To help families in the struggle to figure out what college is really going to cost, the Department of Education requires all schools to post net price calculators on their websites. The calculators use financial information provided by parents to estimate what the family's final bill will be, including room and board, and accounting for the federal and state aid the student is most likely to receive.
College advisers warn parents, though, that the quality of the tool varies by school, and it may not collect all the information it needs to spit out a truly accurate figure.
"It's a great thing to examine, but all you're going to get is a ballpark," says William Wozniak, director of marketing at the nonprofit ISM College Planning, which counsels high school students on the application process.
[Discover 10 ways to save on college costs.]
If you need to fill in gaps with loans, be aware of the long-term ramifications. Subsidized loans cost less over the long run because the interest isn't accruing while the student is in school, and the government also covers it during the six months after graduation before loan repayment starts, and during any period of deferment.
Patricia Seaman, a senior director at the National Endowment for Financial Education, suggests that families look at entry-level salaries in the fields the student is considering, then calculate just how much of a burden repayment is going to be.
"There's a huge difference between petroleum engineering, where salaries are really high, and social work, which is really low," Seaman says. "That social worker won't be able to buy a car off the bat and will be eating mac and cheese and ramen until she advances a bit."
Even after you've signed the forms and sewed up your aid package, there are ways to get a break on tuition throughout college. Seaman recommends knocking off some easy credits, such as electives, at lower-priced colleges, provided a student's own school will accept transfer credits.
Sommer Smith, who received a total of $142,000 in grants and scholarships over her four years at Sarah Lawrence College, signed up for email alerts about scholarships. Then she applied for everything she thought she might have a shot of winning.
In addition to receiving aid from Sarah Lawrence, Smith won two scholarships from organizations in her hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., and a Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship to fund a year abroad in Brazil.
"You have to keep trying," says Sommer, who graduated in May with $15,000 in debt, all from subsidized loans. Her advice for incoming freshmen: "Shoot high."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.