What High School Counselors Don't Understand About Financial Aid

Last Updated May 20, 2009 11:56 PM EDT

I've been taking online classes at UCLA for nearly a year to obtain a credential in college counseling. Here is the most startling thing that I've learned so far:

Many high school counselors know precious little about financing a college degree. The counselors I have met through UCLA and elsewhere often seem to be intimidated by financial aid issues.

While I've found this surprising, I have hesitated to write about this subject because it would be easy for harried counselors to wonder what the heck I know about counseling hundreds of high school students and their anxious parents. I am, after all, a financial journalist and I only have to worry about my own two teenagers. It's a legitimate point, but I do think that parents need to know that their teenager's high school counselor might not know as much as they think.

From what I've seen, the financial advice that many high school counselors dispense focuses a great deal on meeting deadlines. They tell families when to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and complete the PROFILE application if their teenagers will be applying to private schools. Beyond advising parents on how and when to fill out those two documents, high school counselors tend to tell kids to look for private scholarships to shrink college costs. Strangely enough, many counselors don't seem to realize that private scholarships are almost always a puny source of cash. The average award is less than $2,000.

The mother lode of cash comes from the colleges and universities themselves. The trick is positioning your child to capture some of this institutional money. And this is where counselors tend to scratch their heads.


What do you do if the counselor at your child's high school is inadequate? You might want to find a private college counselor. You'll learn more about how to locate one later this week.