Episode 23: Mark Strucker Shares Secrets of Going to Undergrad Debt Free

Mark Strucker is an educational consultant based in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s worked in boarding school admissions and then the college admissions space for 19 years. After working in the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, he founded School Match 4U, a full-service educational consulting company that helps future college students and their families with the college admissions process.

Learn how Mark’s educational consulting company works, what his advice is for getting good financial aid and his thoughts on the recent college admissions scandal.

In today’s episode, you’ll find out:

  • How Mark began working in the boarding school and college admissions space
  • Answers to common questions parents have when considering boarding school
  • College admissions counseling in public schools versus private or boarding schools
  • Mark’s four categories for helping families as an educational consultant
  • How to get a good aid package when applying to a school
  • What’s more important — a brand-name, prestigious school or educational value?
  • What percentage of students Mark sees take out student loans to fund their education
  • How retirement savings and home equity can affect financial aid
  • How future students can stand out to get merit money
  • Mark’s reaction to the college admissions scandal that surfaced in March 2019
  • How Mark believes college admissions will change in response to the scandal
  • How Mark’s full-service educational consulting company, School Match 4U, helps future college students and their families

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Episode 23 Transcript

Travis Hornsby [00:00:00]Welcome to another episode of the Student Loan Planner Podcast today. I have Mark Strucker with me today, and I’m really excited to get the voice of somebody who is trying to keep people out of debt on the front end before it happens. Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark Strucker [00:00:12] Thank you. Thank you, Travis.

How Mark began working in the boarding school and college admissions space

Travis [00:00:13] Maybe you can tell us a little bit more about you and what happened to get you into this space.

Mark [00:00:19] Well, I grew up in Canada — southern Ontario, south of Toronto. Both my parents are educators. I’m actually, like, fourth generation educator family. Went to Michigan State. And after that, I sort of thought I was going to be going into Christian ministry, so I spent a year in Chicago at the Moody Bible Institute. And I went down to Dallas Theological Seminary. Got a couple of master’s degrees — one in Biblical studies, one in theology. Took a little time off when I was there and spent a year doing college admissions in Dallas, Texas. And then I ended up coming back to Philadelphia for Christian ministry. And after doing it awhile, I just felt like education was my calling. I think my parents’ upbringing was calling me back. So I knew I was trying to get back into admissions and college-related work.

Mark [00:00:59] Our kids were enrolled — had two kids at the time, married. Forgot to throw that in there. Got married in 1991, had a couple kids and our oldest daughter was enrolled at a private K-12 school. I just got very, very actively involved with the school, and then they offered me an admissions job. So I started admissions in a boarding school, traveling all around the country and the world recruiting students. And then, because my college background, I started partnering with the Director of College Counseling, and I did college counseling simultaneous to doing boarding school admissions. And that was ’01 to ’09. And that’s really where I cut my teeth because I was doing selective admissions, and I was getting to do, like, the boarding school part was 97% similar to, like, a liberal arts selective admissions process. And by doing that while doing the college piece, I really learned the ropes pretty well there.

Mark [00:01:44] And then I ended up moving down to Atlanta [in] 2009. I accepted a job at the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, which are the nation’s largest charter school network, on the KIPP Through College team, helping people with both boarding school placement and college placement.

Mark [00:01:55] And then one year after doing that, a bunch of families I was working with said, “I’ve got a brother. I’ve got a sister. I’ve got a fraternity brother that’s coming to my church in my neighborhood who needs help. Would you consider working outside of the school network?” And I approached the school, and they were open to it as long as it didn’t diminish my work. So I started a company called School Match 4U in 2010. And we’re a full-service educational consulting company doing mostly college, 90 to 95%, and about 5% boarding.

Mark [00:02:23] And then in 2018, I started a podcast and wrote a book. But all — you may get into some of that stuff later.

Travis [00:02:29] Yeah, we will. Yeah. And just so listeners know, that’s 4 like the number and then ‘U’ like the letter ‘U,’ right?

Mark [00:02:37] Thank you! I’m usually the one that has to say that.

Travis [00:02:38] Yeah, no, it’s okay. So I did my research before we had Mark on the podcast. So one question I’ve got for you — this is might be a little weird — but boarding students, boarding school students, like, my first impression is just they’re rich, and they have rich families. Is that true or is that just totally fake?

Mark [00:02:51] It’s very similar to the colleges, right? So, it’s very similar to the selective colleges particularly. So if you were to think of how these selective colleges — Travis, of course, was on our show, and you spoke about schools like Vanderbilt and Emory. Those are schools that are really expensive, but those are also schools that are looking for gifted and talented kids.

Mark [00:03:08] And so if you’re gifted and talented, there’s going to be a certain percentage of students they’re going to want because they’re going to believe that having people from all walks of life is the best way to provide a quality education. Because people’s backgrounds will cause them to read the text differently, think differently, ask different questions in the dorms over meals and in the classroom. So it’s all income ranges. There’s certainly a sizable number that can pay $60 grand, but there are also some kids that are so talented that are paying next to nothing. And there’s everything in between.

Answers to common questions parents have when considering boarding school

Travis [00:03:37] Now who is that a good fit for? So say I’m a dual physician family, and I hate the idea of — well, maybe I don’t hate the idea of having my kids away from me for a long period of time, but I’m worried about it or suspicious of it. What are some of the common questions that happen for somebody thinking about sending their kids to boarding school?

