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Danny Umali of Game Theory College Planners: They Told Me It Was Impossible And I Did It Anyway

If people only knew that the families from the lowest income brackets could go to 60K-70K a year schools for next to nothing, we could change a lot of lives. I think there is a severe lack of education of how colleges really work, and that college is actually affordable to many low-income families. Just show up with decent grades and a decent test score, and so many doors would open. I think a lot of families and gifted students just assume they could never go to an “expensive” college. I take on a few pro-bono cases each year with families that can barely put food on the table, and you would be amazed at the things I have seen.

As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danny Umali.

Since 2010, Danny Umali has been serving families in the metro Atlanta area as a private college planner. In 2014, he launched Game Theory College Planners after realizing that a modern enrollment management and research-based approach was needed to address the college problem. Danny was also the first college planner to successfully incorporate professional social media guidance within the context of college admissions and financial aid. Today, Danny works with families nationwide and stays on the bleeding edge of enrollment management trends in higher education.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?

I am one of six kids raised in a Filipino household. My parents are first-generation immigrants who came here looking for a better life in the United States. As a child of first-generation immigrants, I always felt like I lived in two different worlds: the Filipino microcosm that was my home and the outside world as it was in the 1980’s. (If you want a pretty rough biography of my life, just listen to any of Jo Koy’s comedic sets.) I am part of Generation X, so we’ve been through a lot of changes. I remember life before cell phones and the internet. Our family didn’t own a computer until the mid 1990’s. I learned a lot about computers my freshman year of college in an introductory course and everything I know about technology was built from that foundation.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Actually I am. Being sheltered in place, I watched a lot of YouTube. I think we all did. I was inspired by a lot of the talent I saw out there and decided to launch my own vlog. I realized that YouTube is a search engine for a lot of people and that video content may be easier to consume than the written word or a recorded podcast as our collective attention spans continue to shrink. I wanted to create something that was authentic, relevant and useful. I wanted families to have ready and free access to helpful information around the college planning process. With the current pandemic, a lot of college plans are being postponed or completely wrecked so access to this kind of information is critical. The higher education landscape is undergoing some unprecedented changes as we speak so I want to guide families through that. They need this information and I did wanted my content to be a few mouse clicks away.

In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?

We teach families how colleges really work. A lot of what the general public knows about college admissions and financial aid is broken. In addition, a lot of educational consultants in my field are just not spotting maybe even ignoring the current trends. The traditional approach to college planning really has not changed much since the late 1970’s. We look at college planning through the lens of enrollment management instead of traditional admissions counseling. We can probably spend several segments just going over the specifics of that statement, but I’ll give you a few examples.

For most students, going to an in-state public college actually costs more than going to an “expensive” private university. Skyrocketing college costs and student loan debt are not the core issues. The core issue is college completion. 6 out of 10 students will not have a college degree after 10 years. Only 19% of students in the U.S will graduate in 4 years.

Did you know that outside scholarships can actually hurt you by reducing the financial aid you get from the college.? Did you know that colleges may evaluate the student’s social media footprint, sometimes before the college application is even submitted? Did you know that competition for your student is the primary driver behind merit scholarships, not necessarily good grades and test scores?

We take the reality of enrollment management and incorporate these principles with our approach to the college problem. We realize that there are really three goals with college: getting in, fitting in, and getting paid.

Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?

The thing you need to know about me is that despite all of my accomplishments as a college planner, I myself have never obtained a college degree. I dropped out of college my freshman year so that I could marry the love of my life that I had just met on campus. (Karen and I have been married for over 23 yearsare still married by the way, and we run our company together.) Starting off as newlyweds we got by waiting tables and tending bar for several years. I did move up in retail management, but I had bigger dreams of starting my own business. I don’t know how Karen did it, but she finally finished college by going full-time and working full-time hours. I never did, because I could never fit college in with all the travel involved with my retail management career. I left Apple in 2009 and made the jump into a wealth management firm where I was recruited. I finally made the move to start my business.

When I made the jump, it was a struggle working in a competitive and commission only environment. We suffered a lot during those years, and we struggled financially. We survived on retirement savings, but things just never really took off. When the retirement funds ran out, my mother, who had been my relentless cheerleader all my life, said something that shook me to my core. She asked me what the hell I was doing and why I just couldn’t find a normal job with normal steady income. She asked me why I had to think so big. I am paraphrasing here but I’ll never forget the weight and the significance of her words. She did not use the word “impossible” but she made me feel that what I was trying to accomplish was. I don’t blame her for what she said. I think she was being a good mom and was genuinely concerned about me.

I did a lot of personal reflection after that conversation and almost pulled the plug on the whole thing, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I never saw my vision through to the end. I am glad that I did.

