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Plan Well, Retire Well

Saving and investing your money

How Can I Estimate College Costs?

I have heard this question several times lately which reminds me that it's that time of the year again -- college application time!  For all you working with a young adult to submit college applications, good luck!  Submitting college applications can be stressful (as well as exciting) and a part of the stress is the difficulty in estimating college costs.

Not all colleges cost the same and, in the past, it's been difficult to compare one college's costs to the next. To help families compare costs, the U.S. Dept of Education has a new website to help. The College Affordability and Transparency Center has data about college tuition and fees, including lists of colleges with the highest and lowest costs. Start at this website to get a feel for the range of college costs. The website is part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act to increase the transparency around college costs.

Another part of this new initiative requires each college to provide a net price calculator. Typically you can find these calculators on the college's website under the financial aid section. The calculators go beyond the "tuition and fees" price to include other costs and to help estimate grants and scholarships – and how this affects the net cost for students. Take time to play with these calculators when your young adult begins the college application process.

To apply for federal financial aid, families need to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form available online at If you're just beginning the process of looking at college options, you may want to try the FAFSA4caster – a calculator that allows you to estimate your federal financial aid potential. This is a good way to get an idea of how much federal financial aid a student may qualify for.

Remember, financial aid may take the form of loans, scholarships and work study. Some financial aid students need to pay back, some may be loans to parents, and some may be scholarships which don't need to be paid back. For more information about financial aid, I'd suggest browsing the financial aid sections of college websites. In addition, has well-written information about financial aid.

While it is difficult to say exactly how much college will cost, these resources can help you begin estimating costs. Now is a good time to start calculating ... before the first tuition bills are due!

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by Pattinson Strauss on Friday 12/16/2011