Mark [00:03:53] So this is so prevalent, the question you’re asking, that I created a whole entire documentary series called “A Secret World.” Entire doc — became a documentary producer for a while there back in 2016. There are five 70-minute documentaries that deal with different aspects of boarding school life. I took, like, 50 parents that were currently at a boarding school that I’d worked with, another 36 six students and then 17 alum, and then I interacted with 30 different boarding schools. So are you basically saying why would someone send their kid to boarding school as opposed to go to a good suburban public school or a good private day school? Way that kind of another way to —

Travis [00:04:28] Yeah. Yeah, yeah, exactly. What does the market need fulfilled?

Mark [00:04:30] Yeah. So there’s a lot of things, and I’ll start with a story, actually. When I was doing boarding school admissions, Dr. [Thomas] Childers, who’s arguably the world’s foremost scholar on World War Two, been a professor at U Penn (University of Pennsylvania) for 40 years, he walks into our office. At that time, he said, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I can tell the kids who went to boarding school before they even self-identify, and that’s what I want for my kids.” And so you know, [his] daughter enrolled, became a superstar with us and joined him back at U Penn.

Mark [00:04:53] So what do you get at boarding school? Well, the relation with the teacher is completely different, right? The teacher is who you’re having meals with. The teachers on your dorm, having deep conversations with. The teachers taking you on the weekends to plays and sporting events. So there’s a level of mentoring and a friendship and interaction piece that you just don’t get in a different type of setting. You get a student body from all around the world. I remember at our school, there were 13 countries on the soccer team alone. So that’s just very, very, very rich.

Mark [00:05:23] I know from talking with you, you know, you traveled a lot for a time in your life. And so, you know, all the different cultures that you’re exposed to in your travel, that’s who you’re having conversations with on dorm and in the meal. So it just produces a real, real global perspective. Obviously small classes and the best resources that you can imagine when it comes to facilities. So when you have, like, world-class teachers with world-class facilities and [a] small, gifted, student body from all around the world, it produces a very rich learning environment. Of course, there’s networking benefits too. Most the time when kids go to boarding school, the best friends for life will come out of that shared and forged experience. But those are some of the reasons.

College admissions counseling in public schools versus private or boarding schools

Travis [00:05:58] Cool. So let’s pivot to the college admissions world. I remember that we had a college admissions counselor at my public school because a lot of the influential parents basically demanded it of our medium-sized city school board that was pretty easily lobbied. And they basically said, “This is something that is my number one issue, that you maintain and keep this position.” And then when they had cutbacks, one of the parents even paid her salary for a year, which I thought was just nuts. But is that common to have somebody in a public-school environment that is dedicated to college admissions, that a lot of these prestigious boarding schools have someone like you on their staffs to try to help their graduates get into the best colleges?

Mark [00:06:34] That’s a great question. The whole time you were talking, I’m thinking, you know, thank God for this person because — Just to take a step back, so the average school counselor in the country has a caseload of 450 to one. They are also — They have to spend a lot of time just helping kids with personal problems, being a friend and then dealing with all the scheduling and all the logistic issues. So one study came out and said that the average public-school counselor gets to spend 25 minutes on the college piece throughout a student’s four-year tenure. To answer your question more directly, it’s not common.

Mark [00:07:08] It’s common in affluent suburban communities. And of course, it’s a big part of what people pay for when they go to a boarding school or even a highly selective and private day school because those schools are going to hire professional college counselors almost always that have come from college admissions. And so they know that world. And so — It’s a growing trend, though, and it’s a trend that I completely support because God bless these counselors. They love kids, and they’re there for all the right reasons. But between the student-teacher ratio and the fact that most Master’s [in] School Counseling programs really don’t focus on the college piece, and then you combine the fact that it’s so complex, that it’s just really, really, really easy for students to fall through the cracks.

Mark’s four categories for helping families as an educational consultant

Travis [00:07:50] So what is an educational consultant in terms of what kind of things can they help you do? Obviously in connecting people with scholarships, helping people get into schools or realizing the best fit for them or — What are some ways, like — I tend to be very focused on the finances and the money aspect over the experience, and maybe that’s right or wrong, but that’s just the way I look at it. So what would be, you know, a description of this class of people that are out there that do consulting for people on trying to get into undergraduate programs? I’m assuming there’s not a lot of people probably helping people get into graduate schools.

Mark [00:08:22] So this is what I do. I divide it into four categories. The first is helping people find the right career and right major. Right? So there’s a whole bunch involved in that in terms of tests that you administer, interpretation of the tests and then setting people up for shadow days and internships and all that so that they don’t waste their time going all the way through and saying, “I want to be a doctor. Oh, no, I don’t.” Or, “Oh, I thought I wanted to be attorney. And I’m 28, and I hate it.” And then they’re switching their careers. So we do work on — But that’s 5% of what I do, but it’s important work, is helping people get on the right path when it comes to selecting a college major and a career.

Mark [00:08:56] Huge part of what we do is building the college list. OK? And the way I do that is I have students and parents complete a survey that’s pretty lengthy. I mean, there [are] about 55 questions on the student side, which takes 40 minutes to 50 minutes usually, and then there’s another 25 questions on the parents. That’s going to tell me what environment they’re going to like. So I just use — this is my twentieth year doing this. So I use my 20 years of experience to ask questions really designed to show me what type of environment the student will love, they’ll thrive, they’ll reach their full capacity. What they’re looking for in a college experience.

Mark [00:09:32] Then I’m also going to study all of their academic records. So that’s everything, of course, from their transcripts to their grade trends to their test scores. I have my own teacher report I’ve designed to have some of their teachers fill out recommendations so I can see what they’re like in the classroom. And so that side of it is going to tell me, let me know what they’re eligible for.

Mark [00:09:50] So then I combine what they’re eligible for with what they’re looking for, and then I’m going to come up with the list for them of schools. And it’s going to start out pretty long because I’m going to want schools in four different buckets. What I call challenge schools, which are both more challenging to get in but also more challenging to have a high GPA at. And I’m going to have two to five schools in there for them. Well, I’m going to have more, actually. But I’m going to want them to come down to two to five.

