Frank Palmasani, Hinsdale South High School

February is Financial Aid Awareness Month. So who better to feature as our Counselor of the month than Frank Palmsani?  A veteran counselor now in his 20th year at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Illinois, Palmasani is also the originator of the Financial Fit Method, a program that provides families with a step-by-step process for figuring out affordable colleges, how to file financial aid documents, how to pay for college and how to analyze award letters. His guide to choosing and paying for college, Right College, Right Price, was published in January.

Palmsani spends his days at Hinsdale South, a comprehensive high school -- and a magnet school for the deaf -- with a diverse population -- socioeconomically, ethnically, and academically -- of approximately 1800 students. One of nine counselors at the school, Palmasani is charged with assisting students with personal, social, and academic concerns, as well as college counseling and selection and career/vocational plans.

His time away from the high school campus is often spent getting out his message about college debt and affordability in his seminars on financial aid. When he began these presentations in 1981, they primarily covered the basics of paying for a college education. But over time, as the challenges of paying for college grew, he began to feel a paradigm shift was necessary. “Everybody believes that really good college counseling is all about fit,” says Palmasani. “There are three segments. There is academic fit – the concept that students need not only to find a school that has their major but a place where they will be academically successful. Then there is cultural/social fit – campus fit. But the fit that can be ignored is financial fit, the place where the family can systematically assess what they can afford and then match that with the net price of the institution – not the sticker price, but the net price.”  (Sticker price is the "advertised price" of attending college for one year. Net price is the student's bottom line cost -- minus scholarships, grants and student loans.)

Palmasani received his undergraduate degree at Lewis University, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college in Romeoville, Illinois, where he also received a Masters in guidance and counseling. He began his career in counseling at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois, in 1976. (While at Providence, he also served as varsity basketball coach, leading his team to a state championship in 1979.) He joined the other side of the desk in 1981, returning to Lewis University, where he eventually became Director of Admissions until he joined Hinsdale South High School in 1993.

At home, Palmasani is married to "the absolutely most wonderful person" -- wife Marge -- and they remain in the thick of the college process as parents -- one daughter and son are now graduated and working in special education; another son is a college freshman; and a third son is a sophomore in high school.

A lifelong Chicago area resident and "huge White Sox fan", Palmasani is nevertheless probably more passionate about educating students and families about finding the right college fit without accumulating excessive debt. "There are only certain things I can have influence on," he says. "I would love for college costs to be lower and would love for the federal government and states to put more money into this. I can't do anything about that. But I can change the way the family hears the message."

Join Frank Palmasani here to learn his best advice on financial aid for students and parents, the most common misunderstanding families have about paying for college and more…

How did you become a college counselor?

From the first day I started teaching in 1975, I always wanted to be a counselor.  I am actually a School Counselor -- more often referred to as a generalist, in that we counsel all students in our alphabet slice. So I counsel 250 students per year and the assignments are established based on their last name; i.e, all the students (all four grades) whose last name begins with an R or S.  I started in the counseling profession as the College Counselor at Providence Catholic High School in 1976.  I left Providence in 1981 and spent 12 years at Lewis University in Admissions.  My positions were Admissions Counselor, Assistant Director, Associate Director and eventually director of Admissions.  In 1993 I came to Hinsdale South.  I enjoy seeing the growth and development of students during those high school years and find that the generalist approach allows me to really get to know the students and their families quite well before senior year.

What is your motto? 

                I’m not sure that I have a motto but hope that my work contributes to the students and their parents' lives.

How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different?

                I personally applied to one school, where my friends went.  In my thirty plus years working in this area, the process has changed considerably.  Of course, my work now is to get counselors, students, and parents to “buy into” a new approach to college search and selection – a method I call “financial fit.”

Do you remember what the cost of tuition was when you attended college?

                Most students, when I attended, could attend a state school for free if they qualified for either state or federal grant money.  Private colleges were only a few thousand dollars beyond those grants.  Very few of us took out any student loans.

You have a particular expertise in financial aid, what is your best advice for families about financial aid?

            Families should not start the process of searching for colleges by reading guidebooks, attending college nights, visiting campuses, or perusing websites.  They should start the process by systematically determining (through an analysis of tax credits, cash flow, available savings, and reasonable borrowing) how much they can actually afford to pay for college each year.   The “financial fit” search program teaches them how to match that affordability with the net price of colleges from 8 different college categories. Those categories are: Flagship State School (in your state); Non-flagship state school (in your state); Flagship state school (out of state); Non-flagship (out of state); Highly Selective Private College: Mid-size private; Traditional private and the eighth category is a financal backup.  If you cannot find a fit in any of the first seven categories, the backup has two possibilities: commuting (live at home and save room and board cost) or community college (attend your local community college for the first two years).    

