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For families with children, there may be few financial issues quite as daunting as paying for Junior’s college education.

The average cost of a year at a four-year public school costs more than $16,000 today — and a private school costs about twice that. Heading to an Ivy-league school? Costs can top out at more than $40,000 a year. If your child won’t enroll in school until 2023, some of those annual dollar amounts may reach six figures.

Even more astonishing than the sticker price is the rate of tuition increases. In recent years, college price hikes have outpaced inflation, and they’ll probably continue to do so. There are plenty of good reasons: Colleges must stay abreast of the latest technology, offer top-notch libraries and labs, and have spectacular recreation centers and athletic facilities. Colleges must pay to attract great faculty members, and have enough professors to achieve low faculty-to-student ratios. As colleges compete for the best and brightest students across the nation, students have come to expect amenities like laptops and wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) Internet access. Those things come with a price.

Is college worth the money?

All this taken into consideration, college is still worth every penny. Studies show that a college graduate makes, on average, about a million dollars more over a lifetime than someone with only a high school education.

And there’s more good news: Very few students will pay the full sticker price of a college education. More than $105 billion in financial aid is offered each year from the federal and state governments, institutions themselves, and private organizations. And if you don’t have enough saved to write a check for your child, don’t think for a moment you’re alone: More than 60 percent of students attending four-year public colleges and universities and more than 75 percent of those at private schools are getting some sort of financial aid.

So how can you qualify for this money?

The first step is to find out how much your family is expected to contribute to the overall cost of education by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA takes into account factors including a family’s income, assets, children, and number of children in college to come up with a number known as the expected family contribution (EFC).

It’s a lengthy process, and you’ll need to have a number of documents handy to fill out the form completely, including tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, mortgage information, records of untaxed income and business and farm records.

The effort is worth it, though, because the FAFSA is used to apply for federal and state loans and grants. You can even fill out the FAFSA form online.

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Your EFC is generally what schools use to create your financial aid package, no matter what the price of the school. If your EFC is $10,000 and you attend a school that costs $8,000, you’ll be expected to come up with the money to pay for your education. Attend a school that costs $22,000, however, and your need will be $12,000. Your EFC is only a benchmark, however, and some schools will expect more from you, some less.

EFC is calculated in two ways: One is called Federal Methodology (FM), the second Institutional Methodology (IM). Some schools use only FM while others factor in their IM, especially when looking at nonfederal aid such as a grant from the school itself.

Schools will often offer aid packages that consist of grants, loans and work-study.

Dependent or independent?

Through age 24, a student is considered dependent, and EFC is calculated with the assumption that parents will contribute to the cost-with a few exceptions. Students are considered independent if they’re married, in graduate or professional school, have children or other legal dependents who receive at least half of their support from the student, or are a veteran or an orphan.

Don’t meet any of those criteria? At the discretion of the financial aid administrator, you may still be considered independent, but you’ll have to have very unusual circumstances. After all, what parents wouldn’t want their children to be considered “independent” if it could save them thousands of dollars?

Many worry that they won’t be able to pay for their children’s college educations without getting mired in debt, but the key to avoiding that scenario is planning. If you’re willing to put in the time to get to know the myriad education savings plans, grants, scholarships and loans that are available, you will be able to make it work. Paying for college is rarely easy, but the dividends are well worth it.

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