Mark [00:10:13] And then I’m going to have possible schools. Those are schools that — Challenge schools, you have, like, 20 to 40% acceptance rate at. The possibles are more like 40 to 75%. So I’m going to have, you know, about four or five schools in there I’m going to want them to research. And then I’m going to have probable schools, and that’s going to be 75 to 95[%]. And then I’m going to have a few safety schools, which are really 95 to 100[%]. That way they’re assured they’ll get in.

Mark [00:10:35] You know, I got a call last year from a student who finished second in her class out of a class of 658. And she didn’t get in anywhere. Second in her class, 658, and she was shut out. You know, you’re like, how could that happen? Well, everyone’s like, you’re smart, apply to Stanford and Yale and Brown. And you know, that was her college list. And so, I’m going to make sure you’ve got a balanced list.

Mark [00:10:54] So the first, career path and major. Second is going to be building the college list. And then, by the way, after we come up with a lot of different schools, I’m going to show people how to go back and research them. I’m going to teach them all kinds of ways to research them, and I’m going to tell them, “Come back to me, and put all these schools that I gave you in three buckets. Love it, like it, not feeling it.” And so we’ll go back and forth, and there’s different ways to research that. So now they’ve bought into the list, and the only thing I’m going to insist is that we have to have schools in every bucket. We have to have a balanced list. If you don’t like a school I gave, I’m absolutely, 100% fine with that. But tell me why you don’t like it. That’ll help me to make some revisions. So that’s the second thing.

Mark [00:11:31] Third thing I’m going to do is help them to get in those schools. There’s a lot involved in that, in all of this sort of the admissions strategy, involved in presenting their best foot forward in the most authentic way. So that’s going to be a lot of work on their writing. A lot of work on, if there’s interviews involved, in interview prep. There’s going to be a lot of work on how to properly make yourself stand out. Even on things to visit. What should you do in a visit to maximize a visit? What should you do at an information session? What should you do if someone comes to your school and wants to present? And so there’s a lot of aspects of that. So that’s the third part.

Mark [00:12:04] And then the last part is getting grants and scholarships. And so when I’m building a college list, I want every school to be vetted for affordability because a lot of the questions in the questionnaire are going to center around what’s the maximum amount you can afford. What’s the financial plan to afford it? Is there a 529? Is there savings? Can you make money off of an overage between what you’re bringing in now and what you’re spending? And it’s going to be a plan. I have to see that this plan is viable. I can’t have someone say, like someone said to me two weeks ago, that we want our kid to go to the University of Alabama out-of-state tuition, which is going to cost almost $50,000 and you’re working off an income of $55,000. I’m not going to lie. I’m going to push back aggressively. So I need to see the plan. It needs to be viable. And so sometimes that’s getting scholarships.

Mark [00:12:48] So a lot of what I do with students — showing them how to get merit scholarships and outside scholarships as well. And then is just there to answer all their questions throughout the whole process. Constantly texting, calling. So, I don’t know, I took a long time on that, but hopefully that explained it.

How to get a good aid package when applying to a school

Travis [00:13:01] Yeah, it does. So tell us, like, how negotiable are those financial aid packages that they offer and what are some examples of — that are deals you can get someone or you’ve got people in the past?

Mark [00:13:11] The best way to really get a good aid package — you have to apply to the schools that have the money. OK. So I have two daughters. All right. One graduated Davidson College, and one is a sophomore now actually in the process of switching schools from Valdosta State to the University of Georgia. But she was also a basketball player. And she went through the whole process as a basketball recruit and at the last second, decided not to play. But one school she got the top academic award for the whole school. And it was $6,000. So they just didn’t have any money.

Mark [00:13:39] So first, you have to apply to schools that have money, and then secondly, you have to apply to schools for whom you are going to be one of the stronger applicants. Schools use their money as an enrollment management tool. So they’re trying to improve the quality of their school. And so they’re going to invest in people who they think will upgrade the quality of their school. So that’s the best way to get really large amounts of money is to tap into that merit money that’s out there.

Mark [00:14:03] And it’s a constant challenge, though. Because like, for example, I was talking to one of my clients last week, and, you know, they have schools on their lists like the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Barnard, Carnegie Mellon. I mean, schools like this that they’re drawn to, Haverford, and, you know, many other colleges that I could name. I don’t want to bore our listeners here. And you know, this is a double doctor family, so they have money. But then they came back, and they’re like, “You know, I don’t know if we feel like dropping this kind of coin.”

Mark [00:14:32] They’re also at boarding school now. So they’re dropping $61k for one kid, and they’ve got another kid coming. And they’re like, you know, maybe we want to look at some schools with some merit money. And so I’m like, absolutely. I encourage that in the first place, but you know, you told me that you wanted Ivy League and those type of schools. And I told them — they knew Ivy didn’t give merit. It was only need-based, by the way. Ivy gives no merit. You can’t be in the Ivy League and give merit money away. So then they came back. So I went back to rebuilding the whole list. This happens all the time.

Mark [00:14:58] And when they saw the schools they qualify for merit for, now people are faced with the decision: OK, do I go for the quality education? But you’re not going to have the brand name. Or do I just suck it up and pay the bills? I mean, and pay the piper. And that’s a constant conversation I have with families all the time. I’m going to usually steer people. But I have to respect the fact that it’s their decision and their value system. I’m going to steer people to go for the educational value. I really am. I’m a huge, huge believer in going for the educational value, but that’s not always the mindset of everybody I work with. And they hired me, so I have to kind of give them what they want.

