

Neha: You want to help totally.

Neha: Got it

Debbie: So that's you know one thing. Same thing we just finished up a webinar, same kind of format where the CSS profile went step-by-step. You know how to fill up the form. There's some changes this year particularly related to divorced parents. We have a ton of questions that are probably cover 95% of the possible questions you could ask.

Neha: Yes

Debbie: So same thing that's $9.99 and we're adding more and more of those types of really reasonably priced. You know webinars and recordings that just take a chunk of this process and really explain it to you. Really give you the resources and walk to the resources of what that's all about. Moving a little higher up is we are running a course which in the past has been a little bit more one-on-one but it's probably going to move to more of an email course and that's probably around $99. That kind of covers everything from A to Z. If you want to get your hands around everything related to the financial aid process. Paying for college you know how to compare loans and how to find the schools that are giving you the most money. That's going to cover it all. Then the next thing is really what I call a custom college money list. So, in all the other pieces, we're giving you the information, we're giving you the resources. If you want to do the research on your own. You know we curate it. We vetted it and we've made it easy for you to have it all. Sometimes people just still don't have the time or don't feel comfortable. They want us to do it. At that point we can create a custom college money list and it's really a list of 50 to 60 schools that your child has the highest likelihood of getting either need base or

Neha: Phenomenal and how much is that?

Debbie: That's $149

Neha: Wonderful! Awesome! Do you see a lot of parents wanting the done-for-you service?

Debbie: Yes, again, sometimes they come to it a little late.

Neha: Got it of course. I totally get that. Yeah, I know the number of seniors that are like "Oh God it hurts." Totally, that's amazing! So, the reason why I really love highlighting this is because a lot of parents ask us at College Shortcuts "Hey did you walk through the FAFSA?" All the stuff and we're like "No I'm not a financial-based planner."

Debbie: You know what my parents should understand is that everybody has different skill sets. I don't think we're quite honest. This is not you know to put down. I don't think that there's a person who has the skill set to really help you craft an essay, or help you with test prep, or help you fill out the application and understand the financial aid side and understand personal finance implications. That's just a lot!

Neha: I agree, I recently got a call from a mom. Well can't the test prep coach just interview, prep my kid. I'm like "No!" No, that test prep coach has no personality to do that. They're like "What are you talking about?" " Oh just 15 minutes in the session." I'm like "No, that is not how you get into Harvard dude." Like we have to have the right person. Let me give you the Ivy League consultant that can do that for you. This is what it is and they're like "That's a lot! Why should we do that?" Because it's different people with different skill sets. Like for us our team that does essay editing is not the same person as the person that's getting to know that unique narrative. The passion of that child. These are two different people. The person that does test prep is completely different. The kid who got a perfect score of the SAT is not always going to be able to do all these other pieces. Just like the financial planner. I mean, I don't sit there and study all this stuff all the time. I don't claim to get into that kind of work because I know that when I love delivering where I feel that the best I can deliver love and passion and expertise. That's what I like to focus on. You know so I love that you're offering these different price points. We do the same at College Shortcuts everybody of course got. If you go to, we've got five to six online courses. Ranging from $97 to $499 all do it yourself programs. You know you want to do it yourself and make a T-shirt. Same thing to yourself get into college. We've got those courses. Of course, we've got done-for-you services. We've even started to offer early bird discounts for parents that want to start early.

Debbie: Exactly that's a great idea.

Neha: You know they should have a reward. I like to reward the parents that plan early because it lets us know as a company we get to work with your kid early. Which means now we have as much impact as possible. I run and where we basically do tutoring, test prep, and then we help kids get into college. We even offer an essay review at a very discounted rate where someone will literally go line by line and edit to final draft with the student, like handle up for them. So, I think it is a lot of great things here for parents on the financial side and on the admissions side where if they looked into the resources early on and got their space reserved. They really know early what they need to be doing especially on the financial side and that's huge.

Debbie: It's nice to have an a la carte choice of different services.
It can fit different families at different economic levels. Sometimes also different skill sets and parents might be very comfortable helping this part of the process. They're not as good with helping to edit essays.

Neha: Of course

Debbie: They can pick and choose where they want.

Neha: That's what I love to. I'm all about the buffet. I mean if people saw the man I ate. They'd be floored that a little brown 5'1 girl can eat as much as I do. But I'm not personally the buffet line. It's just like "I'll have Asian, Mexican, Indian" So, my theory is look you want a little test prep for me also. You want my essay editor? Great like we will customize exactly what it is that you're truly needing. We'll figure out based on your budget which program will do well for you. My theory is no matter what if you haven't sat there and gotten hundreds of kids into college. You might make a few mistakes. This is not the time you want to make mistakes. So, Debbie I'm so glad that you were on here today. It's been such a pleasure being in your group. I love posting sometimes I am like "I don't know what to post and when to post" because you know she's got what I call a very lively discussion. It's phenomenal to see in the college space. You don't see parents getting this collaborative. If I may say.

Debbie: I'm so glad you used this word. You really feel great about the group. People truly support and help other people.

Neha: It's awesome

Debbie: We really honestly don't have that much where I have to kind of say delete anything.

Neha: Right, all these people don't know and then they're "Oh okay got it." Sometimes people just need to know and the same with parents of high school, juniors and seniors. So, I need parents that are listening to have a high school junior and senior just google in Facebook at the top of search bar. "Parents of high school, juniors and seniors" and then "Paying for College 101". These are two groups you want to be in because there's just a lot of collaboration. A lot of discussion and just a lot of great knowledge that you're going to get at a college counselor office or at that one general meeting at the beginning of the year. This is that real time what's going on in the industry. So, Debbie I'm so thankful to have you on here today. It has been absolutely a pleasure.

Debbie: Thanks for inviting me!

Neha: Absolutely. So, thanks everyone for watching. Definitely don't forget to sign up for for your shortcut to getting your kid into college. We send these incredible emails that people love to read. Of course, Debbie's website she's got some great stuff. Her website is very cool guys. It's at So, make sure to sign up there as well.

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