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Nancy Bartlett

"College Planning: A Crash Course on Paying the Bill," a Wall Street Journal article published in The Californian on Jan. 27, is helpful for families coming to terms with the realities of college costs as their high school seniors begin to get their college acceptances. But there's more to the story.

The cost of college and how to pay for it should be part of thinking about college from the very beginning. It's never too early to start this conversation but it should certainly begin by the junior year. College admission is much more competitive and a college education is dramatically more expensive than it was just a few years ago. Academic excellence in a rigorous curriculum, strong test scores (AP, SAT and ACT), and high class ranking are important throughout a high school career. Planning for the costs is just as important. There are resources to help.

Since 2012, every college is required to include a "net price calculator" on its website. This is not an absolute predictor but it does help make a ballpark estimate of costs at that college. Another helpful source to estimate costs ("cost of attendance," or COA) can be found on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid website at Families can get an estimate of what they will be expected to pay ("expected family contribution," or EFC) as well as the amount of "need-based aid" that colleges may provide. This could include grants, work-study programs and student loans.

Not all colleges have the same policy. Some offer plans that cover 100 percent of the need-based aid amount but others offer only 7 percent, leaving a gap that must be filled by the family. A good tool to explore this issue can be found at under "Search for Colleges." Enter the college name.

Students offered admission but nearer the bottom of the applicant pool in their qualifications may see their aid package limited -- enough to make the college unaffordable.

Loans are an important part of these aid packages. The average student loan at a particular college can also be found at Remember that loans must be repaid and it has been estimated that a graduate must earn at least $43,000 per year to service a total debt of $25,000. But a graduate with a $35,000 debt needs to earn at least $60,000!

A growing number of colleges offer "merit aid" based on factors like academics, talent, leadership, diversity, gender and volunteer activities. These scholarships are used to attract students that further the college's goals such as a diverse student body, better college rankings, and a more affluent base (families able to pay). There also are a host of scholarships available from local and private organizations, many with special, unique qualifications such as "for a student of a food service worker." Each scholarship involves an application often requiring high grades, high test scores, volunteer work and essays. It has been estimated that about 1 in 10 applications results in a scholarship for a student. Consideration when applying for scholarships should include looking at how the money will be applied. Every college's policy is different and should be spelled out on its website. There are four patterns to watch for:

* If the family has the resources to pay the entire cost of college, a scholarship can reduce the parent cost.

* Some schools subtract the scholarship from the loan amount. (A good thing!)

* Some schools subtract the scholarship from the work-study portion. (Also good!)

* Some schools subtract the scholarship from need-based aid or merit-based aid that would have otherwise been provided without decreasing the family's cost at all.

It's never too early to plan for college and planning how to pay for it is an integral part. Finding the right college fit for a student involves location, size, academics, social and certainly financial considerations.

Nancy Bartlett of Bakersfield is director of The College Conundrum, which provides consulting services to college-bound students and their parents. She holds a UCLA graduate certificate in college counseling. Contact her via her website, Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.