What’s more important — a brand-name, prestigious school or educational value?

Travis [00:15:38] Sure. So one question: How many of your parents take out Parent PLUS loans or private loans to fund the education? And second part of that question is, how many people try to get their kids into the brand name schools? Just — It feels like more of a status thing than actual value.

Mark [00:15:56] Well, it’s a great question, and both of them are great. So let’s start with the second one. So one of my favorite questions I ask every family: I say, “How would you feel about your child going to a school that employers are going to know it’s a great school? Graduate schools are going to know it’s a great school.” Because look, everybody wants quality, right? Everybody wants quality. That’s not the question.

Mark [00:16:18] But when you mention the school to most people, they’re never have going to heard of it. And it’s such a litmus test of sort of where they are because people that just want educational value, they’ll be okay with that. They’ll be like, as long as the right people know, I’m good with that. But it’s also a difficult question because it’s also a question that oftentimes even they’ll say, “Oh, I’ll be fine with that.” But then when it comes down to it, the seduction of the prestige can really draw people in, and it can lead them to make some really injudicious financial decisions. And it’s a tough question, right, because there’s some value to the name. But the question is how much value. And I would argue in most cases, the value does not match people’s expectations from the standpoint of career trajectory.

Mark [00:17:04] I’m a big believer that your character — whether you’re good at what you do, whether you get along well with people, whether you’re resilient, you bounce up when you get knocked down, whether you’re highly motivated and you work hard and you build relationships and build a network, well, that’s going to really determine your career trajectory.

Mark [00:17:22] One thing that I have all my families do is read a book Frank Bruni wrote called “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” And you know. And it’s like an anecdote on the college admissions mania. And I think that book has been the most effective book that I’ve — or tool or resource that I have. It kind of — Ratcheting down this fixation with prestige because basically what he does is he goes through all these MacArthur Genius Award winners. He goes to Fulbright scholars. He goes through Rhodes scholars. He goes through CEOs. He goes to hundreds of people, and he looks at how many of them did not graduate with a designer degree. And I really love that book.

Mark [00:17:55] I’m not saying — Look, I love my students that want to aspire to a highly-competitive school because it’s OK with being aware that there’ll be some brand name advantage to two schools. And I’d be the first to say, look, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, M.I.T., those schools, there’s some definitely brand name advantage that can carry on with you throughout your life. But most of the students that I work with, they do come around to eventually realize that the return on your investment is usually not worth — You know, I see people do some crazy things out here, Travis, like drop $65,000 to go to a school when they probably should go into a state school and get into an honors college. If I get to them early enough, I can usually curtail that.

What percentage of students Mark sees take out student loans to fund their education

Travis [00:18:31] Yeah. And do a lot of people borrow? What’s the percentage do you see borrow?

Mark [00:18:36] So if I get to people early enough, I can usually persuade them. I have a whole process I take students and parents through to assess the maximum amount that they can afford for undergraduate. And I usually can get buy-in on that. And I’m pretty conservative, like, I don’t like to see students take out more than 80% of their first year of pay in debt. That’s why I like to see. And so I’m big into looking at what your major is, looking at what the projected income is. But you’ve got to stay in that major. If you’re looking at doing petroleum engineering and then you switch, then, you know, that doesn’t work. And then we can look at it. And if you’re not sure, then I’m going to say stick to the Stafford loan limits. You know, the Stafford Federal Direct Loan that has caps in place. $5,500 as a freshman, $6,500 as a sophomore, $7,500 as a junior to senior. If you take a fifth year, you could get an extra $4,000. So you’re looking at $27,000 caps for four years. $31,000 for five. That’s normally what I like people to cap out at. And I’m usually going to say find a school within that price point.

Mark [00:19:32] Now sometimes parents can do other things. Kids are off, so they can pick up more work. Or they’ve done some 529 savings, and they can tap into some of that. If people are going to do loans, then I’m going to want them to run the loan calculators. And I’m going to want them to see, what does this look like on a monthly basis? It’s not always black and white because sometimes it’s a small loan amount, and they can sustain that loan amount. And then I’m OK with it. But a lot of times, what they don’t think about is you’ve got to do the same thing for year one, two, three and four. And is there another kid coming around? And also, you know, sometimes you may not necessarily get the loan every year because you’ve got to apply, and things can change.

Travis [00:20:09] Yeah. No, that’s true. And most of our listeners are in the 25- to 45-year-old range. A lot of the folks have — obviously the typical person has maybe a couple of kids, one, two, three years old, four or five years old. There are some people that have kids in middle school, kids in high school that are listening to the podcast. Some parents say — A lot of folks obviously don’t have kids at all but are thinking about having kids. So they’re — Most of the people already have their undergrad degree, so we’re talking to them on how they could help set their kids up for the maximum success. And obviously, the people that are listening to our podcast have a lot of debt themselves. I would love to help more people prevent their children from having to take on as big of a debt burden. Because everybody that’s listening this podcast, you know what it’s like to have a lot of the burden that has on your life.

How retirement savings and home equity can affect financial aid

Travis [00:20:52] This is kind of a random thing, but I was talking to one of my friends. And I said, “Well, what college does your kid have to go to?” And my wife piped up, and she’s like, “Well, they got to go to Princeton.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s hilarious.” And she just wants them to go to a really — a place where they will be really, really intellectually challenged. And so I got to looking at it for fun, and apparently — I didn’t know this until I looked this up — that you can make a six-figure income, and Princeton and all of these Ivy League schools now are just free, which is amazing. Come to a pretty high-income level, and then they don’t count retirement accounts.

