Exploding Tuition Costs Drive Consulting Firms

The ivory tower has morphed into something beyond educating the young. For many colleges, it’s all about the bottom line.

“Colleges are not in the business of making money. Colleges are in the business of making huge money,” said Matt Breimayer, the owner and founder of Right Path College and Career Planning.

Breimayer works in the field of college consulting, an industry that is growing rapidly both locally and nationwide. College consulting businesses help students and families with the college planning process, including tests, essays, school selection and finances.

College cost, Breimayer says, is at the root of this booming industry. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of college tuition and fees has surged more than 1,000 percent since 1978. For the 2017/18 school year, the non-profit College Board reported that a “moderate college budget” for an in-state public college was $25,290. The average budget for a private college was $50,900.

With those numbers increasing every year – and students exiting school with record sums of loan debt – families are looking for ways to gain a strategic advantage during the college planning process.

Breimayer’s Right Path College and Career Planning is not the only business in Traverse City that is serving college-bound students and their families. Another player in the local college consulting market is Vicki Beam at Michigan College Planning. Beam and Breimayer are former business partners who launched Michigan College Planning together back in 2012. Their backgrounds in financial advising meant they were there at the frontline to witness parents’ growing anxieties about college costs. They saw a need for a dedicated college consulting service and Michigan College Planning was born.

Beam realized that a lot of the ways she had been helping her clients to accumulate wealth were inadvertently reducing the amount of financial aid they could get for their kids.

“It’s kind of like when you go to get your taxes done,” Beam said. “You want to make sure you are taking advantage of all the tax breaks and all the opportunities to lower your taxes. Well, it’s the same thing when you’re looking at colleges. Families really should strategize before getting close to filling out the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile, which are the forms for financial aid. They should speak to a specialist and make sure they are taking advantage of the rules and ways of lowering cost.”

Breimayer left Michigan College Planning about two years ago to try out a different business approach with Right Path. Because college planning is a complicated process with so many different steps and facets, no two college consulting businesses are quite the same. Some, such as Michigan College Planning, focus more on the financial side of things. Others – including Pinpoint Advising, another local business in the college consulting niche – are more academically driven.

Started in 2006 by Gretchen Uhlinger, Pinpoint is one of the longer-running college consulting services in Traverse City. Unlike Breimayer and Beam, Uhlinger’s background was in education, not financial planning. Uhlinger was the Founding Head of School at the Montessori Children’s House on Long Lake Road, as well as a former admissions officer at Interlochen Arts Academy. When she retired, she got interested in the “next developmental phase” for students – a passion that led to Pinpoint.

Uhlinger says that many of the students who come to Pinpoint aspire to Ivy League colleges and other prestigious universities. However, for Uhlinger, the job is less about helping kids get into college and more about drawing a map toward a successful career.

“We’re in the business of trying to help the students identify their interests, but that’s hard for a sophomore,” Uhlinger said. “So we work with goals. Maybe you don’t know what you want to be, but you kind of know how you want to be. You don’t know that you want to be a neurosurgeon, but you do know that you want to move back to Traverse City, and support yourself, and help other people. So we try to help students get more clear about their goals, and then listen to their family’s goals and make sure they’re all hearing each other.”

Both Breimayer and Beam have also focused on career path in recent years, as college costs have increased and students have become more cautious about taking on debt. More students, they say, are looking at college in terms of return on investment. Beam uses a sophisticated piece of software called Guided Path, which matches students to schools that make sense based on their interests and goals.

The software also provides a snapshot of college cost and potential financial aid opportunities at each school, making it easier for students and families to build a list of potential colleges.

One of Breimayer’s core services at Right Path, meanwhile, is what he calls a “career and interest match,” an in-depth, three-hour process meant to help students start envisioning their futures.

“I think a lot of students only know about five or six careers, total,” Breimayer said. “They know what mom and dad do, and maybe a few relatives. They know stuff like doctor and lawyer. But what else is out there? My approach to college planning is to help the student find a career where they can wake up every Monday morning and love going to work.”

So when should students and families be connecting with college consultants like Beam, Breimayer and Uhlinger? All three indicate sophomore year as the right time to start thinking seriously about college planning. Kicking things off in 10th grade typically leaves plenty of time for students to pick courses that align with their goals, prep for standardized tests, select meaningful extracurricular activities or summer experiences, identify scholarship opportunities and start building lists of potential schools.

There are reasons to start earlier, though. Beam says that financial aid is determined on a “prior prior year” basis, which means that an aid package for a student graduating in 2019 will be determined based on their family’s 2017 income. Uhlinger says that many schools now fill 50 percent or more of their freshman classes with early-decision applicants. And Breimayer notes that athletics can alter the entire timeline in complicated ways – a reason that he is in the process of adding a service that helps high school athletes find opportunities to play college sports. All these factors are pushing students and their families to start planning sooner and approach the admissions process more strategically.

Thanks to the growing college consulting market, students looking for that strategic edge now have someone to call.

Tips for Parents

Is your student nearing college age? Here are a few tips from the college planning consultants:

Develop a standardized testing plan: Use the SAT and ACT websites to plot out standardized test dates for your student. Make sure there are at least two dates for each test on the calendar to allow for retakes. Most students score better on standardized tests the second time.

Build a strong transcript: Grade point average isn’t all that matters. Schools pay attention to the specific courses on student transcripts and favor the kids who are taking challenging courses and doing well in them. Loading up on advanced placement classes and other high-level courses will improve your child’s chances with selective colleges.

Think about career path: Introduce your student to people in a variety of careers. Encourage internships or job shadowing opportunities. Talk about interests and how they might translate to a career path. These strategies will make college choice and post-high-school planning much easier for you and your kids.

Research local scholarships: There are dozens of local scholarships available each year for new high school graduates. Some of these scholarships go unfunded because students are not applying for them. Research scholarships with your son or daughter, having them apply for at least one scholarship every week throughout their senior year.

Schedule a consultation or attend a college planning workshop: Local college consulting businesses typically offer free consultations to students and families wishing to learn more. Michigan College Planning even offers free college planning workshops, with the next one coming up at 6 p.m. on August 14 at the Michigan College Planning offices, 610 S. Garfield Rd.