I have no regrets, but what drives me and what frequently hits me is this realization: What could I have accomplished if I went back in time and was given the opportunity of going through my own enrollment management process? In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? :-)

In the end, my talents were discovered by the right people and I was asked to help start a college planning agency in Atlanta. They needed someone with a wealth management background that was not shy about presenting to groups of people. We had some modest success, but a very special mentor came along and helped me branch out to finally start my own shop, where I had complete control and made all of the decisions. That is when my life changed. I launched Game Theory College Planners June 2014, and I will never forget it. The excitement and sheer terror of starting a business leads to a lot of lost sleep and to some of the highest highs you will ever experience. Here we are in our 6th year and we are still thriving, even during this pandemic.

Since 2014, the revenue my company generated grew at an exponential rate, and the success we had and continue to have still feels like a dream.

My mom and I were on a road trip together to visit some family when things really started turning around with my new company. We talked about a lot of things that day. During a particularly long stretch of highway, she told me that she always knew that I would be wildly successful. That’s when I knew that I had made it. It happened when my mom started cheering for me again. She’s not as young as she used to be, so I am glad that I pulled it off while she was still around to see it. That’s one of the accomplishments I am most grateful for in life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I cannot begin to overstate the importance of having a good mentor. I didn’t have a good one. I had the best. My mentor is a legend in the college planning world, and I am fortunate to call him a mentor and a friend. He changed my life.

It would be a disservice to not include the members of my family and a few friends that have been a tremendous source of inspiration and sanity along the way. If they are reading this, they all know who they are.

Surprisingly, I also look back at some of the people that I did not see eye to eye with professionally or may have even wronged me along the way. Though I might not have realized it at the time, these people have pushed me to move forward instead of moving backwards. I have to be thankful for that. There are so many others that have helped me along the way. I wish I could tell you about all of them.

It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?

Like I said before, my mother was my cheerleader all my life and probably a source of a lot of my own self-esteem. I had a great childhood, but we grew up in a middle-income household and money was tight with 6 kids. When I was a teenager, I was a magnet student attending a high school with a higher income demographic because I had obtained admission to a special academic program that was only offered at that school.

It was a challenge mingling with students that wore impeccable brand name clothes, were routinely gifted their own cars on their 16th birthdays, and took exotic trips to the Bahamas on spring break. I took the bus the entire time. On a few occasions I would hitch a ride with my brother, but he drove an old yellow Volvo station wagon, so not much of an upgrade there.

Despite being unable to relate to these students from a different socioeconomic group, I relied on my good grades and my wits to carry me through. Despite my humble origins and my status as a magnet student, I managed to become the president of my class junior year. That’s when I really started to think that I could accomplish things when I really set my mind to it. So here I am today, one of the most successful college planners in the country, and I don’t even have a college degree. The irony never escapes me.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)

  1. Get really good at facing rejection. You will be rejected thousands of times before you see any semblance of success. What you do not see behind every success story were the thousands of doors slammed in their collective faces. I think what separates failure from success isn’t necessarily talent. It’s your own threshold for rejection and maybe a little luck thrown in. I learned the more I got rejected, the luckier I would get.
  2. Your strongest allies and staunchest supporters may turn against you. When you find your vision and your purpose, not everyone is going to understand. Be sure to ask yourself how bad you want what you are reaching for. Prepare to be ridiculed. Prepare to be called into question. When this happens, you need to surround yourself with other big thinkers. Find allies that share your vision.
  3. Study your field closely and look for the trends where no one else is paying attention. If you are hungry enough, you will find it. It takes a lot of guts to break into an established field and start asking tough questions. Offering new answers to those tough questions takes even more guts.
  4. This may happen once or twice in your lifetime. We all have those pivotal moments when we ask ourselves “is this it or is this all I’ll ever do?” You may even be ready to throw in the towel and walk away. You need to listen to yourself when the question is asked. You need to tell yourself that you will never settle. This is your Peter Pan moment. It’s time to step off that window and fly.
  5. Most importantly, share your success. I have met other people in my market trying to break into the college planning industry. The natural reaction is a defensive one. Don’t fall into that trap. You need to learn what they can teach you. Can they make you better? Is this someone that can work with you? I have actually partnered with several individual start-ups in my industry and in my market. I’ve learned that there is plenty of success to go around. I know that when you surround yourself with success, you just get more of it.

Eventually some maverick is going to disrupt my industry and knock me off the top position and all I have to say is “good for them.” That person is out there. When it happens, I will be thankful that they showed me something that will make us all better at what we do.

What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?

I actually have this quote framed in my office from Theodore Roosevelt.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If people only knew that the families from the lowest income brackets could go to 60K-70K a year schools for next to nothing, we could change a lot of lives. I think there is a severe lack of education of how colleges really work, and that college is actually affordable to many low-income families. Just show up with decent grades and a decent test score, and so many doors would open. I think a lot of families and gifted students just assume they could never go to an “expensive” college. I take on a few pro-bono cases each year with families that can barely put food on the table, and you would be amazed at the things I have seen.

Can our readers follow you on social media?

Of course. You can subscribe to my vlog, College Walk and Talk:

You can also connect with me on LinkedIn:

If you want to learn about me and my organization, here is my website:

Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!



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