Travis [00:21:22] Let’s say that I am wanting to maximize my wealth so that I’m going to prepare for my own retirement. And I have a two- to four-year-old or five-year-old or whatever age kid I have. And I want them to be the next Albert Einstein or the next great professor or something. And I want them to go to the most prestigious Ivy League school I possibly can. What would be the best way to set up my finances so I can take advantage of the need-based aid in that situation?

Mark [00:21:43] Great question. So first thing is put away as much as you can for retirement before they get to the age where you need to apply for financial aid. Because what happens is, in all the financial aid, there’s two major forms. There’s the FAFSA, the Free Application For Federal Student Aid. And there’s what’s known as the CSS profile, which is administered by the College Board, which the private schools use. It has to do with their institutional money and how they allocate it. So you apply for what’s called prior-prior year. So for students starting, you know, in the fall of 2020, they would use 2018 tax return. So up until then, all your retirement is protected, so you want to get as much as you can into that.

Mark [00:22:21] After that, you have to report current year contributions, and they go into the earnings formula. So back to what you said about Princeton and some of these schools. So yeah. Some of the most expensive schools are some of the most generous with money. There’s no school really now that if you have a six-figure income is completely free. They are tuition-free, though. Like, you can be tuition-free at places like Rice up to $130,000, $135,000. And Harvard has a 10% plan up to $150,000. Meaning if your adjusted gross income is $150,000, you’d pay $15,000, which can be better than a state school with room and board and some of the other expenses.

Mark [00:22:55] But a lot of schools up to, say, $70,000, $75,000 are completely free. And when I say completely, when I think about the costs for college, I’m thinking about cost of attendance, right? So cost of attendance has four main components on the billable side. If a student is staying on campus, you’ve got tuition, student fees, room, board — that’s for an on-campus student. And an off-campus student has four non-billable expenses, meaning you don’t pay the bursar at the school, but there’s still a cost you incur. And that would be transportation, books, supplies and personal miscellaneous. So yeah. So for the full cost of attendance, you know, usually I mean these schools are pushing $70,000 to $75,000.

Mark [00:23:30] The formula — Most of those highly competitive schools that you’re talking about, all the Ivies, the Stanfords, the M.I.T.s, the Georgetowns and a lot of the other schools, especially in the northeast, your small liberal arts schools like your Amish, your Williams, your Haverfords, all of them. They strictly give need-based aid away, so you’re not going to get merit money. So that’s one of the first things when I’m working with a family. I need to find out their whole financial picture because I need to know, are we going after merit money or are we going to be able to take advantage of the generous need-based money? So that’s why I’m going to have to know what the school is going to ask them to pay. There are plenty of tools out there to do that. Once I know that, that’s going to dictate what direction we go in.

Mark [00:24:08] And because the formula that’s used — The formula looks at about eight main things, but it’s mostly parental income is the driver of that formula. And so depending on the profession of the parent, they may be locked in, right? If they’ve got a salary and that salary is high — for example, I’ll give you a couple of students I’m working with right now. Both of them, their parents are both dentists, and they’re not going to qualify for any need-based aid at any Ivy. One’s mom — One case, the mom went to University of Pennsylvania, so her kid’s not going there. Both of their kids are very, very, very high achieving. They could compete in the Ivy Leagues, a lot of them, but in both cases, they don’t want to pay full freight.

Mark [00:24:48] So in their case, I got to run a whole complete merit-based strategy, and we go after the merit money. And they’re coming back with full tuition — full tuition, room and board, all of that. So that’s extremely important. Did I answer your question or not?

Travis [00:24:59] No, that’s good. So basically, you just need to focus on retirement savings. Try to optimize your income in the — a couple of years ahead of time before your kid goes.

Mark [00:25:09] Now there’s one other major thing, Travis, I didn’t say. So your primary residence is not included in the need-based formula for a lot of schools. For some schools it is, and then for — There are other schools that they’ll count part of your home equity. So that’s something. I mean, there can be a person that can have a million dollars in home equity, and it’s not factored in whatsoever to the asset formula. Because the formula does look at parent assets, but parent assets play such a small role in the formulas. These assets are substantial, and your primary residence, not rental properties but your primary residence and retirement plan is protected.

Mark [00:25:46] Once you start getting into assets of, you know, when I say assets, obviously I’m talking about stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, all that stuff. All those type of things outside of retirement accounts. I’m also talking about things like 529 plans. They are concluded as an asset. And additional properties. All of those things, there is a formula, and a percentage of that money goes toward what’s called your EFC, your expected family contribution. But it’s not that much. So a family could have, just to give a rough example, if a family had $200,000 in assets outside of their primary home and outside of their retirement account, that would result just off the asset portion of about $9,000 that would be expected to be contributed towards your EFC. It’s really an income-driven — But you got to know this because student income is looked at differently than parent income.

Mark [00:26:36] So sometimes I’m working with the student. And he gets a really good job, and he’s making a lot of money. And he’s going to get whacked because once he gets over a little bit over $6,000, 50% of everything he makes is going to have to go into that formula. So it’s knowing that formula and knowing how to direct people like, OK, we’re going to have to use a need-based approach here. Or we’re going to have to use a merit-based approach. And if we’re using a merit-based approach, let’s talk about the absolute best schools where you can get in and get money to keep you in at the price point you’re comfortable with.

Travis [00:27:05] What do you tell people that want to set up 529 plans for baby that was just born or maybe, you know, a niece or nephew or something. What do you tell folks?

