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Costs of college

Education: Local man guides students in search of financial aid for school

Posted: October 25, 2010 8:57 p.m.
Updated: October 26, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Brian Safdari speaks to students attending a youth leadership program at UCLA in August. Safdari’s firm helps high school and college students learn how to successfully apply for financial aid and seek out colleges that endow students with greater financial assistance.

 

Brian Safdari’s journey to success began on foot, more than two decades ago, traveling with his family along mountainous roads to escape a war-torn country on a four-year search for safety and freedom. Eventually the family arrived in California.

Some 24 years later, Safdari, 29, runs his own company and is poised to take flight once again; this time by expanding his business.

While the road to success has never been paved for Safdari, he remains positive and appreciative for all that he has learned. So much so, that he remains committed to helping others so they can avoid the pitfalls that befell him.

Life’s dream
Ever since Safdari was 5 years old, he played soccer with dreams of one day playing for the men’s U.S. national soccer team.

In 1996, he made the California state team, an Olympic development team in preparation for the World Cup. By 1998, while still in high school, Safdari was elected as one of the Los Angeles players to assemble a junior team to play in the World Cup games in France.

With scouts watching his prowess on the field, Safdari expected an athletic scholarship from schools such as Duke University; University of North Carolina; University of California, Los Angeles; and University of Southern California.
However, with college acceptances in hand, a career-ending injury struck.

Upon returning from the ’98 World Cup, Safdari tore a groin muscle during the city league’s quarterfinals. Soon, scouts were doubtful of a full recovery, and began dropping him from the recruitment lineup.

He was devastated. His lifelong dream and the opportunity to go to college came crashing down.

Paying his way
Looking at school costs like comparing prices on produce, Safdari opted for what he believed at the time would be the least expensive route and applied at CSUN. With no athletic scholarship to fall back on, Safdari did what millions of students
have done. He applied for financial aid, but was rejected.

His parents had recently purchased a pizza restaurant, making it appear on paper as if they could afford to financially support Safdari’s college expenses. However, they could not. The only solution he saw was to take out high-interest, compounding student loans to finance his education.

Graduating with a major in finance, Safdari faced the harsh reality that he now carried a $50,000 school debt.  Frantic, he met with higher education consultants to work on consolidating his loans and figure out how pay the loans off. Along the way, he met people who became his mentors and learned how the system of financing an education really works.

Safdari entered the work force during the mortgage industry boom in 2003. He got a real estate license and went to work selling homes, making $10,000 to $15,000 per transaction. Within eight months, Safdari paid back his student loans in full.

Building a business
“People just fill out financial aid forms, cross their fingers and hope they get money,” Safdari said.

He points out that people don’t know how to fill the forms out properly, list assets improperly or just plain make mistakes resulting in over a 90 percent error rate. The end result is students are rejected unnecessarily for financial aid every day by a series of calculations that determine “need,” or lack thereof.

Enter the college loan business. Students are then given a preferred lenders list and steered into taking out student loans, embarking on a college education and the possible path to financial ruin simultaneously.

After paying his debt, Safdari continued studying the Higher Education Act.

Safdari realized that by understanding the process — filling out financial aid forms properly, protecting assets, securing interest-free need loans and searching for schools that granted endowment and institutional merit money — people could avoid the debt he incurred.

“I learned that I could have gone to a private school, spending less money than at the public colleges,” he said. “And the net costs would have been the same as at the public school.”

He started meeting with students and giving them advice in exchange for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. His passion to help grew, and so did word of his services. Soon strangers were calling him for help. Then families began calling. Only the parents upped the ante for free advice. They began treating Safdari to steak dinners. All in exchange for saving thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket school costs.

In 2004, Safdari opened College Planning Experts and began charging fees for his services. The company also hosts free workshops on the basics for parents at schools in SCV and the Antelope Valley, as well as in community libraries and on college campuses.

“I had a burning desire to get the word out to people,” Safdari said. He said that he isn’t a born entrepreneur or salesperson. He believes his business has grown because of his driving need to help others avoid mistakes he unknowingly made.

Today, the company has four college planners working with clients from all over L.A. County, as far away as Long Beach to Santa Monica and Westlake Village. Safdari said the business tripled in size in a little more than a year, while other companies were downsizing. He plans on opening four new offices in the next year or two.

Safdari continues ongoing education by spending four to six weeks per year attending education conferences. He said the Higher Education Act was 593 pages in 2003. Today, the information covers 1,201 pages. The average student, parent or counselor can’t keep up with the overwhelming information and continual reforms.

“If I had just stayed where I was (knowledgewise) several years ago,” said Safdari, “I would probably be obsolete by now.”

Avoiding the loan trap
College Planning Experts prefers to start working with families in the ninth or 10th grade to build a comprehensive plan for covering higher-education costs without jeopardizing homes or retirement funds.

The company works with families to search for schools that are the best fit for their children and offer the most financial assistance. Often, the answer lies in private colleges.

Safdari gave one example of how he has helped a family.

When a student applies for financial aid, the family answers some 200 questions of which 74 will be factored into their Expected Family Contribution rating.

“Every family will have a different EFC even if they make the same amount of money,” said Safdari.

Parents invest in 529 college savings accounts for a child. When the child turns 18 years old, the money is counted as an asset, 50 cents on the dollar. If a family saved $50,000 for college, the asset would be counted as $25,000 on the financial
aid application, counting against the student seeking financial aid. One is penalized for having saved money toward college and is possibly forced into debt by securing student loans, whereas the student who has not saved earns a higher eligibility score for financial assistance.

Safdari took the college savings asset and moved it under the father’s business. The money still factors into the “need” equation, but is now counted at only 5-cents on the dollar reducing the family’s expected contribution from $25,000 to $2,500.

Financial aid “need” is determined by a formula: Cost of attendance, which includes tuition, room and board, books and transportation, subtracted by the estimated family contribution.

In essence, the lower a family’s estimated contribution is, the higher the need eligibility goes. The opposite is true with cost of attendance. However, the higher an EFC score ranks, the “need” is assessed at a much lower dollar amount.

Of the amount of “need” approved, families need to look at specific schools to find out what percent of need each school contributes to meeting that need. Some schools meet 100 percent of that need, others meet less.

Law of reciprocity
Fleeing Afghanistan in the ’80s, to escape the nine-year civil war between the Soviet Union communists and Islamic militants, Afghanistan’s mujahedeen, the family wandered for four years in search of freedom.

Arriving in the U.S. in 1986 at age 5, Safdari spoke no English. His parents had not graduated from high school or college.
He was an English-as-a-second-languge student and said he had to work very hard to become an equal to his peers. As the oldest child, he had to figure out how to get into college and finance it.

His life experiences have taught him that anything in life is possible if you really search for it. People thought he was crazy for leaving the high paying mortgage business to go into the education field. But Safdari said real estate was just a job, helping others afford a college education was a passion. It has been very rewarding.

“It’s that law of reciprocity,” said Safdari. “The more you do for people, the more good things happen to you.”
College Planning Experts is located at 25115 Ave. Stanford, Suite B250 in Valencia, and can be reached at (661) 295-9946. Upcoming workshops are posted on the website at www.collegeplanningexperts.com/workshops.

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