Picture this: After applying to a total of 12 different colleges, one high school senior from Dexter, MI was lucky enough to receive acceptance letters from 11 of those schools. While enviable by some accounts, this student is still left with debating which school to attend. Her top three options—Dayton University, Xavier College, and Wittenberg College—all offer completely different award packages. As she reviews her options, college fit is still the number one thing she looks for when making her choice, but the financial fit is a close second.

It isn’t hard to notice some of more frightening statistics regarding the student-loan debt crisis. The amount Americans owe in student loan debt has swelled recently to $1.3 trillion—second only to mortgage debt—spread out amongst about 43 million borrowers. With more and more students applying to college each year combined with the ever-rising cost of tuition, that number is predicted to rise. The class of 2015 had a record-breaking year in which the average graduate left college with over $35,000 in student loans. Graduating with a high amount of debt can mean students may have to face years of repercussions, from delaying the purchase of a home to moving back in with their parent in order to save for costly monthly loan repayments. With that in mind, this Dexter senior ultimately wants to graduate with as little debt as possible.

Every year, as parents and students attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of paying for college, I hear repeatedly from my clients that saving and paying for college is nearly impossible. Some parents want to bury their heads in the sand and hope for the best. Some students lack the financial understanding necessary to comprehend the full burden that college debt can have on their lives. And almost all parents and students are left feeling as if there is no option left other than to accept student loan debt as an inevitability.

Let’s step back for a moment. One of the main contributors to parents and students feeling like they have no option other than costly student loans to pay for tuition is that they don’t start thinking about college planning until it is late in a student’s high school career. So, let’s go back to our student’s freshman year of high school. It may not seem like it, but this is actually the opportune time to start exploring colleges and their costs. While our student was in her freshman year of high school, I worked with her by using a computer program in my office that highlights a student’s chances of acceptance and the cost of attendance at specific institutions. This gives everyone an ‘up front’ look at the changes in admissions and fluctuations in college costs. It is also at this stage where I discussed ‘fit’—both college and financial—with the student and her parents. I like to explore state institutions, private institutions, and colleges that meet 100% of a student’s need. I also look for colleges that are need-aware and those that offer the most in merit-based aid. After working extensively with this student, she had the next three years to explore, investigate, and ultimately make a well-informed final decision on the best ‘fit’ college. In the end, the best college for her has to be one that meets her needs and doesn’t simply state the percentage of students who receive financial aid.

This planning helped another one of my students—a senior from Canton High School—to make her final decision. She was accepted to seven of the top schools in Michigan, and ultimately she decided to attend Eastern Michigan University where she was offered free tuition. She also plans on living at home to save on room and board. Because she planned ahead and made the right choice for her and her pocketbook, she will graduate with little to no debt and be able to continue her graduate studies in nursing.

“My parents have always wanted the best for me,” she recalled. “When it came to paying for college, they felt that this should be something that I do.”

Since tuition rate increases have outpaced income and inflation over the past few decades, it doesn’t look like the problem of paying for college is going away anytime soon. Students and parents should look towards a college future with the hope that higher education is worth its price tag. It is my ultimate goal that my client knows everything there is to know about the college pricing game and how to play it. With my help, I want my clients to feel that both the college and the price is the right fit.

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