Mark [00:27:14] I think they’re fantastic because you get tax-free growth on your money. And 35 of the 50 states give you a tax deduction. So you get a state deduction, and you get tax-free growth. And there’s some fantastic plans out there. Some states, the tax-free growth is only if you take up the state’s plan. Other states will allow you to do it if you take other state’s plans out. You know, I had a student last year, they really wanted to go to Washington University in St. Louis. And what they were being asked to pay off of a need-based analysis was a little bit more than what they were comfortable with. Now this is a family that had done a good job. They’d socked away $50,000 for each of their two kids in 529s. And so we divide that over the four years, and by taking, like, $12.5 [thousand] per year, it made it eminently doable because the student also won a pretty generous scholarship. It took down what they were paying to really about the cost of room and board only.

Travis [00:28:02] Yeah, that’s really great. So you know, a lot of the folks that — They’re listening, they’re saving for the tax bombs for their forgiven student loans in 20 to 25 years. And so they know that they’re putting away $500 to $1,000 a month for that. So if you probably want to save for your kid’s college, if you start, you know, when they’re real young, like they’re 0, one, two years old, I mean, how much could you say, maybe $200 a month would make a huge difference?

Mark [00:28:24] Yeah, it really can. I mean, you know, and it really — It really makes a difference, and even little amounts can make a difference. You know. So it’s absolutely worth doing, and, of course, I’m big on funding your retirement too, right. So — because there’s no loans out there at all for that. And so it’s very, very, very important that you do that. But there’s a lot of merit money out there. There’s a lot of merit money. The overwhelming majority of schools give merit money. And if — You know, there’s also outside scholarships, too. Right. We have talked about that. There’s helping people know how to tap into those scholarships from churches, from corporations, from civic organizations, from foundations, from philanthropists.

Mark [00:28:59] And then the other thing that’s important is walking people through the process of how to get a school to reevaluate an aid offer. So actually, that same student I told you about at Wash U, they actually came back and made an $11,000 adjustment to the award by kind of taking a student through the process. So you know there’s $44 grand saved over four years.

How future students can stand out to get merit money

Travis [00:29:18] Yeah, that’s great. So a couple more questions here for you. So the merit aid: What do you think is the best signal that somebody can have in high school — When I was in school the National Merit was something they really stressed for us to get because a lot of places would just automatically give you free tuition if you got a high enough score in the PSAT. Say we got, you know, a physician: she’s listening, and she’s got a five-year-old. And she’s like, “I really want that five-year-old to be getting tons of merit money.” That might be thinking a little far in advance. What is something that you can do to besides just the obvious thing of standardized test scores? Maybe that’s it. I don’t know. I mean, what are the best things to do to make somebody stand out and get some merit money?

Mark [00:29:54] There’s two main ways that merit money is given away. One is what I just call by the numbers, strictly by the numbers. And that’s going to be test scores, grade point average and oftentimes curriculum is going to be looked at as well. Because they’re not just going to look for, OK, you got a 3.9 or 4.0 off these puff ball classes. Right? They’re going to look at, was there some rigor in the curriculum? So that’s basically it for those scholarships.

Mark [00:30:18] Then you have other scholarships that they still want all those things. But they’re the ones that are going to look at — They may have an interview as part of the process. They’re definitely going to have essays. They’re going to look at teacher recommendations, and they’re going to look at your activities and study how you’ve impacted your institution. The way I look at those scholarships is in order to meet with me, you’ve got to come into my office. But you first had to come through the main door. So you’ve got to get through the first door, the main door. That’s GPA, test scores and academic courses. And then the second door [is] those other things.

Mark [00:30:50] So to answer your question, simply having a high GPA and taking a rigorous curriculum and having a high standardized test scores is the best way to set yourself up.

Mark [00:31:03] Now the more selective the school, they’re going to want all those other things. They’re going to want the reqs. They’re going to want the writing. Probably an interview. And they’re going to want to know that you’ve impacted your institutions. They’re going to be studying your extracurriculars. They’re going to say, “OK, if you impacted your institution or your community, then we can expect you to do that with us.” It’s all about knowing how to evaluate a student and knowing how to evaluate a school so that you can say — That’s all part of that list building. So that you can say, You know what?

Mark [00:31:32] So I know, Travis, that you were a recipient. You’re a National Merit finalist. And that’s actually not the best strategy, you know, to utilize to get people money, unless — Now I almost bet the house that you were a decent standardized test taker, like in 10th grade or something, right, if you took a standardized test. Am I right?

Travis [00:31:50] Yeah. I mean, I was good, but I was nowhere near my wife. She lets me know that often. She makes jokes about it.

Mark [00:31:56] You’re going to have some high-testing kids.

Travis [00:31:58] Yeah. Oh, yeah. She got — she got — You know, she’s like super genius compared to me. So she likes to make fun of how my scores started with a 14 something. And so she’s like, “Oh, you know, I’m in the almost sixteen hundred club.” And I’m like, “Oh, you know, whatever.”

Mark [00:32:13] So — So what I’ll do if I have someone who’s a really high-test taker, then it may make sense to go down the National Merit path. But they have to understand that if they want to go to an Ivy League or a lot of highly-selective schools, you don’t get money from those schools for that because such a high percentage of the students are already National Merit. It can be a great approach to go, but in most cases, it’s not because you’ve got to be in the 99th percentile. And most people are not in the 99th percentile as test takers. So if someone’s a real high-test taker, I’ll take them down that path.

Mark [00:32:42] It’s not about necessarily where you are. It’s about where you are compared to the schools you apply to. And there’s also schools that do what we call aggressive tuition discounting. There’s a school I know is a very good school and automatically every student gets $17,000 right off the top that applies. And a lot of people don’t know that because a lot of schools work off of a model that says, ‘if we charge more, they’ll think our school is better.’ So they build that right in on the front end.

Mark [00:33:09] And not only that, but if we charge more and then we can give them this amazing scholarship and we spend $10 on the marketing package and have the president call them, they’ll feel such honor has been conferred on them that they’ll pick us over the competition.

