How to Cut College Costs Before Freshman Year
By: Brian O'Connell

It’s bad enough that tuition for a four-year college can cost north of $100,000 – but that’s all the more reason parents should take a hard look at not just college costs, but also at the cost of preparing for college. With SAT tests, study guides, tutoring and advanced placement exams, not to mention fees for applying to any one of the 3,800 colleges and universities in the U.S., the cash expended just in your hunt for the perfect college can really add up.

What can you do about such costs? Let’s look under the hood . . .

Aim for the right number of campus visits. High school students should begin their college search halfway through their junior year in high school – that leaves plenty of time to file the financial aid forms, hunt for scholarships and visit attractive college campuses. When you embark on the latter, keep the number of school visits manageable – aim for 10 or 12 at the most. Better yet, keep those colleges as local as possible. If you live near Boston and are planning in visiting U.C.L.A, get ready to shell out big bucks for air travel, car rentals and potential hotel costs. If you do want to travel long distances for a campus visit, see if you can get a family friend with a high school student interested in the same school – then split the costs for the trip. Also, contact the school beforehand to see if you can stay in a campus dorm overnight, or at least get a hotel discount (many colleges will give you some deals or point you in the right direction).

Manage your exam expenses. College preparation exams aren’t exactly cheap. The SAT costs $45, and students who want to send their exam results to colleges have to pay $9.50 (after four free SAT exams). If you need an SAT in the hands of a college admissions officer tomorrow, express shipment will cost you $27. And advanced placement exams – for the real blue-chip colleges – cost up to $86 per test. You can get around that by asking your high school to ship any college prep tests along with your official high school transcripts.

Manage your college application fees. It’s likely a shock to parents, but the fees attached to actually applying for entrance to college are on the rise, as well. At $25 a pop for public colleges (in-state) and up to $75 for top-tier schools, applying to 10 or 12 schools can really lighten your wallet. Best bet? Do as much research as you can beforehand, on the Internet, on college admissions Web sites like Collegeboard.com, and through the plethora of college guides available in bookstores. Many colleges also have links on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites where you can get answers directly from school officers and even students. Then, use that information to cut the wheat from the chaff and cut those college applications down by 50%.

Bearing the burden of college costs is hard enough once your son or daughter are officially on campus. So lightening that load before your teen decides on a college makes good sense – and sets the table for good financial decisions during the next four years.

—For more ways to save, spend, invest and borrow, visit MainStreet.com.

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