Chatzky: Saving on College Before You Apply

New York Daily News

By Jean Chatzky
Monday, November 2nd 2009, 12:26 PM

I’ve used a lot of ink over the years on the subject of saving for college. For good reason: Even for students who commute from home to a public school, the costs can be staggering depending on your family’s budget.

Luckily, there’s also more than $143 billion in financial aid available as grants, scholarships and loans. Applying for a piece of that pie can reduce your out-of-pocket costs significantly.

But financial aid doesn’t cover the cost of the admissions process, which can be expensive in its own right. On average, families spend about $3,500 preparing for and applying to colleges, said Katherine Cohen, CEO of IvyWise.com. That sounds very high, but add up the costs of taking (and often retaking) the SAT and/or ACT, plus college visits and application fees, and you can see how it adds up. Cutting those cuts can be crucial. Here’s how:

Make the most of visits
First, hit the Internet. “You can visit colleges online now, and there is a tremendous amount of information on their Web sites,” said Jon Reider, a college counselor and co-author of “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College.”

There are some options once you’ve decided what schools you’ll visit. “A lot of colleges offer overnights with a current freshman, which is a great way to stay for free,” Cohen said. You might also buddy up with other parents and split visits to save money. Remember to make the most of your time so you only have to visit once.

Make a (short) list
Many students or parents want to cover their bases by applying to 12 or even 20 schools. Each application can run $30 to $75, and applying to this many is unnecessary. A good high school counselor can give a student an idea of what colleges are feasible and which are out of range, academically or financially.
“If you have [many schools] that you like, and you think the odds of admission are very high, you can apply to two,” Reider said. The bonus is that a student can devote his time to several applications, instead of hastily writing a dozen or more.

Prepare wisely
There are a variety of ways to prep for standardized tests: tutoring, courses or test-prep books. The most effective approach will vary by student. But any savings will evaporate if the chosen method is not effective and you have to spend a few hundred dollars to retake tests in hopes of a better score.

Cut the extras
The SAT and ACT are administered by companies that “are very much businesses, and they have a lot of extra fees that they dangle in front of families,” Reider said, such as rush delivery of scores. Don’t buy unnecessary extras.

Also, some colleges are test-optional, meaning if you do well, it might be worth sending your scores but, if you’re average or below, you’re better off – financially and academically – keeping them to yourself.There are a variety of ways to prep for standardized tests: tutoring, courses or test-prep books. The most effective approach will vary by student. But any savings will evaporate if the chosen method is not effective and you have to spend a few hundred dollars to retake tests in hopes of a better score.

With Arielle McGowen
Your Money columnist Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC’s “Today” show, a contributing editor at More magazine and a contributor to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” She’s the author of six books, including, “The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times.” Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com.