Travis [00:33:23] That’s a very good point. It almost seems like grad school, undergrad, everything has sort of become a big business, right. And everything is so sort of monetized and down to the cent, and it’s a little scary sometimes, frankly.

Travis [00:33:36] My personal feeling is that there should be far fewer universities in the world compared to what we have currently, and that they should charge lower prices. But you know, that’s not going to happen until we get online access to education, and employers will accept credentials, you know, that somebody studied in M.I.T.’s online courses or something like that for coding, right. I don’t know.

Mark [00:33:55] I mean, things are trending. You’ve got all these badges and things are trending in that direction, but it’s going to be a long time before we’re completely there. The model that you see more often than not in higher education, especially with private schools, is that the bottom quarter of the class is paying for the top quarter. You know, they’re paying for the merit scholarship. So the bottom quarter of the class may be admitted because they’re full pay.

Travis [00:34:15] Yeah.

Mark [00:34:15] You know, they’re subsidizing the top kids that they really want and who are getting the aggressive merit scholarships.

Mark’s reaction to the college admissions scandal that surfaced in March 2019

Travis [00:34:20] That makes sense. Now you’ve probably been asked this by everybody around the water cooler in the world, but what are your thoughts on the, you know, the big college scandal of 2019. You know, the admissions stuff. The listeners probably have heard about it. I’d be shocked if you hadn’t. But basically, a bunch of rich parents were paying huge amounts of money through an education — quote, unquote — consultant that was helping them get into these prestigious schools. You know, what are what are your thoughts, one, on that scandal, but also just how to identify if somebody is legitimate in this industry versus somebody who’s, you know, just looking for a quick buck?

Mark [00:34:52] Yeah. So those are two great questions. I’ll tell you really quick: I was at a conference, and, you know, there’s phone calls calling me, calling me, calling me. I can’t take it. I’m in a conference, and I look at a text that was like, “Urgent. Need to talk.”.

Mark [00:35:01] So I step out. I call — this is one of my clients, and they said, “The New York Times wants to talk to you in the next 10 minutes. They’re going to press in a story on this in six hours.” And so, you know, so yeah, I took the story. I was in the Times on this. I was interviewed for the BBC over the scandal. It’s what all the talk is — Our podcast, we did three podcasts on it.

Mark [00:35:19] My thoughts are, I’m not surprised because all of the areas where the admission process is most vulnerable, the scam artist, he exploited it. Right? So for a long time, the athletic coaches have had so much power, almost unfettered power, to be able to get kids through the admission process. And basically, the admission office trusts the coaches. So if you’ve got a situation — Let’s just pick Georgetown out where the tennis coach got $2.7 million. Tennis coaches don’t get paid a lot at Georgetown. Like, within the human heart, someone is going to be susceptible to that level of bribery. And so that part didn’t surprise me.

Mark [00:35:52] I’ve seen the scams on the testing side of it, right. I used to be an ACT and an SAT proctor. I know that if I was corrupt, I would have the ability to make changes. And there was a big scandal in Long Island maybe seven or nine years ago where one guy was getting paid $5,000 to go and get 1,500 on the test and dress up like he was another student. So we’ve seen that before.

Mark [00:36:12] There is another component of this test scandal I’ve seen before, too, which is people coming up with getting a therapist to say that they have some learning difference, so that they can get extended time. So I’ve seen all of those. I hadn’t seen the Photoshop, put-your-face-on-a-water-polo-picture before. So yeah. So none of those things surprise me.

How Mark believes college admissions will change in response to the scandal

Mark [00:36:31] What changes do I think are going to happen? Quite a few. This is like a 9 on the Richter scale within college admissions as far as an earthquake goes. I think you’re going to see a lot more cracking down on the power coaches have and the accountability that’s going to be put in place to supervise who they’re tagging. And follow-up afterward to make sure they actually do the sport and perform. I think you’ll see a lot there. I mean, more and more schools are going test optional, and that’s going to continue to happen. Like just this week, the University of Denver went test optional. Last month, Bucknell went test optional. A couple months before that Kobe, and a few months before that, University of Chicago. They are now over a thousand test-optional schools.

Mark [00:37:05] So you’re going to see the growth of the test-optional movement. More legislation put in place to crack down on getting credentials to get extended time. And something I think you’ll see is schools looking at a PSAT score and comparing it to an SAT score because you have to take the PSAT in school, in a setting there. There’s a lot more quality control there. And in the case of one person at USC, she had a 400-point jump. So those are some things that I think — I think are going to — I’m just glad he got caught.

Mark [00:37:32] Now to answer the question: How can you tell who’s a scam artist versus who’s legit? Talk to a whole lot of people that have worked with somebody. Talk to as many people as you can. That’s probably the most important thing. Take a look at the track record, and what the person has done. I’m a big believer that — Has somebody actually done college admissions or boardings? Even if someone — If I had just done boarding without college, I would be OK. But either boarding school, residential, highly-selective residential admissions. I happen to have done both, but that’s important. And a lot of this [scandal] —

Mark [00:38:03] Here’s another thing: anyone who makes a guarantee out there? You can’t guarantee. All my paperwork says there’s no guarantee. You can’t guarantee that somebody will get in somewhere. And then quite honestly, when people have exorbitant fees, those are the people out there that are doing that. They’re only all about the money. Overwhelmingly, most people are really good people. They’re in it to help people, and they do a good job. Just like there’s scam doctors, there’s scam chiropractors; there’s scam financial planners. You’re going to get one out of 100 that’s like that.

