Plan a visit, if you can’t decide which college to go to after being accepted. Tour your student’s top options before May 1, when acceptance deposits are due. Have them sit in on a class, see if they can stay with students in a dorm, sample the dining hall cuisine, and schedule a meeting with the office of admissions and financial aid. Your student will hopefully be spending the next four years of his or her life at that school. Take the time to really assess which is the best fit for them.

Tell your kids the truth about your finances. Decide how much money you can afford to spend for college. Be honest if it will be difficult to allow your kid to attend the most expensive college, because your long term financial stability is important. Weigh the schools, how much you’ll contribute, how much in loans your kid should take out (though I am against loans), what the schools’ graduation rates are, if they are offering work-study money, etc. Once you have all the offers, evaluate your family’s circumstances, do you have another child that will be in college soon? Are there any major expenses that you have not factored in? Does your student want to go to graduate school, and therefore a cheaper undergraduate degree would be fine?

Do the colleges accept your students’ AP and IB courses for college credit? Save tuition by choosing a school that accepts your kid’s college credits. Many of my students get a year’s worth of college credit at the outset. This can obviously save you a year of college tuition and get them out into the working world earlier or create space for a double major, minor or a 4+1 Masters Degree.

Look at your awards carefully. When you have received your scholarship and financial award letters from your colleges, take the time to look at the school’s net price to you. That is Cost of Attendance: tuition, room, board, fees, books, etc. — minus grants, loans, work-study, and scholarships. Separate any loans that the family would have to pay back and add that into your total cost. Scholarships and Grants do NOT need to be paid back. Read the offers carefully. We are always available to help you understand the details.

Some colleges say: “renewable.” Some financial and merit aid is meant as a one-time enticement for entering freshman, while other aid is for all four years — but it might be contingent upon your student’s GPA. Make sure you read the letter very carefully and know the conditions to properly evaluate your choices. If you have any questions call the school’s financial aid office to get the answers. Is it based on your student’s GPA? Will the money be available every year?

If you accept student loans use the Federal Loans firstFederal loans generally have lower interest rates than private loans, no hidden fees, and better repayment terms. Stafford Loans — direct loans from the government — have the best current interest rate. They are limited to $5,500 for freshmen, $6,500 for sophomores and $7,500 for juniors and seniors. Be careful about Parent Plus loans. It is very important to fully understand how you will pay now, and what that looks like “later.”

Never use your retirement savings. If you do, you will be taxed on that money and it will reduce your child’s financial aid eligibility the next year. You need to keep your money in your retirement accounts and even add to them yearly to help reduce your total income. You cannot finance your retirement!

You can negotiate your offer. As long as you have a good reason, you can ask the college’s financial aid department to look into options for more money. Sometimes you can mention a better offer from a competing college, or a family circumstance which changes your ability to pay. Definitely call if there is a divorce or a lost job. Have all your financial information ready when you make the call. Be polite and clear, not whiny or pushy.

Your family should NOT have to pay full price. There are always schools that can discount tuition if you are open to finding that fit. It is really all about where your child will thrive, get set up for a wonderful future, and not be burdened with debt at the end.