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A college education is one of the most important and most expensive decisions a family makes.

Whether a student is living on or off campus, or the courses selected, it can be difficult for families to determine exactly how much they’re going to pay for a degree, according to Beth Ford, vice president for enrollment at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, and Rachel Schmidt, director of financial aid at Cleveland State University in Cleveland.

Schmidt broke down costs into two categories: direct costs and indirect costs. Direct costs are tuition fees and room and board, which are paid directly to the university. Indirect costs are parking fees, books, supplies and miscellaneous expenses like telephone, cable, technology and transportation.

“What I most often hear from students and their families that they did not factor books into the overall expense,” she said. “While book rental and online access have cut costs, this is the most frequently brought up cost that they weren’t prepared to cover.”

Ford said financial aid tends to be a perplexing part of determining the real cost of education.

“Beginning with how to fill out the FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to the actual award letter from the college or university, there are many aspects of financial aid that will surprise families,” she said. “One of the biggest surprises to families is the use of student loans to meet the financial need of the student. The families are concerned about student debt. While this type of aid is known as good debt, many families are hesitant to accept the loans to cover the cost of education.”

But before writing any checks or signing for loans, both professionals suggest families create a budget to see what they have available.

“Financial literacy is extremely important in the budgeting process,” Ford explained. “Oftentimes, a family decision must be well-thought-out and planned for it to be successful. Sometimes, it is difficult to discuss – who is paying, how it’ll be paid and what are the terms and conditions associated with the aid.”

She added Notre Dame College works with families as early as their sophomore year to create a plan to have access to education.

Ford explained institutions will be able to provide a total of direct costs, allowing families to estimate how much they need for the academic year and to project the total cost of for years.

“Students and families should work with their school to determine what is available in the form of financial aid, grants, scholarships and parent loans,” she said. “Then the family should determine if they have savings and/or are going to use student financial aid and borrow loans. Of course, saving before attending college is always ideal but can be difficult for many families.”

At Cleveland State, students have access to a merit scholarship program for incoming freshmen, as well as a grant need-based program for families who demonstrate financial need based on their FASFA results, Schmidt said. As for Notre Dame, Ford said the college focuses on affordability and offers a range of scholarships, grants, work-study opportunities and other state and federal aid.

If a student is passionate about the school, parents shouldn’t let the sticker price discourage them from trying to make it work, Ford said.

“Price should be a factor to a family in their college decision-making process, however, the sticker price should not scare off a student,” Ford said. “Students and their families may fail to explore their financial aid options because they believe they will not qualify. Higher education institutions hope for students to find their fit academically, socially and financially to ensure their success. We encourage students and their families to ask questions and do research regarding their financial opportunities.”

As many families begin the college search process, Schmidt suggested families take it in stride.

“This can be stressful for students and parents, but spending the time to plan upfront will make for a much smoother transition,” she noted.

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