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Searching for the Unicorn University: The Perfect College for Your Child

Did you know no actual mythological stories exist about the unicorn? “The truth is, unlike almost every single other mythical creature, the unicorn does not appear anywhere in any culture’s actual mythology.”¹ Was it possible this creature actually existed? What the heck does this have to do with college?!

We’re searching for the Unicorn University—not the myth—the one perfect for your student. (Believe it or not there is an actual Unicorn College in Prague, Czech Republic, but we’re not talking about that school here!) We are talking about finding the needle in the haystack of colleges out there who will give a student the most financial aid, a great educational experience, and prepare them for success in life! But how can we find this Unicorn University—the one perfect for your child?

Often the search starts with financial realities.

The prospect of paying for college can leave parents feeling helpless. We have talked in previous postings about need-based aid—awarded to families purely based on a formula:

Cost of Attendance (COA) – Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = Demonstrated Financial Need

Need-based aid is becoming harder to receive and is primarily out of the control of parents. The vast majority of families advisors talk to will not qualify for need-based aid.

They have amazing students who have earned the right to go to some of the most prestigious universities in the country, but those schools can cost in excess of $60,000 per year. So the helpless feeling of “what can we do?” takes over for a family. But a very real and attainable type of aid exists for those students who are willing to work to achieve it—merit aid.

What is merit aid?

Merit aid is money awarded by a university as a reward for academic achievement based on GPA and test scores (ACT/SAT), or a unique skill or talent like music or athletics. Merit aid is true Gift Aid a student doesn’t have to pay back, not a loan.

Some schools award more merit aid than others, and some do not award any at all. You need to read the fine print and be aware that some merit aid has limitations:

  • Awards with a need-based additional requirement
  • Awards targeted to a certain major within the college
  • Awards limited to a small number of students
  • Awards with a competitive element

These awards are nice if you win them, and you should always apply for them, but the reality is you have very little control over whether your student will receive them.

We encourage families to cast a wider net in order to find their unicorn university.

Instead of only looking at the name brand top tier schools, consider the hundreds of great schools who are also competing for the best students and who are willing to provide aid to get them.

We see excellent students all the time who are accepted to amazing schools like Harvard or Yale but receive no money because mom and dad are too financially successful. If you have the $250,000 set aside to pay for those schools, congratulations. For the rest of us, recognize that same student can turn around and get a full ride to a great school like the University of Dayton.

So how can you find the Unicorn University—just right for your budget?

Families can check out these FREE online resources and tools:

As the financial advisor, you can be the expert your clients turn to with knowledge we can help you develop.

A final few tips:

  • Don’t forget graduate school is often part of getting your dream job. Money you save on your undergrad degree can help pay for it!
  • The family can encourage the student to take the most rigorous coursework they can. The amount of rigor is determined by the child—not every child will succeed with a huge plateful of AP courses, but they should challenge themselves to do the most they are comfortable with.
  • Explore outside testing support if the student struggles with standardized testing. Sometimes spending a little bit of money on a tutor may earn the student a large chunk of money from a college. Families must do research when searching for a tutor. It is helpful if you have a few trusted names to provide to families.
  • Apply early! Most schools approach aid as a first come first served process. Families don’t want to miss out on money they could have received if they had applied earlier.
¹”Unicorn Myths”,

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