Years ago, sending a child to college was a luxury largely confined to the rich.

Today, most middle-class parents expect their offspring to go on to higher education.

Given the way costs are going, however, it may not be too long before college returns to the status of a luxury for the rich.

But until it does, parents continue to struggle because they know that most of the best jobs in the economy go to college graduates.

One problem is that while people know that college is expensive, they find it difficult to relate that to today's reality. In other words, how much would you have to save to get there from here.

This work sheet, supplied by Dondero & Associates Ltd., an Alexandria-based financial planning firm, is designed to give you an approximation of your savings needs.

For simplicity, the sheet uses the midpoint as an average figure for each year, rather than calculating each of four years separately.

Most of the early steps are self- explanatory. For Step 5, the annual cost of college, if you have a specific college in mind, call the admissions office and ask what the tuition is and what they figure the total cost of a year at the school comes to.

If you are looking at an expensive private college, the number may be quite a bit higher than the ranges in the work sheet.

In Step 7, refer to Table A and use the number of years from step 4 and your estimate of the expected college inflation rate.

Look down the left column to the number of years and then across to the inflation rate. Plug that number into the work sheet.

The example uses 6 percent, which is about the recent overall inflation level but lower than the pace of tuition increases in the past few years.

Some experts foresee a cooling of price increases for college, particularly some of the less prestigious private schools, which are already beginning to encounter price resistance. But so far at least, the top name schools seem unconstrained by market forces.

Multiply the cost in Step 6 by the inflation factor in Step 7. ($40,000 times 2.01 to get the $80,400 in the example.)

Obtain a present value of the future college costs by picking a present value factor from Table B. Use years from Step 4 and your estimate of the after-tax yield on your savings to pick this factor.

Multiply the amount on line 8 by the present value factor to get the lump sum you would need today.

Now divide that figure by 1,000 and multiply the result by a present value factor from Table C.

For that factor, use the number of years from Step 4 and your estimate of the after-tax yield on your savings.

Use the same rate that you used in Table B.

The result is the amount you need to save each month, starting now, to reach your goal.

The key, said David Dondero of Dondero & Associates, is to "start early and do it on a routine basis. The problem with most people is they wait until they are too close to college. Then the amount is too large.

A young couple should start putting away dollars immediately and with time that compounding works quite well for them."