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What's This College Really Going to Cost?

When students apply to colleges and universities, they rarely know how much the schools that they'd love circle of $20 billsto attend will cost.

This strikes me as inexcusable when you consider that paying for college often represents the second biggest expense that many families will face.

How would you react if a waiter handed you a menu without prices? Even better, imagine being in the dark about the house you intend to buy until the closing day.

During the college admission process, students can readily learn all sorts of things that don't matter much: availability of vegan entrees, number of book in the library and how talented the football team is. Costs, however, are rarely discussed in college admission offices beyond the general assurance: We have great financial aid so don't focus on the price.

High school seniors usually don't find out how much the tab will be until the spring when they receive their admission letter. And sometimes they have to wait even longer for their financial aid awards. By the time they get their financial aid packages, they will usually have little time left to make a decision. At many colleges, student needs to submit their deposit no later than May. 1.

Getting an Early Verdict on Financial Aid

So what's the solution to this dilemma?

Families should ask colleges for a financial aid pre-read. Many schools are willing to provide families with an estimate of what assistance they could expect if their child attends their institutions. You can request this preliminary financial aid verdict before your child even applies to a school.

Typically, a school will want such information as the child's grade point average, test scores, class rank and activities. The school will also want information about the family's finances.

During certain times of the year, a college's financial aid office will be too swamped to provide financial aid pre-reads. The best time to ask for one is now - early fall - and late spring. Those are the times when financial aid officers are not busy putting together financial aid packages for freshmen or returning students.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes for TheCollegeSolutionBlog.
Financial Aid image by AMagill. CC 2.0.