Mark Kantrowitz is a financial aid expert, publisher, and author. He is the Owner and President of Cerebly, Inc., a company that provides consulting services for web page design, student financial aid, Artificial Intelligence, Common Lisp, PERL, mathematics, and other technical fields. Mark has written a number of financial aid books including his latest, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?

I grew up near Boston, Massachusetts. Money was tight, so my mother would cook hot dogs for dinner toward the end of the month when she ran out of money in the food budget. My brothers and I loved hot dogs, but she was embarrassed that we couldn’t afford to buy chicken.

My father gave me a TI-57 programmable calculator and challenged me to implement various routines. The TI-57 had just 50 programming steps, but I was able to implement a program to calculate multi-precision factorial.

I also implemented the game of 1 and 0. In this game, the human being chooses a 1 or a 0. The computer’s goal is to guess whichever number the human being chose. The human being’s goal is to block this. If the numbers matched, the computer won. If they didn’t, the human being won. I was able to implement a program that beat human beings about 80% of the time. People are not very random in their choices.

What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?

I wish I was a little more focused when I was younger. I was quite driven and often dove deep into my interests, but I was also easily distracted by the next new idea or challenge. This caused me to leave some projects unfinished when they were almost done because there was a new research topic that was much more interesting than the administrivia associated with bringing the previous project to a conclusion. There are a few projects that I may revisit when I have the time to finish them.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Parents make promises to their children that they can’t fulfill. For example, parents often tell their children that they’ll pay for college if the child is admitted. But, when the child gets into their dream school, the parents discover that it is unaffordable. If the child enrolls, either the family will graduate with an unaffordable amount of student loan debt, or the child will be forced to drop out and transfer to a less expensive college.

The solution is to have the college money talk sooner, before the child crafts their college list. The parents don’t have to tell the child how much they earn and their net worth. Instead, they can talk about how much they can afford to pay for college each year, how much they’ve saved for college, and how much student loan debt is reasonable and affordable. Their child will select colleges that are both a good academic fit and a good financial fit.

Parents also sometimes think that their child is so unique that they can bargain with the college, to get a bigger and better financial aid package. But, bluff and bluster will get you nowhere when appealing for more need-based aid. Rather, negotiation is about providing the college financial aid administrator with documentation of special circumstances that affect your ability to pay for college. Special circumstances can include changes in income since the prior-prior tax year (the year upon which income and tax information is based) and financial circumstances that differentiate the family from typical families. I explain this in my book, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.

Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?

I had rare cancer 18 years ago. I had none of the risk factors, but nevertheless, I had to face the big C. It can be frightening to realize that you might die and there’s little that you can do about it. I did read hundreds of journal articles about my particular type of cancer and was able to actively participate in my treatment decisions. But, it was still a very tough experience.

Chemotherapy was very harsh. During my first cycle of chemotherapy, I developed chemotherapy-induced pancreatitis and had to have an emergency cholecystectomy. The start of my second cycle was delayed to give my body time to recover. The pancreatitis caused me to become diabetic. I also suffered from other side effects, such as high pitch hearing loss, tinnitus, peripheral edema, peripheral neuropathy, and Raynaud’s phenomenon, among others.

I still experience these side effects today, but better to be alive with side effects than dead without.

One of the ways I coped with the rigors of cancer treatment was by writing cancer jokes. I finally published a book of these jokes last year. It is Tumor Humor: Cancer Jokes and Anecdotes.

What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?

I am skilled at making an inherently complicated topic, such as financial aid, seem simple. I provide students and their families with the information, insights, and tools they need to make smarter, more informed decisions.

My background as a research scientist is also helpful. Not only do I know all of the laws and regulations concerning planning and paying for college, but I also create new knowledge.

What is your morning routine?

I typically go to bed around 1 am and wake up around 5 am. I don’t use an alarm clock unless I need to get up before 5 am (e.g., to get to the airport). I wake up naturally. I’ve never needed much sleep. When I was a child, I would stay up all night reading. As I’ve gotten older, though, I have needed more sleep and now sleep about 4 hours a night.

I start by reading the news, including articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. I also have news alerts for keywords relating to college admissions and financial aid, so I read articles in other publications as well. This takes me about an hour.

I show and breed Cornish Rex cats as a hobby. My queen is a quadruple grand champion. She recently had a litter of four kittens. I check on them after I wake up and provide them with food and water. At night, before I go to bed, it’s playtime. That’s the most fun. They start learning how to play when they are about a month old. They like playing tag, leapfrog, wrestling, and soccer with each other. One of the kittens has decided to be a shoulder cat, and she’ll jump or climb to get up on my shoulder.

Since I work from home – I’ve worked from home for 15 of the last 20 years — I have no commute. My home office is in the basement. I have a protein shake for breakfast and soup or salad for lunch. I respond to emails, write articles, and conduct research. I also get calls from reporters throughout the day.

What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?

The key to a good research topic is to ask the right question. If you ask an interesting question, the answer will be interesting, regardless of whether it is favorable or unfavorable.

Too many researchers start with a hypothesis that assumes a particular conclusion. This blinds them to other potential outcomes, rather than let the data direct the work.

I also often use a “throwing mud at the wall” approach to research. Rather than pick specific variables to test, I test them all and review the results to see if there is anything that is statistically significant and unexpected. You can’t learn anything new if you limit yourself only to the questions for which you already know the answers.

What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?

I try to avoid meetings. Too often, people do not use meetings effectively. Meetings should be short and productive, with an agenda that sets goals for the meeting. A meeting should be used either to inform or to make decisions. All of the material relating to the meeting should have been distributed and reviewed prior to the meeting. Too often, people come to a meeting unprepared, which causes the meeting to go around in circles and not reach a conclusion. The number of meetings should also be limited. Otherwise, meetings soak up all your time, making it hard to get work done.

What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?

I really liked the book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character. Richard Feynman is a hero to science and math students. His irrepressible attitude and prankish nature stir one to just get things done. As Mr. Feynman said, “What do you care what people think?” You do the right thing because it needs to be done, not because someone told you to do it. It meshes well with other early influences on me, such as when Admiral Grace Hopper said, “It is easier to apologize than to ask permission.”

I also liked Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of ManIt discusses the fallacies of IQ and SAT tests. Just because you can quantify something doesn’t mean it measures something real. I once heard him speak. He was an incredibly dynamic speaker. But, I remember that event mostly because I was sitting at the same table as Prof. Jerry Lettvin of MIT. Prof. Lettvin was well-known for writing a seminal paper, “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.” An elderly woman at our table turned to him and said, “Dr. Lettvin, I’ve always wondered what’s the difference between a frog and a toad?” Prof. Lettvin replied by pulling his hands out of his pockets, holding a frog in one hand and a toad in the other, and saying “Here’s a frog, and here’s a toad.” I wonder whether that was a setup.

Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?

I attended the first year of the Rickover Science Institute, now known as the Research Science Institute. Admiral H.G. Rickover was involved in the first three years of the program. The Admiral once gave me a business card with this saying on it: “Late to bed, early to rise, work hard as hell, and you’ll be wise.” I still sleep only about 4 hours a night.