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Nothing creates more spine-numbing fear than reviewing the annual price of a private research not-for-profit university like George Washington University on College Navigator. The tuition and fees are over $50,000, with a slated annual increase of almost 3.5%. Room and board costs over $12,000, escalating at a 3% clip.

Sadly, this is not an anomaly. Sticker prices for many private colleges can reach well past $60,000, and for out-of-state students, public colleges, such as the University of Michigan, are reaching over $55,000.

Consequently, it is not surprising that, according to a 2012 study, few high-achieving low-income students apply to any highly selective colleges. The sticker price stops most dead in their tracks. Furthermore, without access to reliable college counseling, few know of the availability of financial aid. Among vast swaths of potential applicants, whether low-, middle- or even upper middle- income, many do not trust that college is affordable or that it is a solid investment in the future.

Add to this that more than 2 million students from low-income families don’t even file their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form on an annual basis, and it’s apparent we have a dreadful level of information and confusion when it comes to our financial aid process.

How best might we empower ourselves to take full advantage of what the system currently has to offer?

The first rule is to file a FAFSA form as early in the admissions process as possible. If you are planning to enter college for the fall of 2017, you could have begun filing your FAFSA form on Oct. 1, 2016. Moreover, you can use your family’s 2015 income tax returns to file. Better still, if you do not remember where you put your 2015 tax return, you can now port the IRS data directly into the form once you are on the FAFSA site.

To lessen the uncertainty of what you will pay to attend a particular campus, what is called the Effective Family Contribution (EFC) in financial-aid-speak, go to College Navigator. For each school there is both a financial aid and a net pricing tab. If you go to the UC Berkeley listing on College Navigator, under the "financial aid" tab it lists that 59% of the students in 2015 received an average of $18,000. Go to the "Net Price" tab, and you will find that for families earning from $75,000 to $110,000 the EFC was around $19,000. For a more accurate predictor of your potential EFC, use the UC Berkeley net-price calculator, which you can link to directly from the college’s net price section within College Navigator. All colleges have net price calculators.

Do not dismiss a college because it appears too expensive. All schools are looking for the best candidates for their departments regardless of an applicant’s financial status. Let me offer a specific case. If you happen to be superb in math and physics and are thinking of going into engineering, you might consider Viterbi at USC. While the sticker price is $64,000 all included, over 55% of USC students receive financial aid with an average package totaling $33,000. That would be an EFC of $31,000, comparable to going to the University of California. Go to the USC net price calculator and input your specific information and you might discover that your EFC is even lower.

Many colleges have substantial endowments enabling them to be aggressive with financial aid. While this list includes the Ivy League, Stanford and Duke, lesser-known schools with generous financial aid include Grinnell (Iowa), Occidental College (Eagle Rock, Los Angeles), Holy Cross, the University of New Mexico, Rice and Williams. The problem is finding them.

The financial aid process does instill fear and works in mysterious, and sometimes dreadful, ways, but with a bit of knowledge, and a willingness to deal with the murky world of sticker prices and net price calculators, you will be empowered to survive the system.

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 11 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800. rbecker@ivycollegeprep.net.

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