The three biggest investments most families make are in their home, their retirement and education for their children, says Philip James.
Of those, a family’s college investment is the only one usually made without consultation, says James, co-founder of College Assistance Plus in Honeoye Falls.
“In the Rochester area, paying for college far outstrips the cost of a home, especially when you have three or four kids,” he says. “It’s a real problem for families. And yet for colleges, folks don’t go out and seek expert advice. They listen to what the colleges tell them.”
James, 57, and Paul Celuch, 70, left their careers in sales and marketing to launch College Assistance Plus in 2004. They met at Lima Christian School, where their children were students.
“We saw a real need in the marketplace,” James says. “So many families and students have been walking out of college just crippled in debt. It’s a real problem. With two or three kids, we’ve seen $200,000 or $300,000 in college loans.
“There’s over $1 trillion in college debt out there, and most of that is government-backed, which means it’s non-dischargeable through bankruptcy. We saw that families needed help navigating through this process.”
The business was started in the basement of Celuch’s home. College Assistance Plus eventually took office space on Main Street in Honeoye Falls, then moved to 25 Norton St. in 2011.
The business has served 2,500 families in Western New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania and as far away as Minnesota. It has partnerships with 14 credit unions, three banks and more than 30 financial planners and CPA firms.
College Assistance Plus employs 12 people in Honeoye Falls and 24 sales representatives at other locations.
“We’ve grown every single year,” James says. “We’ve been profitable since day one. We’ve probably grown about 20 percent each year.”
The business is on track to grow 25 percent in 2013, he says. It likely will add four employees this year.
“The last three or four years, we’ve really taken off,” James says.
He says representatives at College Assistance Plus save their clients money by finding the right college fit for families socially, academically and financially.
“We’ll sit down with a family and see what their goals are for their children academically, see how much money they’ve saved for college—90 percent of them haven’t saved much—and put together a strategy of colleges that are a good fit,” James says.
The calculations also include the family’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which determines eligibility for federal student aid.
“There are 3,000 colleges in the country,” James says. “We try to narrow that down to 10 or 15 colleges that are a good fit for the student, so they’re not overwhelmed with information and what to do.
“As they narrow down the colleges we’ve identified, they get a handle on what it’s going to cost and can start making good decisions.”
College Assistance Plus saved its clients more than $600,000 in 2012 and will save them $1.4 million over four years, officials estimate. A one-time fee, which James declines to disclose, covers clients until their child graduates.
“Most people don’t know that you can negotiate with colleges to get a better deal,” James says. “That’s one of our strong suits. We know how to leverage schools. We know the value of your student going into college, and we know the value of the student to the college once they’re in college.”
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