How Mark’s educational consulting company helps future college students and their families

Travis [00:38:29] That’s great advice. So last two questions. First is, what does your company charge for services, the very baseline level and all the way up to a full-service model? And just — give one success story along with that price information.

Mark [00:38:41] Yeah. And one of the things that I try to do, Travis, I intentionally — and I make sure — I don’t want to be greedy. I’m in this to help kids. I love that I can help people that make $50,000; $60,000; $70,000; $80,000 with what I do. So I, you know, I’ve got someone that wants to get me a bunch of business in New York City. They’re like, “Mark, you’ve got to raise your prices. People aren’t going to think you’re good if you don’t raise your prices.” And I’m like, “You know, if they don’t understand that I’m in it to help people of all different income ranges — And I live in Atlanta. I don’t live in New York City with that cost of living. So I don’t need to do that.”.

Mark [00:39:13] I have four things that I do. I do an hour consultation. I charge $120 bucks. I’ll build someone’s college list. That’s my bronze plan: $795 to build your college list. It’s taking people through a number of series, a number of steps, a number of things that I do to do that. And I throw in one consultation session after I’ve got the college list. Then I have what’s called my silver plan, which is $1,795. And so they’ll get 10 additional hours really for the price of 12 on any aspect of the process. It’s more of an a la carte process.

Mark [00:39:42] And by the way, one thing I do that’s fairly rare in this industry, I put all my prices out on the website. If you go to my website, you’ll see all this. You’ll see my prices. Most people don’t like to do that. And then I have my gold plan. It ranges between $3,095 and $3,795 for 12 months of service. And the reason I have a range: people that pay it up front get the $700 discount. People that pay it over 60 days get a $500 discount. They just do like $1,647, $1,647. People that pay it over six months, they do, like, $1,095 down and five payments of $500. So it’s $3,595, and they get $200 off. And then people that need ten payments, that’s $3,079.50, for 10 months.

Travis [00:40:19] Yeah.

Mark [00:40:19] And they pay it monthly.

Travis [00:40:20] And that one amazing success story, say, for the past year?

Mark [00:40:23] Oh, I have lots of success stories. Yeah. I’ll tell you one that comes to mind was a family that came to me. And they were trying to decide because they weren’t going to qualify for financial aid, and they wanted to know, is it really worth it for us to pay for Princeton, for Duke or something like that? I personally don’t think it is. You’ve got a great daughter, but she wants to go to medical school. You’ve got another sibling coming along the way. And they had money, but their income was maybe in the mid-$200,000 ranges. It wasn’t $2 million or something. To make a long story short, I took the daughter all the way through the process, and she got a full ride. I don’t want to say the school because I’ve already said enough, and I don’t want anybody to know. But it was a highly-selective school that’s rated way up there, if you check all those rankings. And she got a full ride, full cost of attendance. That means tuition, room, board, transportation, books, spending money, international travel. The package valued at $270,000. And I mean, this was just last year. Right. And so I’m just giving you one, really. That’s just one really recently. Now I’m working with the second daughter. But I honestly, I could keep — I could go on and on with lots of stories.

Travis [00:41:22] I’d assume they’d let you work with the second kid after a result like that.

Mark [00:41:24] Yeah. Yeah, that would have been quite a problem, wouldn’t that?

Travis [00:41:29] Yeah, it would.

Mark [00:41:29] Well, now we’re going to start earlier with this one. Because people come to me when they hear about me, right. This is all word of mouth. Like, 95% of my business is word of mouth. It used to be 99%, but now because I have a podcast, people do hire me off the podcast. And so, the one thing they learned was, like, they started August of the senior year. Like, that is late. So we had to do a lot of work in a short period of time, so they’re starting earlier.

Travis [00:41:52] That’s great. So just so listeners know, Mark and I didn’t trade money or advertising or anything like that. We just met online, and we didn’t even trade iTunes reviews. I know some podcasters do that. But it seems like Mark’s services could’ve been even accessible to even my parents back in the day. So I appreciate the fact that you don’t charge kind of have an outrageous amount of money like a lot of folks do. So where can folks find out more about you, Mark?

Mark [00:42:15] Yes. So SchoolMatch4U.com. And as you mentioned earlier, that’s just school, S-c-h-o-o-l M-a-t-c-h, number four, letter ‘u’ dot com. That’s my website. It’s got services up there. Descriptions of the services. Prices. Probably got 50, 60 success stories up there, both in video and written form. I also have a book that I’ve written. Books called “171 Answers to the Most-Asked College Admissions Questions.” It’s a reference book. It’s 691 pages. And the way — Some people read it cover to cover and mark everything up, and I love it when people do that. They’ll benefit tremendously. Others use it as a reference book. They go to the table of contents. They say, “Oh, I want to know how I can figure out in advance what the school’s going to charge. I like that. Let me go to that chapter.” So.

Mark [00:42:55] And then of course, I do have the podcast called YourCollegeBoundKid.com. And we drop a new episode every Thursday at 6 a.m. We have four components to every one of our podcasts. We take a hot topic in the news, an article and we discuss it myself and my podcast pair, and who is — By the way, my podcast partner is a parent who I took all the way through who got crazy money, too. That’s another one. So it’s a parent and me on together. And then we also — The next part of our podcast, we do go chapter by chapter through the book. And then we take a question that our listeners send in from all over the world. And then I have a guest. So we’re consistent with those four parts of the podcast. And 6 a.m. every Thursday we drop in new episode. They’re usually between 60 and 85 minutes.

Travis [00:43:35] Awesome. Well, Mark, thank you so much for being on the show.

Mark [00:43:38] Oh, I’ve loved it, Travis. And you’re doing great work. Your heart’s in your work. You’re about helping people. And I’m excited about letting a lot of people I know, you know, know about your services.

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