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In college trophy hunt, weigh the costs first

Seven steps to help you win the college finance game.

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The traditional tour of college campuses by high school seniors this past summer and continuing this fall often can be viewed as a trophy hunt, with the focus on landing acceptances at the most elite college or university. College selection quickly becomes a brand choice, smartly marketed to families, who are often overwhelmed by the process and anxious to place their child in the most prestigious environment possible.

Influenced by college consultants and school counselors, some parents prepare a "wish list" of colleges utilizing students' GPA and college test scores as a basis of selection. Once the academic screen is satisfied, lifestyle amenities, campus activities, and location loom large. Aggressive and savvy advertising by colleges and annual college rankings in national magazines fuel the fervor by which parents target "hot" campuses.

Well down the list of criteria by which families evaluate campuses is the cost, though that often becomes the determining factor in enrollment. A survey released last month by Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student-loan provider, revealed that 58 percent of families eventually rule out many colleges during the application process due to costs. Surprisingly, 46 percent of parents and 37 percent of college students did not use costs as an initial screen.

How are families financing a college education? According to Sallie Mae, the average student contributes 33 percent of the total costs, parents pay 48 percent of total costs, with rest coming from grants, scholarships, and support from friends and relatives.

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