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A Crash Course In How to Pay For College

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, November 5, 2006

During a workshop in which I was teaching preteens and teenagers how to create a budget, I asked one 16-year-old if she was planning to go to college.

"Absolutely," her mother volunteered.

And how, I asked the mother, will you pay for her college education?

"Oh, we plan on her getting scholarships," the mother responded.

What if she doesn't get any scholarships or grants? I inquired.

I got a blank stare -- like the look in the eyes of a deer that once ran into the driver's side of my van.

The mother's look told me what she later admitted -- that she didn't have a penny saved to send her daughter to college.

Many parents and their children approach the college process much like that deer running into the road. They just dart out there and hope for the best.

Given how much a college education costs, you need to plan ahead and know how to navigate the twists and turns of the financial aid process. That way, you and your child can avoid being hit with a tuition bill that can cause serious damage to your financial future.

To help you get started, for the next few months I will be recommending several guides to read for the Color of Money Book Club.

This month I've chosen two books. The first is "FastWeb College Gold: The Step-by-Step Guide to Paying for College," by Mark Kantrowitz with Doug Hardy (Collins, $21.95). Kantrowitz is a financial aid expert and publisher of FinAid Page LLC ( http://www.finaid.org/ ). Hardy is general manager and editor-in-chief of Monster Careers ( http://www.monstercareers.com/ ). (By the way, http://www.fastweb.com/ is one of the leading sites for information about scholarships.)

The second book is the 2007 edition of "Paying for College Without Going Broke" by Kalman A. Chany with Geoff Martz (Random House and Princeton Review, $20). Chany is founder and president of New York-based Campus Consultants Inc.

Let me warn you: These aren't beach books. You won't breeze through them. These guides will give you a headache once you understand how much work you have to do. Some of you may panic before finishing the first chapters once you realize that when it comes to your child's college funding, you've been quite trifling.

Yet despite the heady topic, both books do an excellent job of walking you through every aspect of saving and paying for higher education. You'll get advice on how to negotiate for more aid if the initial offer isn't enough. Each book provides exceptionally helpful explanations and worksheets to fill out the almighty Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which is the federal needs analysis that students must complete to apply for financial aid. You will want to spend extra time reading those chapters.

Kantrowitz's "FastWeb College Gold" will appeal to high school or college students. It's full of advice from their peers, tips that can be found in boxes labeled "I Wish I Had Known . . ."

To illustrate its points, "FastWeb" relies on a fictional family, the Gordons, whose eldest child, Matt, is just finishing his junior year in high school. You watch as Matt and his parents agonize over his various choices and the pros and cons of each. Should he go to a state school or a pricier private college? Should he pick a school he's not thrilled about but is the least expensive?

The book is supported by a free companion Web site, http://www.collegegold.com/ . Throughout the printed guide you'll find boxes titled "Book to Web" with recommendations for certain downloads and interactive tools. One very useful download is a planner that maps out two years' worth of things a high school student should do before leaving for college.

Each book-to-Web reference is marked with a code that you enter on the home page, making it easier to find the information online. It's a brilliant bonus -- it can be so frustrating navigating some Web sites.

"Paying for College Without Going Broke" is also a good comprehensive guide. I love the way it's organized into bite-size chapters. The format allows you to skip easily to the chapters that are most relevant to your situation. In this book, you'll find line-by-line help in filling out the FAFSA form. Chany discusses what parents and students should and shouldn't do to get the most aid.

Both books emphasize that the college financial aid process should be a family venture -- even if you have no intention of giving your child a single penny to pay for higher education. This isn't the time to proclaim your child is "grown" and should do this on his or her own. There's just too much money at stake.

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended books. Then we chat online with the author or authors. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive copies donated by the publisher. For a chance to win either a copy of "FastWeb College Gold" or "Paying for College Without Going Broke," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com . Include your name and address so we can send you a book if you win.

If you are interested in discussing this month's book selections, join me online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ on Thursday, Nov. 30, at noon Eastern time. Kantrowitz and Chany will be my guests and will take your questions about saving or paying for college.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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