10/30/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2013

Can Parents Afford the Cost of College Today?

CollegeBoard, the advocacy and policy center, released its three-part Trends in Higher Education series (Trends in College Pricing, Trends in Student Aid, and Education Pays). These reports provide information on student financial aid, tuition and other expenses associated with attending college and demonstrate financial trends over time. The reports show that grant aid to students has not kept pace with tuition growth, even though colleges have slowed the rates at which they raise tuition.

Although federal aid once kept overall costs down, that aid has diminished significantly. Federal grant aid skyrocketed 125 percent between 2007-08 and 2010-11, but then slid by 9 percent in 2011-12 and another 1 percent last year, using inflation-adjusted dollars. Experts do not anticipate a major increase in federal aid for next year, but some states and the universities themselves are trying to offset this decline. Savvy parents are discovering many ways to help keep college costs under control. Here are a few:

  • Find out the actual cost: Don't rely on tuition figures alone. Use the Net Price Calculator on the college's website to determine the true cost of attendance.
  • Check the college's value: The New York Times reports that lists that rank colleges' value are on the rise. When it comes to offering the so-called "best bang for the buck," the larger and more well-known universities do not necessarily always come out on top. These calculations are often very bare-boned, but look at the cost of a degree at each school and the pay scale for jobs landed by its graduates. A value-based approach was given more attention when President Obama presented a plan that will tie federal aid to a college's rating.
  • There is such a thing as free tuition: The United States' military academies offer a free education in exchange for a service commitment. Students can also receive this benefit by enrolling in the ROTC program at the school they attend. Some inner city school districts participate in programs like "Say YES to Education," where all students who graduate from high school can receive a free education at participating colleges. Washington and Lee University unveiled a financial aid initiative to make education affordable to all qualified students. The university guarantees free tuition to any admitted undergraduate student with a family income under $75,000. Those students may be eligible for loan-free assistance to cover room, board and other educational expenses. W&L is also now in the sixth year of its Johnson Scholarship, which provides full-tuition, room-and-board scholarships for up to 44 of the most exceptionally qualified students regardless of their family's financial situation. Although most schools do not offer the same free tuition opportunity, many do offer similar merit-based programs.
  • More help for low-income families: QuestBridge connects the world's brightest low-income students to America's best universities and opportunities. Students have received over $2 billion in full financial aid from 35 college partners including Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth and MIT.
  • Some states are helping: Both Texas and Florida are challenging their states' public colleges to develop bachelor's degrees costing no more than $10,000, less than a third of the average sticker price for tuition and fees at a four-year public college.

If you are finding it difficult to keep up with the changes in college tuition, seek out programs that meet your needs and will help make sure you can find a college that is a good value for your child.

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