What is the most common misunderstanding you observe with how families think about paying for college?

                Misunderstandings and misinformation are rampant.  I actually begin my book by covering 10 of these misconceptions.  Perhaps one of the most egregious is the notion that when you file the FAFSA, the government calculates your expected family contribution and that is what you pay the college.

When and how should families start preparing for the cost of a college education?

                Well, we would all love for families to start early, saving when their children are young.  My work, however, is to take families where they are at… and teach them that no one has to borrow excessive amounts of money to pay for college.  Students need however to learn how to search for college options, understanding the financial limits of their parents.

What aspect of financial aid do families find it most difficult to understand or execute?

                Before the net price calculator (NPC) mandate, one of the most difficult issues for families was the timing… not learning net price until March or April before a May 1 decision deadline.  That issue (although somewhat still concerning) has been mitigated with the NPC’s as long as families learn how to maximize that informational benefit.

What would you say to students and parents about merit aid or scholarships?

                Today, performance means money.  Here is the way I put it when I speak to parents.   Years ago we encouraged students to do well on tests and in the classroom to be admitted to college.  Now, the reason to do well on tests (ACT/SAT) and in the classroom is to get money from schools!

Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?

                What is most important (at some time from freshman to junior year) is for the high school counselor to facilitate good communication from the student to the parent about “getting on the same page” as it relates to college costs.  When students and parents are on the same page today, tremendous results can occur.  Unfortunately, students do not have an understanding of the negative impact of excessive borrowing.  This is a topic that in my view should be taught in high school consumer and economics classes.  I actually teach a class at my school titled, “The economics of your college choice.”

What are some of the “do's and don’ts” for students as they work with their counselor?

                The most important aspect is to not be myopic about their college options….only focusing on colleges with which they are familiar.

What are the favorite books on your college-counseling shelf?

                The Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edward Fiske

                Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges by Frederick Rugg

                The K& W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities by Marybeth Kravets and Imy Wax

What websites do you find most valuable for students and families? 


What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

                Students spend $40 to $90 applying to colleges and have no idea if those colleges are affordable for the family.  The financial fit method of college searching ensures that  if a student applies to a college, he or she can make a reasonable judgment that the net price is affordable.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

                College selection is about finding the perfect fit…the school that fits the student and family in all ways:  academically, financially, socially, culturally.

How do you encourage your students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

                In February of each year, we sponsor a program for our junior students and parents that emphasizes colleges that students do not know much about.  We bring in 8 to 9 of these colleges.  It is a program that “kickstarts” the process.  We also have a large district college night for juniors and their parents in April along with one-on-one sessions with these same students and parents in February and March.

How can students best benefit from technology in the college application process?

                As I say in my seminars, there is more information available today about college features and benefits and college costs (net prices) than ever before.  The key is to develop an organizational system to maximize this information.

Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently?

                Students from low socio-economic groups have a huge challenge.  I have found the best way to work with these students is to match them up with particular colleges where they can actually attend with no or limited net price.  These families can’t afford anything to pay for college.  With today’s costs and the limited resources available on the state and federal level, this is a huge challenge.

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

                By now I’m sure you know that I am passionate about helping families manage their college costs without excessive debt. Everyone sees excessive debt a little differently.  For students, I encourage them to keep their student loans to $30,000 or less for an undergraduate degree.  That re-payment would then be less than $300 per month. The maximum Stafford (Direct) loan is $27,000 for four years or $31,000 if more than 4.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

                The high school where I have served for the last 20 years is very diverse.  Thirty percent of our kids are on free or reduced-cost lunch programs.  That diversity has helped reinforce to me the importance and value that we need to place on being able to appropriately allow poor students access to college options beyond their local community college… if they are ever going to break the cycle of poverty.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?

                I admire Deans and Directors who “get it.”  These Deans understand how challenging college costs are to families and how important transparency is.  I have encountered some deans who “like” the idea of having costs appear to a family in April (for the first time) before a May 1 deadline, instead of earlier in the process.  I find this to be quite disconcerting.  For example, when colleges are not using good quality net price calculators, the results the families obtain do not help them with their primary goal of learning net prices as early as possible in the process.  The purpose of the initiative by the Department of Education is to encourage transparency and provide families with the tools necessary to better plan and prepare for college costs.

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