College Costs Are Daunting, Even For The 'Comfortable'

Parents figuring out how to pay for college face significant challenges.
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President Obama thinks more poor kids who are good students should be enrolled in the country's best colleges and universities. Too often, he says, kids from lower income families don't even apply to the best schools, where they might have a good chance of getting financial aid.

This week, he gathered the heads of 100 colleges and universities to a meeting at the White House to discuss how to change this situation for the better. I hope he is successful.

But I have spent a lot time over the last couple years helping my own child navigate the college application process, and I can't say I am hopeful. It's a process that can make a smart person feel stupid and a relatively comfortable person feel poor.

For me, the first shock came at the beginning of my daughter's junior year, when I Googled a couple of schools I thought she might be interested in. They were small, private colleges with good reputations.

I knew college would be expensive. I just hadn't realized how expensive. The combined cost of tuition and room and board at these schools is between $55,000 and $60,000 a year. I was horrified to learn that this was pretty much the norm for private colleges and universities. Out-of-state tuition at public universities is better, but not always that much better.

When I began talking about this, I was often told, "Don't worry, you won't have to pay the full ticket. The schools will give your daughter money."

"They will?" I asked.

"Yes. Once your kid gets in, they tell you how much you get."

Oh, I thought, so it's like buying an airplane ticket. One person pays $800 for the same flight that someone else gets for $150, and everyone in the middle pays $300. And obviously those who know how to play the game best will get it at the lowest cost.

I don't know about you, but I really hate that. Besides, I kept thinking, if my kid goes to a school that costs $60,000, someone is going to have to give her an awful lot of money.

We are close to the end of the process now. We came up with a decent list of schools, mostly public universities. And just like everyone said, we'll make a final decision after we hear from all the schools and find out just how much they really are going to charge.

And just in case, we've got a really great safety valve: a Canadian university. And trust me, my Canadian husband never stops telling me what a good education she'll get, and how much cheaper it will be, if she decides to go there.

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