Choosing a college is one of the most complex, expensive and important consumer decisions a family ever makes.
College can cost more than buying a house, given that the most expensive private colleges now charge more than $200,000 for four years of tuition, fees, room and board.
But the actual amount any student pays can be far different than the "sticker" price, regardless of whether the school has a big or a small price tag.
Many college students -- the vast majority at some campuses -- receive financial aid, whether it's grants, loans or work-study. The result is some students go for free, others at a discount and some at full price.
With so much variation in actual cost among students even at the same school, it's challenging to find the best deal.
College officials say looking at price shouldn't be the first step in the process. Instead, students should start by making a list of schools that would be a good fAfter all, a schoolmay not be a bargain if the student ends up with an unplanned transfer, can't get the desired major, needs five or six years to complete a degree -- or drops out.
"The first thing I always tell students is choosing a college begins with self-assessment and reflection," said Alton Newell, vice president for enrollment at Washington & Jefferson College.
Then students can research schools on the Web, finding ones that meet their criteria and offer majors that might be of interest. Campus visits also can help.
All of that should start in the junior year of high school, if not sooner.
With an idea of what might be a good fit, money begins to play a role in making a list.
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of finaid.com, said the list of possible choices should include "what I call a financial-aid safety school -- a school that will not only admit you but where you could afford to attend even if you got no financial aid."
Bill McClintick, immediate past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said families need to be clear on how much finances will drive the search.
Families can stretch to pay for school but not too far or their student may end up leaving after a year or two, said Edward Reppa, director of guidance at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School.
Andrew Austin, of Canonsburg, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, started looking at the out-of-state price more carefully when he was in his first year at Youngstown State University.
He found he could continue his major in music education at IUP without taking out $7,000 in private loans each year, and he transferred his sophomore year.
"IUP has a great music program, and it's not costing me as much money," he said.
One problem with considering money is students often don't know their cost until they receive their financial aid package, usually in the spring.
A school that looked more expensive than others in the fall may end up being less expensive in the spring.
Families can get an idea of how much they'll have to contribute by using financial aid calculators on the Web, available at finaid.com and collegeboard.com
"The problems come where the formulas are saying you can pay $20,000 a year and you can only afford $10,000 in your mind," Mr. McClintick said.
"In those cases, you have to sit down and have a discussion with your kid and say, 'You can't go anywhere you want to go because we can't afford it.'
"I think kids actually get that. But it's so important to have it on the front end of the process than have them go through applying to colleges and all of a sudden pull the rug out from under them."
Some colleges post cost estimators for their own schools on their Web sites, something that federal law will require next year.
Some, such as Carlow University, will provide an early estimate in the fall on request.
Some schools have lower sticker prices to begin with, including state schools and community colleges, which some attend for two years before transferring to a four-year school.
To be open to the best academic and financial fit, a student should not fixate on just one school.
"If you have the opportunity to attend a school and graduate with no debt or only minimal debt, that is worth pursuing. Graduating with debt has a significant impact on your career choices," said Mr. Kantrowitz.
In any event, Mr. Kantrowitz advised against borrowing more money than the student's expected annual starting salary after graduation.
Scott Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment and communications at Allegheny College, said most students can handle $20,000 in debt when they graduate and some can manage more.
Most financial aid is based on need, using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA and available on the Web at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
This form also is used for grants from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, known as PHEAA. Some colleges also require additional forms.
When completed online, FAFSA almost instantly gives families a figure for the Estimated Family Contribution, known as EFC.
Most financial aid offices use EFC to determine how much need-based aid to award.
If a family's EFC exceeds the cost of the school, the family shouldn't expect any need-based financial aid unless there are some unusual circumstances, such as high medical bills or a recent job loss.
If a family has two children in school at the same time, then the EFC is divided in half for each, thus increasing need-based eligibility at each school.
The need-based aid may come in the form of grants, loans or work-study.
The biggest federal grant is the Pell, which this school year has a maximum of $5,350.
Nearly all Pell grants go to students in families with adjusted gross incomes below $50,000, Mr. Kantrowitz said.
Other grants are available through PHEAA, and some schools use their own money for need-based grants.
The cheapest loans are the federal ones, Perkins and Stafford. If loans are needed, federal loans should be exhausted before private loans are considered.
Even if a student has financial need, some schools do not meet all of the need.
Some provide more loans than grants or offer better packages to stronger students. Some elite schools have eliminated loans from financial aid packages of all undergraduates.
The variation in packages is one reason it's important to apply to more than one school.
Zachary Grace Janes, a Mc-Keesport Area High School senior, is considering several schools for hotel and restaurant management.
"Growing up, I thought the cost would be a bigger issue," he said. "Now that I've learned about FAFSA and grants, it's really changed my outlook on it."
Both those with and without financial need are eligible for merit grants at some colleges and universities.
Depending on where a student applies and other factors, said Kelly Frank, director of collegiate affairs at Quaker Valley High School, "I would say that most students with probably a 3.0 or better GPA and good board scores are going to come away with some type of gift aid."
Many colleges and universities describe merit awards on their Web sites, some specifically listing needed grade-point averages and SAT or ACT college entrance exam scores.
Some schools will adjust the merit award if the student retakes the SAT or ACT within a certain time period and earns a higher score.
Many of the biggest merit awards come directly from the school that accepts the student. They usually require that the student maintain a certain grade point average.
Mr. Kantrowitz said such money is more often available at second- and third-tier schools trying to attract talented students
But completely free rides --tuition, fees, room and board -- for high-achieving students are unusual, said Mr. Kantrowitz.
There are various ways to research possible scholarships.
Some national awards can be found on Web sites such as www.fastweb.com.
For some local awards, students should talk to their high school counselors and look at the counseling department Web sites for area high schools. In addition, the Pittsburgh Foundation posts more than 190 scholarship programs on its Web site.
The Pittsburgh Foundation also administers the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides scholarships to certain graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools and city charter schools.
Many Catholic colleges offer discounts of 10 percent or 15 percent to students who graduate from a Catholic high school, said Mr. Reppa.
Of course, how long the student spends in college will affect the total cost.
Students can ask prospective schools for the retention figures both for the college as a whole and for their potential majors.
Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1955.