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BEST WAY TO PAY FOR COLLEGE IS TO START SAVING - NOW!

As the cost of a college education soars skyward, more and more parents are worrying that they may not be able to afford it - especially if their children still have ten or fifteen years before they buy their first textbooks.

Four years of undergraduate education, even at a modestly priced college, can set a family back tens of thousands of dollars. If your child is fortunate enough to get into an Ivy League school or other prestigious university, the cost may be prohibitive - the one barrier between your child and a first-class education."Based on this year's costs," said David Sheridan, associate director of undergraduate financial aid at Columbia University, "it would cost about $112,000 to send a student to Columbia for four years, including tuition, room and board, travel and books. It's not unusual these days for a student to graduate from college twenty or thirty thousand dollars in debt." Sheridan said tuition alone at Columbia is currently about $18,600 per year.

How can you ensure your children can afford the education they deserve? The Meyers Report has some good news: it's easier than you think, if you're willing to put in some time and planning.

"Money should never be an obstacle to a college education," said Jack Joyce, associate director of financial aid services for the College Board. "There are many ways to pay for school, depending on when you start preparing." As with any large project, the earlier you start planning, the better.

One of the easiest ways to pay for your child's education is to start saving for it as soon as possible. "My wife and I are expecting our first child in six weeks," said Sheridan, "and we're starting to put money aside already. If your child gets a scholarship, you can always use the money for something else."

Sheridan said that saving for college should be treated just like any other long-term investment. "Work it in as part of your budget," he said, "and protect it the way you would your retirement money."

Unfortunately, many students reach their senior year in high school with little or no money saved for college and must depend on some kind of financial aid, either from the school, the government or other financial aid organizations.

"We may have ten percent of our students paying out of their pockets for school," said Melvin Soderstrom, director of financial aid at Chicago's North Park College. "The rest are either on loans, grants or other forms of assistance."

One of the largest and newest programs is the recently inaugurated Direct Loan Program, a government-run program introduced by the Clinton Administration.

"It's not too much different from the Stafford Loan, one of the most common student loan programs for many years," said Sheridan. "This program takes banks out of the picture. The loan is made directly through the school and has a repayment period of up to 30 years, with installments being taken out of wages, like income tax withholding."

In fact, many schools are using a larger and larger percentage of tuition payments to cover their own financial aid programs, including grants, loans and scholarships. Sheridan and others feel that this trend may ultimately cause a breakdown in the system.

"Some schools are already starting to limit the number of Tneedy' students they can accept," he said, "because the cost of providing an education is becoming prohibitive." One way around the problem is to go outside the school for financial aid.

"The College Board has developed a software program which is available through schools and libraries to help students track down loans, grants and scholarships," said Joyce.

The College Board is probably best known for its Scholastic Aptitude Tests, or SATs, and its Financial Aid Forms, used throughout the country in aid programs.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about education money is that college costs are not accompanied by financial aid," he said. "But in the 1993-94 academic year, over $42 billion was available in some kind of financial assistance, just over half of it in the form of student loans."

Joyce said that if students are willing to invest some time and effort in the library, they will probably find some kind of financial aid that meets their needs. "It may be a competition, like the National Merit Scholarship, or something you can get through an employer or union."

Joyce cautions against relying on commercial scholarship searches, however. "Search services have always been a point of caution," he warned. "Students shouldn't have to pay to receive information on financial aid availability when it's free. Any student can invest a rainy afternoon in the library and get all the information they need."

So don't give up, even if you've waited until the last minute to think about how you'll pay for that college education. "It's never too early to start thinking about it," said Joyce, "but it's never too late, either."